RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday afternoon that educators and support staff will be eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine starting Feb. 24 as part of a staggered rollout of the state’s next phase of distribution.
On Feb. 24, the state will expand eligibility to Group 3, starting with educators and school personnel.
“This includes teachers, principals, childcare providers, bus drivers, custodial and cafeteria staff and others in our pre-K-12 schools and childcare centers,” Cooper said. “Moving to the next phase is good news. The challenge continues to be the very limited supply of the vaccine.”
The Democratic governor estimated that about 240,000 people would become eligible for the vaccinations in two weeks.
“Now this is important,” Cooper said. “Essential workers are just that -- essential. They have worked throughout this pandemic. And we know that educators can continue to work safely, even before be the vaccine being administered. As long as schools follow state health guidance. Schools can get students back in the classroom safely right now. And that’s what I want them to do.”
“North Carolina public school educators are eager to get back into their classrooms as soon as it is safe to do so, and today’s announcement from Governor Cooper is an important step forward in making that a possibility,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly. “By giving all educators, including bus drivers, maintenance workers, nutrition workers, and those who work directly in the classroom vaccination priority, we will be able to resume in-person instruction more quickly and safely. We thank Governor Cooper for listening to the overwhelming message from educators, parents, and the community that educators require vaccination priority.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools third-grade teacher Amber Geckeler was hopeful that Cooper and state leaders would allow teachers to get vaccinated earlier than planned, and she got her wish.
Cooper made the decision just as the push intensifies to send teachers and kids back to school full-time. Teachers like Geckeler said they’re grateful their health is being made a priority.
“That’s what teachers are fighting for, what everyone is fighting for, is their health,” she said. “If we don’t have a healthy teacher in the classroom, we don’t have a classroom.”
Other groups the state considers “frontline essential workers” will start becoming eligible on March 10, though public health officials are still evaluating whether it will prioritize certain subgroups within that population. That group includes manufacturing workers, grocery store clerks, college and university instructors and support staff, farmers, restaurant workers, mail carriers, court workers, elected officials, homeless shelter staff, public health workers, social workers, firefighters, EMS personnel, police officers, public transit workers and several others.
“Starting with a smaller number of Group 3 frontline workers helps providers streamline vaccine distribution effectively and efficiently,” Cooper said. “Providers can start distributing the vaccine methodically for essential workers while continuing to vaccinate those currently eligible.”
“Because supply is so limited and the Group 3 population of workers is so large, we will need to move to that next group gradually,” State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said. “Therefore, beginning on February 24, frontline essential workers who work in childcare or in pre-K-12 schools will become eligible for the COVID vaccine. This includes staff in child care centers and homes headstart programs preschool and pre-K programs, traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools. Anyone who must be in-person, like teachers, bus drivers, van drivers, custodial and maintenance staff and food service workers will be eligible to take their shot.”
The opening of vaccinations to Group 3 enables several new categories of individuals to seek appointments for a COVID-19 vaccine:
- Critical manufacturing (including manufacturing medical supplies, medical equipment or PPE, manufacturing products needed for food and agricultural supply chains)
- Education (including child care staff, K-12 teachers and support staff, college and university instructors and support staff)
- Essential goods (including workers in stores that sell groceries and medicine)
- Food and agriculture (including meatpacking workers, food processing workers, farmworkers, migrant farm/fishery workers, food distribution and supply chain workers and restaurant workers)
- Government and community services (including US Postal Service and other shipping workers, court workers, elected officials, clergy and homeless shelter staff)
- Health care and public health (including public health workers, social workers)
- Public safety (including firefighters and EMS, law enforcement, corrections workers, security officers, public agency workers responding to abuse and neglect)
- Transportation (including public transit, Division of Motor Vehicles workers, transportation, maintenance and repair technicians, workers supporting highway infrastructure)
Cooper’s announcement comes despite the persistent demand among seniors still waiting to be vaccinated across the state.
Phyllis Moorefield said she got her vaccine appointment Wednesday after calling four counties, the governor’s office and a state senator.
“You know, first-come, first-serve looks like to me that I should’ve gotten a report from something, somewhere,” she said. “I’m 77 years old. I’m not no spring chicken.”
Individuals in Groups 1 and 2, including seniors ages 65 and older, can also still get vaccinated.
“Over the next two weeks, we will continue to vaccinate those 65 and older and health care workers as we also work with our partners to develop operational guidance to support childcare and school staff and accessing vaccines,” Cohen said.
Cohen said the state is working to create a portal in partnership with employers to enable schools and businesses to give vaccinators a list of workers who would like to receive their first dose. Even so, the state does not have an ID requirement that would compel residents to provide proof of their profession at vaccination sites.
“We do not have an ID requirement,” Cohen said. “We want to make sure we are moving things along with speed and equity.”
Those who see providers flagrantly defying distribution guidelines could report incidents to state health officials. But Cooper acknowledged it will be harder to maintain a rigid vaccine prioritization schedule as more and more populations become eligible.
“Obviously, you’re gonna rely somewhat on people’s honesty,” he said.
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Channel 9 reporter Tina Terry asked where the state found the additional vaccine to allow leaders to move forward with vaccinating educators in Group 3.
“So, week over week, we get new shipments from the federal government,” Cooper said. “We get about 150,000 new first doses week over week. The second dose has come in to mirror that a few weeks later and, actually, over the last number of weeks the Biden administration has increased our allocation bit by bit. We were about 120,000 a week, now we’re about 150. Next week will be 155. So we are getting a little bit more each time. The additional piece here is we are hopeful that a third vaccine will be reviewed and approved by the FDA soon, that could certainly also increase our supply of vaccine just at a time where we definitely need it.”
For weeks, state officials have promised to expand access to vaccines once the supply of available doses increased to meet the demand.
“I’m proud of North Carolina’s success in getting all of our first dose shots and arms, each week before the next shipment comes,” Cooper said. “We want to keep that up. As of last night, the state has administered almost one and a half million vaccines. And we’re continuing to push for more.”
The Biden administration has upped the weekly allotment from 120,000 to 160,00 doses, and officials said the federal government is promising an additional 5% increase soon.
”Yesterday, the Biden Administration told us that each state would receive 5% more vaccine, which amounts to about 7,500 more doses in North Carolina this week,” Cooper said on Wednesday. “The more vaccines we can get, the better off we are. And we’re going to keep pushing for that every day.”
Cooper has encouraged all 115 of the state’s K-12 public school districts to swiftly reopen with at least partial in-person instruction while giving parents the option of having their kids continue to learn remotely. While he has strongly encouraged the reopening, Cooper does not support a bill from state lawmakers that would require schools to reopen.
The bill proposed by Republican state senators cleared that chamber earlier this week and is being considered by the House. If the House approves it as expected, it would head to Cooper’s desk. If the governor vetoes it, state lawmakers could override his decision and turn the bill into a law.
Wednesday’s briefing came as North Carolina continues to see some improvement in key COVID-19 metrics.
As of Wednesday, the percentage of tests coming back positive was at 7.9%, which is lower than the past few days.