All NC frontline essential workers in Group 3 now eligible for COVID-19 vaccine

CHARLOTTE — It’s a big day Wednesday for thousands of frontline essential workers across North Carolina because they are now eligible for COVID-19 vaccine.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday that the state will more quickly open up COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to those who are frontline essential workers in Group 3 or have serious underlying health issues.

The state had been set to allow a broad group of workers ranging from mail carriers to elected officials to begin receiving vaccines on March 10. But with approval of a single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine and more than 80,000 doses arriving soon, public health officials will now allow frontline workers to get vaccinated starting Wednesday -- a week earlier than anticipated.

North Carolina expanded vaccine eligibility to Group 3 last Wednesday, starting with educators and school staff. The rest of Group 3 was initially going to have to wait until March 10 to become eligible, but a boost in supply pushed the timeline up by a week.

Group 3 includes first responders and emergency personnel such as police and firefighters, people who work in-person in manufacturing, food and agriculture, grocery stores, government workers and others.

“Our essential frontline workers have remained on the job throughout this pandemic and I am grateful for their work,” Cooper said.

Meanwhile, North Carolinians under 65 with high-risk medical conditions that put them at greater risk of severe illness if they become infected with the virus, will become eligible March 24.

“We’ll open group 4 first to people with medical conditions that put them at a higher risk for severe risk to COVID-19 illness,” Cooper said. “The third vaccine and improving vaccine supply of the two we already are getting will help us get more people vaccinated more quickly.”

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The governor also announced that on March 24, the state will expand vaccine eligibility to some members of Group 4, starting with people with medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe cases of COVID-19 as well as people in certain congregate-living settings (See Deeper Dive for additional details).

The rest of Group 4 includes people who live in shared housing, utility workers and real estate agents.

Medically vulnerable people have steadily been dropped toward the bottom of the prioritization schedule since the state unveiled its initial distribution plan in October 2020. After former President Donald Trump’s administration encouraged states to give greater preference to those who are at least 75 years old, North Carolina adjusted its plan and dropped people with chronic conditions down to Phase 2 in the distribution schedule.

When the federal government again revised guidelines to include people 65 or older toward the top of the list, younger adults with medical issues were pushed even further down the list to Phase 4.

The reprioritization prompted some complaints from advocates for the medically vulnerable. Initial guidance favored those with two or more chronic conditions, while the new guidance announced Tuesday allows anyone 16-64 years old with one chronic condition to get vaccinated .

Under the state’s current guidance posted online, people can get a vaccine in about three weeks if they have at least one of 18 eligible conditions, ranging from cancer and cystic fibrosis to being overweight or a current or former smoker. Representatives from Cooper’s office and the state health department did not immediately provide an explanation about whether people of all conditions will be given equal preference.

North Carolina is not the only state expanding vaccine eligibility to those with serious underlying health issues. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced Tuesday that his state would offer doses to medically vulnerable groups starting next Monday. People would be required to show proof confirming their high-risk medical condition. California has responded to frustrated residents by opening up vaccinations to disabled people and at-risk adults starting March 15.

North Carolina’s top public health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, noted the state would update its website to bundle more people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and neurologic conditions into Phase 4. Cohen also announced that those who receive long-term home care for more than 30 days but don’t live in a long-term facility will be retroactively under Phase 1, which launched in December.

The expedited timeline follows the approval of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine and an expected increase in vaccine supply to North Carolina.

Since January 20, the amount of vaccine received by the state has increased by 135%, according to NCDHHS.

The state is expecting to get more than 80,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week. It’s not clear yet where the state’s allocation will go, but Mecklenburg County health leaders said they expect to receive about 11,000 doses.

“The state and our providers continue to work extremely hard to get people vaccinated in a way that’s fast and fair,” Cooper said. “The third vaccine and improving vaccine supply will help us get more people vaccinated more quickly.”

State officials continue to encourage providers to exhaust each week’s vaccine shipment before the following week’s shipment arrives.

Cohen said President Joe Biden’s administration has told the state it won’t ship any Johnson & Johnson vaccines next week and will likely have a small amount available for the week of March 15. By the last week of March or first week of April, North Carolina expects to receive more than 80,000 weekly Johnson & Johnson doses. About 215,000 new first doses of the Pfizer and Moderna are being sent to the state this week, paving the way for a total of nearly 300,000 North Carolinians to begin their vaccinations.

The leader of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services plans to get a vaccine later this week and said the third vaccine, while not as effective as Pfizer and Moderna in preventing milder illnesses, is nearly equally effective at preventing COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths. Regardless, she wants people to have the ability to know which vaccine they’re getting at the time they schedule an appointment.

“When folks are signing up for the vaccine, we’re working with our vaccine providers to make sure that they are being very clear about whether or not this is a one-dose vaccine clinic or two-dose vaccine clinic,” Cohen said.

The state clarified that some vaccine providers may not be ready to open to frontline essential workers on Wednesday if they’re still experiencing high demand for vaccines in Groups 1 and 2, which include health care workers and people who live and work in nursing homes. Group 2 is older adults, age 65 and older.

As of Tuesday, 60% of the state’s seniors have been vaccinated, according to NCDHHS.

‘I am just ready to live a normal family life’

The workers in Group 3 are the ones who have braved the frontlines since the beginning of the pandemic.

From the person who rings up your groceries to your pastor, the group includes people who kept showing up because we needed them.

The group includes police officers and firefighters whose jobs were dangerous before the pandemic.

Channel 9 spoke with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Lt. Stephen Fishbach.

He said COVID-19 is just one more thing officers have to think about when responding to emergencies and now that they have the opportunity to get vaccinated, he’s hopeful to return to a normal life at work and at home.

“I am very excited to get the vaccine,” Fishbach said. “My brother is law enforcement. Our whole family situation for the last year has been very challenging. I am just ready to live a normal family life hug my mom and hug my dad and I am very excited.”

‘It’s about time’: Local frontline workers react to being eligible to get vaccinated

Channel 9′s Dave Faherty spoke with Jeff Hope, who works at a Hickory grocery store where 500 people shop on an average day.

“We’re in contact with several people from different walks of life and different places they come from, so the vaccine is very important,” Hope said.

Greenway Public Transit driver Jarrett Free also interacts with the public daily in his job. He too can now get a vaccine and is ready to sign up.

“I would like to be able to get it because I live with people who are high risk,” Free said. “I wouldn’t want them getting it from me. I’d be glad to get the shot to protect me and my family.”

We also visited the post office in Hickory where the postal inspector told us he plans on getting the vaccine.

A few miles away on the campus of Lenoir Rhyne University, psychology professor Gordon Cappelletty’s routine before class includes temperature checks and hand sanitizer for all of his students. He too is in Group 3 and is ready to roll up his sleeve.

“It’s about time. I deal with about 100 students on a weekly basis or more,” he said.

At the Snack Bar in Hickory, servers like Natalie Beshear said they are glad to hear the news that they’re on the list of people now eligible for the vaccine. The restaurant has been in Hickory for more than 70 years but it’s the last 12 months that have changed how they work.

“I’m 100% going to get the vaccine when it is available,” she said. “I’m a public health student. So I’m biased, but vaccines are really important.”

*The Associated Press contributed to this report