Q&A: What We Know About North Carolina's COVID Vaccine Rollout

Jan 15, 2021

North Carolina health officials released a revised vaccine rollout plan on Thursday, Jan. 14.
Credit NCDHHS

Updated on Jan. 22. This post will be updated periodically as we tackle your questions.


North Carolina had a rocky start to its initial rollout of vaccinations against COVID-19. Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked the state as sixth worst in the country for initial vaccine distribution per capita. Since then, state officials made significant moves in hopes of speeding the process. On Jan. 5, Governor Roy Cooper announced that he mobilized the NC National Guard to support vaccine distribution. On Thursday, health officials released a significant revamp of the state vaccine rollout plan. Essentially, they’ve done away with the previous sub-tiered four-phase system and introduced a new five-group plan.

The revamp is an effort to simplify vaccine distribution and implementation, State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen explained in a public briefing. The five main categories for vaccination priority are now:


1. Health care workers and long-term care staff and residents

2. Adults 65 and older

3. Frontline essential workers

4. Adults at high risk for exposure and increased risk of severe illness

5. Everyone remaining

The new plan expands the prioritization of seniors to those 65 and older. Previously, only those 75 and older were being vaccinated. The new rollout removes prioritization for college or university students, or K-12 students who are 16 or older. 

 

So far, 268,212 North Carolinians have received their first dose of the COVID vaccine, according to numbers shared Thursday by the CDC. That’s about 2.5% of the state’s total residents. The first doses were targeted at health care workers on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, along with long-term care residents and staff. Vaccinations of adults over 65 years old is also underway in some counties. 

 

As the rollout continues, listeners have shared their questions and concerns about where they fit into the vaccine distribution. WUNC reporter Will Michaels and digital producer Laura Pellicer tackle some of those Qs below.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe?

 

Yes. North Carolina Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen has been promoting the vaccine’s safety based on results of Pfizer and Moderna’s clinical trials. Between the two, more than 70,000 people volunteered. They were deemed to be at or near 95% effective with no serious safety concerns. The state health department says people did report “sore arms, tiredness, and feeling off for a day or two after receiving the vaccine.” From our reporting, we are seeing that most people experience notable side effects after receiving the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine including fever, body aches, chills, and fatigue. It goes away, but does last for a good day or so. The CDC says that fever, chills, tiredness and headache are “common” side effects. 

 Which groups are getting the vaccine first?

This answer has changed slightly in the past week. The state walked back a previous sub-tiered four-phase system and introduced a new five-group plan. Here’s a look at the plan below:

Credit Courtesy NCDHHS

 

Adults over 65 years old are now included in the second prioritized group for vaccinations. And college and university students as well as K-12 students who are 16 or older are no longer in a priority group for vaccination. Instead, they are in group 5 with the general population. 

But the first priority hasn’t changed all that much — to get health care workers and older more vulnerable adults vaccinated as soon as possible. Hospital and clinical workers like doctors, nurses and other staff started getting the vaccine in December, in what used to be called Phase 1a. Since then, some local providers have started vaccinating Group 2, which now includes anyone 65 or older. Vaccinating this large group of older adults hasn’t been without its problems. The volume of calls from people who wanted the vaccine crashed some county health departments’ phone systems and produced massive lines and wait times at others. They’re dealing with a high demand and limited supply.

 

How will I know when it’s my turn to get the vaccine?

Because some counties are moving more quickly than others, the best information for each person is going to come from their local health department. The state Department of Health and Human Services has posted a list of contact information with local vaccine providers who can tell you if you’re eligible to get it yet or help you make an appointment to get a shot.

Do I have to get the vaccine when my turn comes up?

 

No. Health experts we’ve spoken with are all encouraging people to get the vaccine, of course. They’re stressing that it’s what will help us get back to “normal.” But it’s not mandatory.

Where do I go to get my vaccine?

Most people will get the vaccine at their local health departments or hospitals. State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said in a briefing Jan. 8, that you can also get a vaccine in a county that is not your home county, but she still encourages people to contact their local health department first. Most doctors cannot provide COVID-19 vaccines at their offices because of the way it needs to be stored. Duke Health has started administering vaccines to people who are 75 and older this week. At most places, you’ll need to set up an appointment.

Is the vaccine affordable? What about if I don’t have insurance?

The COVID vaccine is completely free whether or not you have insurance.

What month should I expect to receive my vaccine?

This is an unsatisfying answer, but it’s hard to say. If you’re 65 or older, state Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen expects most —  if not all  — counties should have a place to get the vaccine by next week. As we move into the next phases, though, the timeline is broader.

