By Harley Nefe
Gov. Roy Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, gave a COVID-19 update and provided a detailed distribution plan for COVID-19 vaccines during a media briefing on Dec. 1.
As of Dec. 1, North Carolina has had 367,395 COVID-19 cases, and 2,033 people are in the hospital across the state. North Carolina saw its first COVID-19 death on March 12 and since then, 5,284 people have died from the virus.
Just under 1,500 people died from the flu in the past 10 years. In 11 months, COVID-19 has killed more than three times that number.
“As concerning as the numbers are, I and many other North Carolinians have new found hope in the development of promising vaccines,” Cooper said. “Moderna and Pfizer both have produced vaccines with remarkable early results, better than health experts ever hoped for. What we know so far is this: safe, effective vaccines should be available soon. Our job is to be ready to get them to people as quickly and effectively as possible.”
Cohen said North Carolina is likely a few weeks away from having the vaccines.
“COVID-19 vaccines will help us defeat this virus and help us get back to the people and places we love,” she said.
Vaccines imitate infections, which make bodies react like a virus is attacking and creates antibodies that fight the real germs.
The Food and Drug Administration and an external advisory committee will be reviewing two vaccines this month. Between those two vaccines, more than 70,000 people have participated in clinical trials to see if the vaccines are safe and if they can effectively prevent someone from getting COVID-19.
The state of North Carolina has been preparing to receive the vaccines once they are authorized for use by the FDA; however, there are some challenges with this. The Pfizer vaccine requires ultra cold storage. While health care providers with the capabilities of providing that storage have been identified across North Carolina, Cooper explained it is a big state with rural areas that stretch for hundreds of miles that do not have the capabilities of ultra cold storage for the vaccines.
“Every person is important and we’ll work hard to overcome the challenges that our geography presents,” Cooper said.
The COVID-19 vaccine will also be free regardless of whether someone has health insurance or not. Any fees associated with administering a vaccine will be paid either by an insurance company or by the government.
The Department of Health and Human Services has been developing a plan to distribute the vaccines, as states will receive a limited supply at first. To determine who should get the vaccine first, the North Carolina Institute of Medicine convened an independent COVID-19 advisory committee. North Carolina’s prioritization plan is based on their guidance along with guidance from the National Academy of Medicine.
Initially, the limited supply of vaccines will go to a limited number of hospital settings to vaccinate health care workers with high risk of exposure to COVID-19. This involves those who are caring for or cleaning areas used by patients with COVID-19. As more vaccines become available, vaccines will be distributed to more of the state’s hospitals and local health departments to focus on vaccinating high risk healthcare workers. Additionally, long-term care staff and residents are prioritized to receive vaccines.
Cohen said they hope that by January the health departments and community health centers will start vaccinating other high risk adults who are at high risk for complications, meaning they have two or more chronic conditions and are at higher risk for exposure.
“Health care workers, people in long-term care and those at risk with severe illness will come first, but when it’s my turn to get this vaccine, I’ll be ready to roll up my sleeve,” Cooper said.
Cohen said North Carolina’s vaccine plan outlines the critical steps needed to administer a vaccine program. This includes anything from enrolling providers to give those vaccines, ensuring the vaccines are distributed equitably, making sure providers can properly store and handle them, developing an IT system to manage vaccine supplies, ensuring people get both doses of the vaccine, training providers on how to use those IT systems, to having that process to monitor for any adverse reactions and so much more.
Cooper and Cohen also emphasized the importance of following safety guidelines and measures, as the COVID-19 data and trends are continuing to be monitored.
“We need to keep doing what we know works,” Cooper said.
“With significant community spread across the state, anyone of any age can transmit COVID-19 to someone who is at higher risk for serious illness,” Cohen said. “That’s why our prevention tools, the three W’s are so important: Wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart and washing hands often are proven to help prevent people from getting sick, keep people out of the hospital and save lives.”