North Carolina will transition into Phase 3 of the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan on Feb. 24, which will begin prioritization of frontline essential workers such as K-12 teachers as well as East Carolina University faculty and staff.
Health Director and Chief Medical Officer for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) Dr. Betsey Tilson said the state has taken a quick and equitable approach as it continues to distribute the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to the first two groups of prioritization. She said Phase 3 will initially open on Feb. 24 to K-12 and childcare faculty and staff due to the vaccine’s high demand, and then to the rest of Phase 3 on March 10.
Tilson said this transition to essential workers targets the group’s susceptibility to COVID-19 due to the nature of their work and its environment. Not only are essential workers at a higher risk of exposure, she said, but as a population they have a higher percentage of chronic health conditions and historically marginalized groups. She said the state has limited resources, so prioritization of populations at the highest risk is the best route to take.
“We (North Carolina) do not have enough vaccines to get everybody who is in that frontline essential worker group once we open it up,” Tilson said. “We’ve been really transparent about that, we want to make sure people know that. We still have a very limited supply, but we do want to continue to move along and open up.”
Dr. John Silvernail, director of the Pitt County Public Health Department, said Pitt County seems to be doing well in terms of COVID-19 cases, with 17,162 total cases as of Feb. 23. He said the county’s demand for a vaccine is greater than the state can supply, so resources will remain limited in the next few months.
Silvernail said although the state’s resources are limited, he believes Pitt County needs to distribute the vaccine to other medical practices and clinics to create more vaccination sites throughout the region.
“The state and the federal government looked at a limited supply and gave us guidance as to who we should be vaccinating at this point in time,” Silvernail said. “There are different theories out there about how you can do vaccines, with limited supplies to best use it, this is the vaccine distribution prioritization scheme that’s been given to us by the NCDHHS and we are following it.”
LaNika Wright, Director of ECU Student Health Services, said vaccinations that begin on March 10 will affect a large number of staff and students who work as essential workers at East Carolina University. She said as of Feb. 17, the vaccine will be distributed to local health departments, hospitals and clinics only.
ECU does not currently receive vaccine first-dose allocations from Vidant, as it did during Phase 1 and Phase 2, due to limited supply, Wright said. She said she hopes to receive allocations again by Phase 3.
Wright said she’s happy to transition to Group 3 as a state as essential workers make up a great portion of the ECU population. She said she thinks this transition will help slow the spread of COVID-19 significantly and will create great progress for the state.
“The university has to follow the guidelines that are set for them by the state, so we can’t move ahead. If everyone would just be patient while we get to their group, our goal is to get to their group and we’re working closely as a community. Not just ECU, but the health department, the hospital, we’re all working closely together to try to make sure we’re getting everyone vaccinated as quickly as we can,” Wright said.
Mike Waldrum, chief executive officer at Vidant Health, said the vaccination of Group 3 protects a population that is most likely to be exposed to and contract the virus. He said the state’s limited supply required a plan that prioritizes different groups that are affected differently.
Waldrum said the different groups and the goals that the state sets for these groups will evolve as the supply of the vaccine continues to grow.
“It protects the person, and that protects our communities, which protects our economy, and our societies too. I think it’s a really important intervention to use these highly safe, highly effective vaccines for something that has been devastating for our communities,” Waldrum said.
Kaylen Maier, Pitt County K-12 teacher, said the vaccine would give her a better sense of security as she works at D.H. Conley High School. Maier said though she understands why people might be nervous to get the vaccine, the vaccinations aren’t just for the safety of the teachers but for the students and other faculty as well.
Maier said the pandemic has shown that teachers are essential to the community. She said even though she is not a high risk individual, she hopes the vaccine will give her a peace of mind as she goes to work every day.
“I think it is important to get the vaccine, I understand that people are scared about it, that makes sense to me, but I think it is important if we are going to be around students and around each other,” Maier said. “I guess that it goes back to that sense of security, like we should all feel safe at school whether that’s health-wise or whether that’s the students just being comfortable in school. I think teachers should feel the same way and all the staff.”