Cooper: ‘Distributing vaccine quickly and equitably remains our top priority’

RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Roy Cooper and his coronavirus task force held a news conference Tuesday where the governor emphasized the state’s work to ensure the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed “quickly and equitably” across North Carolina.

Cooper was joined by top state health official Dr. Mandy Cohen and President of the North Carolina Association of Black County Officials and chairman of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners Charles Evans.

Both discussed the race to vaccinate North Carolinians and their loved ones against COVID-19 and urged minority communities to get the shot when they are eligible.

Cohen praised providers for distributing 1.4 million vaccines across the state, but said officials have some work to do when it comes to equity. She said it starts with transparency and accountability, which her department has already put into action.

“First, we’re making sure that vaccines are available in all 100 counties each and every week. Second, we are giving additional vaccines to counties with higher numbers of low income adults over the age of 65 or higher numbers of historically marginalized populations -- 65 and older. Third, we’re giving vaccines to providers who reach rural and marginalized communities such as community health clinics. And finally, we’re setting aside a portion of our weekly vaccine allocation for events that focus on underserved communities,” Cohen said.

She said they also expect the percentage of vaccine administered to historically marginalized populations in that county meet or exceed that county’s population estimates.

“There are many different ways to ensure equitable access to vaccines, if everyone is focused on the goal, and is held accountable to it,” she said. “We know that some people still have questions about the vaccine itself. We are equally committed to engaging communities as partners and working with trusted voices to share accurate information, as well as their personal experiences.”

Evans touched on the vaccine hesitancy that is present in the Black community and acknowledged its roots, but encouraged everyone “to get the vaccine for yourself, for your family and for others who live and work around you.”

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“Some black and brown citizens may mistrust the vaccine -- and I understand why based on long standing and continuing racial and ethnic injustice is in our health care system. I trust the vaccines because they have been tested. They are safe and effective. If we are going to gain control of our lives. We need to get vaccinated,” Evans said.

Cooper and Cohen echoed Evans’ point, but added that participation in the Black communities has slightly risen.

Cohen said this past week, 18% of vaccines administered in the state have gone to the Black or African American population, which is up from 11% the week of Jan. 13.

“This is an improvement. But there is more work to be done when North Carolina’s population is 22% black,” Cooper said.

This comes as Walgreens begins booking appointments ahead of the arrival of its first doses of the vaccine. Walgreens plans to send out 1 million doses to its locations across the country, including 31,000 to 300 stores in North Carolina. The doses should arrive Thursday and vaccinations could begin as early as Friday.

Appointments are only available to those eligible according to NCDHHS’s current vaccine group. For now, that includes healthcare workers and people 65 or older.

If you qualify, go to Walgreens.com to sign up for an appointment.

Cohen said Walgreens’ appointment scheduling website had an outage Tuesday morning after it was inundated with appointment requests.

She said the most significant obstacle the state faces is that there isn’t enough vaccine, but she believes supply will increase in the coming months.

Cooper said the state was told that it would get another 5% increase in vaccine supply this week on a call with the Biden Administration’s Coronavirus team.

He also announced an executive order, which gives Cohen the ability to temporarily waive industry regulations in order to speed vaccine distribution. The order gives the NCDHHS the authority to expand the types of providers to administer the vaccines.

Cooper said he has ordered state officials to grant requests for state resources including property facilities and staff to help with vaccination efforts as additional supply comes in.

All this comes as North Carolina continues to see some improvement to key COVID-19 metrics.

As of Sunday, the percentage of tests coming back positive was at 9.3%, which is higher than the past few days but lower than last Sunday’s number.

The state also reported 55 more COVID-19-related deaths Tuesday, bringing the total to over 10,000 deaths since March 2020.