BY BRYAN ANDERSON Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — All North Carolinians who are at least 16 years old will qualify for a COVID-19 vaccine April 7, state health officials and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday. Meanwhile, essential workers not yet vaccinated can get their shot starting March 31.
The bumped up distribution timeline comes as lack of demand has prompted some counties to already administer doses to the general public. The state also received reassurances Tuesday that it would soon see increased vaccine supply from the federal government.
“Vaccines are the key to moving us forward, and I’m ready for that,” Cooper said.
Nearly one in three North Carolina adults have been at least partially vaccinated since the state first began administering doses in December 2020, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Residents who are at least 16 years old can get a Pfizer vaccine, while those 18 or older are eligible for a Moderna shot or single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. J&J supply has been very limited over the last three weeks but is expected to rapidly increase in the weeks ahead.
Cooper announced this week the state will relax gathering and occupancy limits on individuals and businesses starting Friday, given that cases, hospitalizations and deaths have fallen over the last month.
Asked during Thursday’s news conference when the state might consider eliminating the statewide mask mandate and more fully reopen, he and Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s top public health official, said they are looking at a variety of metrics to guide their decision-making process.
“We have the goal right now of getting as many North Carolinians vaccinated as possible. It’s why we’re accelerating the timelines,” Cohen said.
Over the next three weeks, North Carolina is adjusting its strategy to give more doses from its weekly supply to counties that have a smaller share of residents vaccinated. Distributions were previously shipped based on a county’s overall population size.
Kody Kinsley, deputy secretary of the state health department, said in an interview Tuesday that the new approach is intended to help all communities reach achieve herd immunity — a form of indirect protection from COVID-19 that will occur once a substantial percentage of a population becomes immune to infection. While some counties with higher vaccination rates among residents may be getting a smaller proportion of doses than other counties, Kinsley believes increased supply should give all providers a boost in the number of shots they are currently able to administer.
“While we’re doing this relative shift, supply overall continues to grow,” Kinsley said.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been harder to find nationwide. Of the more than 721,000 new first doses of COVID-19 vaccines included in the last three weeks of North Carolina’s federal allocation, just 3% have been Johnson & Johnson shots. North Carolina health officials expect to get more Johnson & Johnson vaccines over the coming weeks, which they hope will reduce hesitancy, improve access to rural and underserved populations and help the state more quickly work toward herd immunity.
While many vaccine providers are still working through existing priority groups that include medically vulnerable adults and workers deemed “essential,” some providers in Craven, Cumberland, Greene, Jones, Onslow and Rockingham counties have already transitioned to vaccinating all adults.
“The accelerated timeline will allow us to double down on our fast and fair approach to getting people vaccinated,” Cohen said.