In this January 2021 file photo, a medical professional heads to the parking lot at Bojangles Arena in Charlotte to administer the Covid-19 vaccine to a patient in their vehicle. (Photo by Grant Baldwin for Courier Newsroom.) North Carolina COVID-19 Vaccination Site
In this January 2021 file photo, a medical professional heads to the parking lot at Bojangles Arena in Charlotte to administer the Covid-19 vaccine to a patient in their vehicle. (Photo by Grant Baldwin for Courier Newsroom.)

Revised state guidelines moved NC teachers up in priority for the COVID-19 vaccine, with vaccinations already happening in at least one Eastern North Carolina school district. 

North Carolina teachers got bumped up the list for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, with the NC Department of Health and Human Services updating its rollout prioritization. 

And some educators began getting vaccinated this week, as was the case in rural Perquimans County, located in the northeastern corner of the state and with just over 1,600 students in its four public schools. On Monday and Tuesday, an estimated 60 members of the district’s staff received their first dose of the two-dose Moderna vaccine at a clinic held in Perquimans High School.

“It’s very meaningful,” Tanya Turner, the superintendent of Perquimans County Schools, told Cardinal & Pine. Turner received the vaccine itself in a county that, like the rest of the state, has seen significant spread of the infectious disease. 

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Perquimans County currently is in the red critical level for infection, with 854 cases per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days—just 20 cases per capita less than Mecklenburg County. Five people in the county of less than 14,000 people have died from the disease. And while some Perquimans County Schools staff opted not to get the vaccine, for others, the shot for many wasn’t just about feeling safer at work or reducing the spread of the virus. It was also about regaining some of the freedoms lost to COVID-19, Turner said. 

“Some of the staff expressed they haven’t seen their parents in a long time because of the virus, and they feel after getting the vaccine they can see their elderly parents without passing something on,” she said. “This is really releasing so much burden from them to have the comfort and reassurance of the vaccine.”

North Carolina first began vaccinating health workers in mid-December, the first group of people eligible for vaccinations. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that, as of Wednesday, 137,198 North Carolinians had received the first of their two-dose vaccinations. Nearly 500,000 doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines have been distributed, and NC Gov Roy Cooper tapped the NC National Guard earlier this week to speed up distribution across the state. 

COVID-19 cases, however, are spiking in the state, with nearly all of the state’s 100 counties considered to have “critical” or “substantial” spread of the disease . Thursday saw 10,398 new cases, the largest-single day report of positive infections in the state.

 

Teachers Move Up in Priority 

Frontline workers in education—including teachers, support staff and child care workers— found out they would have a higher priority when updated guidelines were released by NC DHHS on Dec. 30. They previously would have been the second of the state’s four-stage plan

State health officials don’t yet know exactly when that will be, but teachers in the state will be vaccinated at the same time as other frontline essential workers such as first responders and grocery store employees also in what are called Group 3 under the first phase of NC’s four-part plan. 

That’s already started happening in places like Perquimans County, but will likely be in coming weeks in other areas of the state. 

Coming before teachers will be those over age 75 in Group 1, who county public health officials are just beginning to offer vaccinations to, and then health care and frontline essential workers over the age of 50 who are in Group 2.

According to the NC DHHS, there are 583,000 frontline essential workers and 292,000 direct health care workers who will need to get vaccinated as part of Phase 1b. The CDC defines frontline essential workers as first responders such as firefighters and police officers, corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, U.S. Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, and those who work in the education sector (teachers and support staff members), as well as child care workers. 

NC DHHS launched a website with information about how the vaccine works, the safety of the vaccine, as well as a list of places where vaccines are being administered. Those with questions about the vaccine can also call the NC DHHS COVID-19 hotline at 1-877-490-6642.

Educators were pleased to see NC DHHS move them up in priority. 

“We are glad that educators are being included in Phase 1b,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, the president of North Carolina Association of Educators and an elementary school teacher in Cumberland County. 

The initial vaccination schedule developed by NC DHHS had teachers getting their shots later on, but changed after hearing from NCAE and teachers around the state. 

”We have veteran educators and other school personnel who are older and have different pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus, as well as their position at work making them more vulnerable.”

Tamika Walker Kelly, NCAE president

Turner said she was surprised to get the call to vaccinate her staff so soon, but with the assistance of local health officials, the clinic ran smoothly.

“We have an amazing relationship with our local and regional health departments, and Albemarle Regional Health Services has been partners with us since the beginning of this pandemic,” Turner said. “They asked us to put a spreadsheet together for all our employees to speed up the process.”

Turner received a call from the health center’s lead nurse over the winter break asking if the district had resources to operate a vaccination clinic. With teacher workdays scheduled Jan. 4-5, Turner and her team set up the clinic at Perquimans High School in Hertford. Around 60 employees opted to receive the first dose of the Moderna vaccine. 

“There are some employees who wanted to get vaccinated, but they’ve been positive in the last 30 days or are sick or in close contact with someone who has been sick, so they’re deferred to the next round,” said Turner.

Some Still Wary of Vaccine 

But while many educators are eager to roll up their sleeves for the shot, some are less enthusiastic.

“For some people, there is real hesitancy around taking the vaccine for a variety of issues, be it the fast-track nature of the vaccines’ production and arrival, and for communities of color acknowledging the history of medical malpractices that have affected those communities,” said Walker Kelly.

The COVID-19 vaccine was developed in less than a year, but was based on years of scientific research into how to fight similar viruses.No severe reactions have been reported to the vaccines, according to infectious disease experts from Johns Hopkins University. 

 “It is a very personal choice to take this vaccine, and school districts are acknowledging it is a personal choice and allowing educators to make those decisions for themselves and their families,” Walker Kelly said. 

That said, the NCAE has made a push for its members to educate themselves and seriously consider getting the vaccine. The teacher advocacy group had two statewide calls for members with doctors talking about the safety of the vaccine, and are planning another this month .

“We’re continuing to build awareness for educators around the vaccine,” she said.