North Carolina’s COVID-19 vaccine supplies remain limited

Roy Cooper in black facemask
99 PERCENT: As of Jan. 27, North Carolina had distributed 99.8% of the COVID-19 vaccines allocated to the state by the federal government, said Gov. Roy Cooper. Photo courtesy of the N.C. Department of Public Safety

To the many North Carolinians frustrated by busy phone lines, cancelled appointments and long waiting lists, securing a COVID-19 vaccine under the state’s ever-shifting distribution plan has felt like a shot in the dark. But state health officials maintain that recent changes designed to clear out a backlog of unused doses, including the redirection of vaccines from some providers to mass vaccination clinics, will signal to federal authorities that North Carolina is ready to inoculate as quickly as supplies allow.

As of Jan. 27, vaccine providers throughout the state have successfully administered 99.8% of the first doses received from the federal government, said Gov. Roy Cooper at a Jan. 27 press conference. Starting next week, North Carolina will get an additional 140,000 first doses — a 16% increase from federal projections shared on Jan. 26, he noted — but it’s still not enough to meet the need in all 100 counties.

“Our biggest problem right now is that millions of people want a shot, but we only have hundreds of thousands of doses,” Cooper said. “There are people working night and day to get the vaccine out as quickly as possible so everyone can be vaccinated. There will be a time when everyone can get one, and we want to make sure everyone can access it as quickly as possible.”

Beginning this week, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services officials will begin announcing county vaccine allocations three weeks in advance to help health departments plan clinics. Local vaccine providers have been instructed to administer all first doses sent to them each week before they get their next shipment, explained Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s secretary of health and human services. Second doses will be sent separately in quantities mirroring first dose allocations, she said.

Buncombe County received a state shipment of 975 vaccines on Jan. 27, according to a county press release, all of which will be administered by Monday, Feb. 1. The county will continue to expect shipments of 975 doses for the next several weeks, said Stacie Saunders, Buncombe’s public health director, during a Jan. 26 update before the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

The majority of state nursing homes and long-term care facilities are being vaccinated through a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens. According to NCDHHS, approximately 50% of the 165,900 first doses allotted to this program had been administered as of Jan. 25; only four of the 131,400 second doses had been given to residents and staff. State health officials have no oversight or legal ability to intervene in this federal rollout, Cooper said.

State case counts, hospitalizations stabilizing

North Carolina COVID-19 case graph
CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC: The number of new daily COVID-19 cases in North Carolina has dropped steadily from the all-time high on Jan. 9, although the metric remains higher than health officials would like. Graphic courtesy of NCDHHS

By Cohen’s analysis, North Carolina has officially moved past the winter COVID-19 surge brought on by holiday travel and celebrations. All four of the metrics the state uses to track viral spread — the number of people showing up to emergency rooms with coronavirus-like symptoms, daily case counts, hospitalizations and rate of positive viral tests — are slowly declining, Cohen said, although all remain much higher than her targets.

Locally, Buncombe County’s COVID-19 positivity rate has dropped to 7.5%, a decrease of 1.3 percentage points over the last week. Area hospitals report that 11.4% of inpatient hospital beds and 29% of intensive care unit beds are occupied with COVID-19 patients; NCDHHS reports 188 patients are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus across Western North Carolina.

That doesn’t mean North Carolina is out of the woods, Cohen cautioned. On Jan. 23, a Mecklenburg County resident was diagnosed with the new B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus. Early research indicates this mutation of the virus, which was first detected in the United Kingdom in December, is more contagious than other strains.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United Kingdom variant has also infected at least two people in Tennessee and six people in Georgia.

As the governor has in nearly every COVID-19 briefing since the start of the pandemic, Cooper emphasized the need to continue to follow social distancing protocols. The statewide modified stay-at-home order and mask mandate have both been extended through at least Sunday, Feb. 28, he announced. A statewide eviction moratorium will remain in effect through Wednesday, March 31; Cooper’s executive order allowing for the sale of to-go mixed beverages also will remain in place through the end of March.

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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