Cooper: NC teachers, childcare workers to get COVID vaccine next

Teachers, childcare center employees and school support staff will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine on Feb. 24, Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday.

“Starting with a smaller number of Group 3 front-line essential workers helps providers streamline vaccine distribution effectively and efficiently,” Cooper said.

Other front-line workers in North Carolina’s Group 3 will be eligible for the vaccine on March 10, Cooper said. That is a broad category that includes everyone who physically has to go to work. Group 3 also includes first responders, farm workers, restaurant employees and grocery store workers, among other categories.

The Feb. 24 group includes preK-12 educators and childcare workers who work in public schools, charter schools and private schools. Teachers, principals, bus drivers, custodians and other support staff will be eligible. It doesn’t include college and university personnel.

That’s about 240,000 people, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, at a Wednesday news conference.

North Carolina has been receiving about 150,000 doses a week for everyone — including health-care workers and people who are at least 65. That means everyone who wants a vaccine won’t be able to get it the day the eligibility window opens, Cohen said.

“We know this is going to be a gradual process. We know supply is low,” Cohen said.

Cooper said the state’s vaccination team thought it would make sense to start with a smaller portion of Group 3 to make sure the system works.

“There has been concern about all of these front-line essential workers in a big group in Group 3 all of a sudden crashing into the system, that that would be problematic,” Cooper said.

Schools reopening

Last week, Cooper and Cohen called for schools to reopen, citing data that shows a low rate of COVID-19 transmission among students and from students to teachers. Wednesday, Cooper reiterated that message, saying schools should return to in-person learning, even before all teachers and personnel are vaccinated.

“The research and the scientific and health evidence shows that you can safely have students in the classroom as long as the safety and health protocols are followed, even without vaccinations, right now,” Cooper said.

Cooper and Cohen have repeatedly said the vaccine supply in the state is low, as it is across the country. North Carolina is receiving about 150,000 doses of vaccines per week and is set to receive about 7,500 more doses in the coming weeks.

“We do not have enough supply and that is exactly why as we move to our front-line essential workers, we want to do that in a thoughtful and gradual way,” Cohen said.

Wednesday, DHHS reported that more than 1.1 million people in the state have received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while nearly 370,000 have taken both doses.

The first people to be vaccinated, starting in December, were front-line health-care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. The second phase of vaccinations has been going to adults age 65 and older.

Cohen and Cooper both stressed Wednesday that vaccinations would continue for people in groups one and two as the state begins to move into group three. They said those groups continue to be a priority, as 83% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have come from people who are 65 and older.

Cooper said Tuesday that officials want to make sure they are reaching out successfully to vaccinate Black and Latinx residents, who are being vaccinated at a lower percentage rate compared to their share of the state’s population.

State Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican, said during a House education committee meeting Wednesday morning that he knows there are a lot of emotions around teachers getting vaccinations.

“I will tell you we are working on that, trying to move them up in the queue,” he said, adding that lawmakers were trying very hard to change the distribution plan.

“That’s a very important and emotional issue,” Lambeth said.

Logistics to be announced

The push to vaccinate teachers comes as a bill works its way through the General Assembly that would require all K-12 public schools to offer an in-person learning option. Cooper has stopped short of making it a requirement to reopen schools that have been remote-only. Instead, he has strongly urged local school districts to open under the state’s current recommended plan of Plan A for elementary schools and Plan B for middle and high schools. Plan A has minimal social distancing, while Plan B requires six feet of social distancing. All schools, and the state, are under a mask mandate.

The logistics of vaccinating the 240,000 preK-12 education and childcare workers that fall into the Group 3 category are still being worked out. Cohen said in some cases, there could be designated days at vaccine provider locations for childcare workers and school workers, while the vaccine could be brought to schools in other cases.

“There’s going to be a range of ways in which folks partner to do this work,” Cohen said.

The North Carolina Association of Educators called the announcement about vaccine priority an “important step forward” for in-person instruction.

“We thank Governor Cooper for listening to the overwhelming message from educators, parents, and the community that educators require vaccination priority,” NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in an emailed statement.

Also on Wednesday, the governor signed the first COVID-19 relief bill of 2021, which included $1.6 billion for schools reopening as well as funding for vaccine distribution, broadband internet expansion and an application deadline extension for checks most parents received in 2020.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham, and has received the McClatchy President’s Award as well as several North Carolina Press Association awards, including for investigative reporting.

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