The reason it’s hard to say is because the state gets weekly shipments of the vaccines and right now, the health department has less than a week of notice from the federal government about how many doses North Carolina will be getting. On top of that, it takes two doses given three to four weeks apart to fully inoculate someone. It’s going to take time and a whole lot of planning. It could take until the summer to get to the final group for vaccinations. 

What about fast food workers? Where do they fit into the rollout?

There are nearly half a million people working in food prep and food service in North Carolina, based on estimates gathered by the state health department. Under the newest plan, fast food workers, along with others who work in the food service industry, fall into Group 4. If you work in this field, call up your local county health department and let them know that the state considers you an essential worker.

How about family caregivers?

We recently got some clarity on this question. According to the state health department, “home care and home health care workers are included in Group 1 to receive the vaccine.” That includes health care workers and long-term care staff and residents. Other people who serve as caregivers for older adults are now considered “frontline essential workers” and are included in Group 3. We are working to find out if people who care for children or adults with high-risk medical conditions are also in Group 3. At this point, we don’t have a firm answer. 

 

Are teachers considered essential workers?

Yes. If you are a North Carolina teacher, or you work in the education section (like working as a school staff member), you are considered a frontline essential worker. This means you are part of the revised Group 3

Which COVID vaccine are North Carolinians receiving?

 

Two different vaccines are in rotation right now in North Carolina. One is produced by the pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer, the other is from Moderna. You can find out more about the vaccines here, but the short version is that both vaccines have been rigorously tested, and both are considered safe and effective by the CDC and by the state health department. Like getting a flu shot, you might still get a few temporary reactions. The CDC considers fever, chills, tiredness and headache to be “common” side effects. 

Are there racial discrepancies behind who has gotten their first vaccine dose?

At this point, about 82% of the North Carolinians who received either one of two doses of the COVID vaccine are white and 97% are non-Hispanic. U.S. Census estimates show North Carolina is 71% white and 63% non-Hispanic. In an interview with ABC11, North Carolina's Health Director Dr. Betsey Tilson said the health department is watching those trends and that they are working to ensure diverse healthcare workers “have the same access to the vaccine as their white counterparts in the healthcare workforce.”

Who is qualified as high risk?

The CDC has laid out a list of health conditions that they consider puts someone at higher risk of COVID-19-related illness. As of now that list includes: cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), down syndrome, heart conditions (heart failure, coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathies), immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant, obesity, pregnancy, sickle cell disease, smoking, and type 2 diabetes. Keep in mind, that list might change as we find out even more about the virus.

How should people behave after they get the vaccine?

We wish there was a different answer to this one, but considering 1 in 20 people who get the vaccine may still contract COVID-19, you should continue practicing social distancing and extreme caution until the pandemic is more under control and until there are new directives from  state health officials.

According to reporting from NPR, the vaccine also takes time to build up effectiveness. A new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine shows it takes a week after the second Pfizer vaccination for the shot’s effectiveness to reach 95%, and it takes two weeks after the second dose of the Moderna vaccine for that shot’s effectiveness to reach 94%. This means you are still quite vulnerable after the first shot, and before this waiting period after the second shot.

Can people who have been vaccinated still spread coronavirus to others?

The unsatisfying short answer, is we just don’t know. So for now, it’s better to play it safe.

According to NPR, “the emergency authorizations by the FDA that have allowed distribution of the two new vaccines cite only their ability to keep you — the person vaccinated — from becoming severely sick with COVID-19.”

The data to answer the question of whether you can still spread COVID after receiving the vaccine is still in the process of being collected, NPR reports.

Can people who have already had COVID-19 get vaccinated?

Yes. And according to the CDC, people who previously contracted COVID should still get vaccinated.

It is considered rare for people who have had COVID to get infected again, but “experts do not yet know how long someone is protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19.” Not worth taking the chance when a free and safe COVID vaccine becomes available to you.

If you are currently experiencing COVID symptoms, the CDC recommends you wait to get vaccinated until you are no longer sick.

When should we have some news about effectiveness regarding the vaccines for kids?

There have been many questions about vaccine effectiveness in children. Initially, children were not included in COVID vaccine trials, but that is now changing. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, Pfizer has enrolled children as young as 12 in vaccine trials, and Moderna is set to start a similar study.

CDC advisor Dr. Jose Romero told MSNBC in an interview that if the vaccines prove safe, children “could get their shots in the second half of next year.”

Where do dental workers rank in the vaccine priority list?

The goal of North Carolina’s new plan is to vaccinate health care workers who are at high risk, including those with in-person patient contact. Dentists and dental hygienists are considered high-priority for the state and are included in Group 1 for vaccinations

Want to know more about how the vaccine rollout is playing out in the state? You can reach us directly through this form: