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No certainty teachers will get shots soon, health department warns

While teachers and other school employees will join the long line of North Carolinians waiting for Covid-19 vaccines on Feb. 24, the Henderson County health department warned that it's far from certain that teachers would actually begin getting shots that day.

Overwhelmed by the demand for shots from the pool of more than 30,000 residents, the county Public Health Department instituted a waiting list people could access on line. In Henderson County and statewide, the supply of vaccines has allowed providers to inoculate a small fraction of the total number of eligible seniors.

"Gov. Roy Cooper announced yesterday (Feb. 10) that he would open Group 3 starting with teachers and childcare workers on Feb. 24 and expand to others in Group 3 on March 10," the health department said. "In the press conference, it was implied that school staff/childcare workers would be vaccinated starting on Feb. 24 (rather than waitlisted). It is unclear at this point whether or not there will be a separate allocation (of doses) to accomplish this. Henderson County Department of Public Health and key partners are working to understand what the impacts may be to current vaccine operations."

Those over 65 will share their priority status with teachers, child-care workers and anyone working in Pre-K-12 schools beginning Feb. 24. The state has vaccinated only 40.7 percent of senior citizens. North Carolina was home to 1.7 million adults over 65 among a population of 10.4 million people, as of 2018. The state has distributed 1.01 million first doses to seniors, health care workers, and long-term care residents or workers. That leaves  1,060,000 seniors waiting for a shot. 

Only health care workers, long-term care workers, and those older than 65 now qualify for a Covid-19 vaccine. But Gov. Roy Cooper plans to expand eligibility for the shots. Education workers can get their shot starting Feb. 24, and other essential workers will qualify March 10.

Under Cooper’s plan, the state won’t require applicants to present any identification or proof that they are educational workers. The system will rely partly on honesty, said Cooper.

Cooper says this approach gives the state two weeks to ramp up vaccinating its senior population. He also said he expects the state’s supply of doses to increase during this time.

“That gives the state two more weeks to vaccinate those 65 and older as the supply is increasing,” Cooper said. “We do know that we want to get to our front-line workers as soon as we can.”

Cooper did not answer questions about the timing of his announcement.

Hundreds of parents protested school closures in front of the governor’s mansion this week. Cooper began urging schools to return to the classroom a day after the protest. But he still refuses to mandate reopening via legislative action or executive order.

Most North Carolinians don’t approve of the state’s vaccine rollout, according to an Elon Poll released Tuesday. Republican lawmakers are pushing to require schools to reopen their classrooms to students. The Senate passed a bill to mandate school reopening, but the local branch of a nation teacher’s union, the N.C. Association of Educators, opposes the bill. Most Democratic lawmakers voted against it.

Cooper emphasized that vaccinating teachers wasn’t necessary to safely reopen schools.

“The research, scientific and health evidence shows you can safely have students in the classroom if safety protocols are followed, even without vaccinations,” Cooper said. Cooper did not say which essential workers would qualify for a vaccine in March in addition to teachers and remaining population of seniors.

“Everybody deserves a vaccine,” Cooper said. “And when you have tremendous demand, millions of people needing a vaccine, you’re dealing with thousands of shots, that’s very difficult to prioritize.”

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Julie Havlak of the Carolina Journal News Service contributed reporting.