National Guard soldiers assist by directing those arriving for vaccination appointments at Bojangles Arena in Charlotte, NC, the primary site of vaccine distribution for Mecklenburg County. (Image for Cardinal & Pine by Grant Baldwin) Coronavirus Vaccine in North Carolina
National Guard soldiers assist by directing those arriving for vaccination appointments at Bojangles Arena in Charlotte, NC, the primary site of vaccine distribution for Mecklenburg County. (Image for Cardinal & Pine by Grant Baldwin)

North Carolina will see an uptick in its weekly allotments of COVID-19 vaccines, as the disease continues to spread at high levels in the state. 

The federal government will offer a 16% bump in the state’s vaccine supply beginning next week, following a frustrating week for many North Carolina providers and patients seeking coronavirus vaccines. 

That news from state leaders follows an at times bitter flurry of messages from state healthcare providers forced to cancel thousands of pending vaccine appointments when expected allotments of vaccine did not materialize. 

Gov. Roy Cooper pointed out the increase in weekly supply from the federal government will still give the state only about 140,000 first doses in a state with a population of about 10.5 million. NC had been getting 120,000 new first doses each week. 

“I know this is maddening and frustrating to you,” Cooper added. “It will get better as the state gets more vaccine and more providers getting it out.”

Mandy Cohen, NC Secretary of Health and Human Services, apologized to providers this week  and offered some clarity on her department’s strategy, which had been to administer as many shots as possible in order to prove to federal officials that the state needs more.

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That strategy seemed to backfire when local health providers, urged to speed up by Cohen’s office, had to walk back some commitments to vaccinate North Carolinians. Cone Health, which serves the Greensboro area, had to cancel more than 10,000 appointments this week. 

Gov. Roy Cooper, who’s worked closely with Cohen on vaccination strategy, acknowledged mounting frustrations when addressing the media Wednesday.

“I know it is frustrating to people,” Cooper said. “They want their vaccine and they want it now. But the biggest problem we have right now is we have millions of people and only thousands of shots.”

With the supply still limited, Cooper’s office said Wednesday that it would extend its stay-at-home order, which includes a nightly curfew, through the end of February. 

That order requires most North Carolinians to be at home from 10 p.m through 5 a.m. The state has also required masks for people gathering indoors or outdoors to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus.

“We cannot let our guard down, especially in these cold winter months,” Cooper said. “These simple measures can and will save lives.”

A Slow Start

North Carolina, like many states in the US, has been plagued by a sluggish vaccine rollout in comparison to other nations. But with supply of the two FDA-approved vaccines still far less than demand, the crunch was expected in initial months.

Cohen told reporters in December that she expected it would be spring before any North Carolinian who wanted a shot would have ready access to it. It’s unclear whether those projections have shifted any amid the slow start.

The state is currently administering the shots to healthcare workers and North Carolinians over the age of 65. The second phase of vaccinations was launched for those over the age of 75, but a January switch in the federal government’s recommendation to adults over 65 seemed to trip up states as well. 

Cooper and Cohen declined to speculate about when it will move into vaccinating more North Carolinians, noting that the demand is still high among those who are currently eligible. Cohen added that NC has already distributed 99% of its first-shot doses provided by the federal government. 

Meanwhile, federal health officials are likely to consider several additional vaccine providers this year, with the first being a single-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson that is expected to release its trial data early next week. If the vaccine is proven safe and effective, it could be speedily cleared for emergency use by the FDA to speed up the rollout in many states.   

Still, many healthcare providers in NC were livid this week over the cancelled appointments. 

“Because doses were diverted, grandmothers and grandfathers who had appointments in rural NC now wait,” Stacie Turpin Saunders, the Buncombe County Health Director, wrote in a letter to Cohen. “Health care workers who had appointments where they serve patients now wait.”

Both Cohen and Cooper said they want to continue to make the case to federal leaders in the new Joe Biden administration the state needs more shots. 

Signs of stabilization?

Leaders said new COVID-19 cases are stabilizing in North Carolina, after a brutal post-holiday spike. Hospitalizations are also gradually tapering after a frightening rise in early January that threatened to overwhelm local providers. 

Still, the state’s percentage of tests remains worryingly high, at about 11.1% as of Wednesday. Public health officials want that number to hover around 5%. 

The virus has infected more than 733,000 North Carolinians and killed 8,915. 

Cohen said people need to continue to socially distance and wear masks, even as the pandemic stretches into its 11th month. 

“The best way to protect those around you is to act as if you have the virus,” Cohen said. “I know people are tired and stressed.”