By Laura Lee, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
With hospitalizations hitting record levels and the coronavirus pandemic dragging into its ninth month, the prospect of a vaccine on the horizon gives many North Carolinians hope.
Gov. Roy Cooper told Tar Heels to cling to that hope as the state expects a limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines for high-risk health care workers as early as mid-December.
The initial doses of the vaccine will come from Pfizer, Cooper said, and are required to be stored at temperatures of minus 70 degrees or lower. The ultralow temperature requirements mean only a few facilities have the necessary equipment to store the vaccine.
Doses of the vaccine will be administered only upon U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. The FDA committee that will consider Pfizer’s request meets Dec. 10.
The state’s first round of vaccines will be administered by hospitals to health care staff and custodial employees who work with and around COVID-19-positive patients. Hospitals will have discretion about whom they deem high risk, N.C. Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen said.
Long-term care facility patients and staff will also be among the first in the state to receive the immunization.
“Vaccinations at our nursing homes, adult care homes and other long-term care settings are being managed by the federal government,” Cohen said.
“However, the vaccines used in those long-term care settings will come from our state’s vaccine allotment.”
Cohen expects the first shipment of the long-awaited drugs to include about 85,000 doses. Individuals who receive the first dose must receive a second shot 21 days later.
The vaccine will be free for all North Carolinians, regardless of health insurance status, Cooper said. He encouraged residents to have faith in the scientific and regulatory process.
“I have some concerns about people not wanting to be vaccinated, and if it is authorized by this independent advisory board and approved by the FDA, I have confidence in it,” he said. “I think most of our health care and health experts will have confidence in it. We want people to have confidence in it because in order for this to work, we need to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”
After the initial distribution, the state expects to receive additional batches to be distributed to individuals who are over age 65 with two or more self-reported co-morbidities.
The state will receive weekly allocations from the federal government, Cohen said, with additional vaccines from Moderna and other pharmaceutical companies expected in early 2021. An FDA committee will consider Moderna’s application for Emergency Use Authorization on Dec. 17.
The NC COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee, an independent body convened by the N.C. Institute of Medicine, provided guidance to the Department of Health and Human Services on the distribution priorities.
“Our prioritization plan is based on their guidance, along with guidance from the National Academy of Medicine on equitable distribution of vaccines,” Cohen said. The department submitted its vaccine plan to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in October.
While the vaccine could offer a path for North Carolinians to return to their normal lives in 2021, widespread distribution is not expected in winter.
“Having a safe vaccine within reach is an extraordinary achievement, but at the same time, it is not a quick fix,” Cohen said.
“It will take several months to have enough supplies so that anyone can readily get a vaccine.”
Until then, social distancing and mask wearing must be the norm, she urged.