Cooper’s announcement does not guarantee that school staff can receive a vaccine starting the 24th, across the state or in Chatham. That date represents when the state has said ...
Thanks for reading Chatham County’s leading news source! Making high quality community journalism isn’t free — please consider supporting our journalism by subscribing to the News + Record today.
Unlimited Digital Access: $3.99 for 1 month, $39 for 1 year.
North Carolina will expand vaccine eligibility to Group 3, starting with educators and school personnel on Feb. 24, Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Wednesday, with other frontline workers set to become eligible March 10.
“Starting with a smaller number of Group 3 frontline essential workers helps providers streamline vaccine distribution effectively and efficiently,” Cooper said, adding that the educators included in the Feb. 24 eligibility window includes teachers, principals, childcare providers, bus drivers, custodial and cafeteria staff and more — about 240,000 estimated people.
“Essential workers are just that – essential,” he tweeted later in the day. “We know educators can continue to work safely before being vaccinated as long as schools follow state health guidance. Students can be back in schools safely now. That’s what I want them to do.”
Cooper’s announcement does not guarantee that school staff can receive a vaccine starting the 24th, across the state or in Chatham. That date represents when the state has said K-12 education personnel and child care workers become eligible, but counties must still offer vaccinations to all people in the current phase who wish to receive one before moving on to the next group.
Chatham County Public Health Director Mike Zelek said the department will continue to focus its vaccination efforts on individuals in Groups 1 and 2 who have not yet been vaccinated.
“Thousands of Chatham residents in these groups remain unvaccinated, and we are exhausting our weekly vaccine allocations to work through these groups as quickly as possible,” Zelek told the News + Record. “Vaccine supply continues to be the limiting factor, and it is unlikely that we will be able to move to Group 3 as soon as the group becomes eligible per this updated guidance from NC DHHS.”
“That said,” he continued, “we have been working for weeks to prepare for Group 3 vaccinations, including gathering contact information for schools and childcare staff who are interested in receiving the vaccine. We already have a list of more than 1,000 individuals in this group who are ready to get vaccinated, and will work with the other vaccine providers to do so when the time comes.”
In the coming weeks, Zelek said the health department will work closely with Chatham County Schools, along with childcare facilities and private and public charter schools, to plan for these vaccinations.
Efforts to increase in-person instruction
Cooper’s Wednesday announcement followed his own emphasis on N.C. schools offering in-person learning just the week before, and came just two days before the C.D.C. urged that K-12 schools can reopen with the right measures on Friday. That guidance said middle and high school students can attend school safely (following recommended protocols) at most lower levels of community transmission, adding that schools could be safer at higher levels, too, if schools test staff and students weekly to identify asymptomatic infections. Middle and high schools should switch to virtual learning, the agency said, only when community transmission reaches the highest level.
Cooper's announcement also came as a bill that would require all K-12 public schools to offer an in-person learning option worked its way through the N.C. General Assembly. On Thursday, the North Carolina House passed that bill, which would also require special needs students to have daily in-person learning. Though the Senate already approved the measure, it will vote again because of changes the House made to it before it goes to Cooper, who is likely to veto it, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.
Last week, Cooper “strongly urged” North Carolina public school districts to offer in-person instruction at a press conference, stopping short of mandating schools to reopen. He’s recommended Plan A for elementary schools and Plan B for middle and high schools — the difference between the two plans being the requirement of six feet of social distancing. Previously, many people thought Plan B meant attending on a hybrid schedule, but state officials have recently said some school systems could offer daily in-person learning under Plan B for middle and high school students, if the six feet of distance can be maintained.
“We have learned much more about this virus, and now it is time to get our children back in the classroom,” Cooper said at that meeting.
'We do not have enough supply'
In Chatham, prior to Cooper’s Wednesday announcement, the CCS Board of Education unanimously voted at its Monday meeting to write a letter to Cooper urging the prioritization of teachers in receiving vaccinations. When board members asked when teachers could expect to get vaccinated, Zelek said at the time that he couldn’t estimate exactly when the county will move to Group 3 — which includes school staff as a part of essential workers — due to not knowing the county’s vaccine supply on a week-to-week basis. County and state health officials had previously said teachers would be up for vaccines in the next “weeks to months.”
Currently, all CCS students have the option of attending in-person hybrid learning, but the board will meet Feb. 23 at 5:30 to continue discussion on K-5 schools moving to Plan A — as recommended by Cooper and the state’s general assembly. County teachers and staff have previously expressed concern about teaching in-person prior to being vaccinated.
At Monday’s BOE meeting, Zelek said that 11,414 Chatham residents have received the first dosage of the vaccine, or 14.9% of the population. The health department has administered about 2,000 of those first dosages, he said, and is using up all of its vaccinations it receives.
The state has received about 150,000 doses a week for everyone, N.C. Dept. of Human Health Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said at Cooper’s Wednesday conference. Since healthcare workers and people who are at least 65 still need to be vaccinated, Cohen said not everyone who wants a vaccine in Group 3 will be able to get it the day the eligibility window opens.
Cooper seconded this, citing concerns that the frontline workers in Group 3 “all of a sudden crashing into the system” could create problems. Cohen and Cooper said vaccine distribution to frontline workers could take place in a range of ways depending on what options work best for local health departments.
“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.
Other frontline workers will be eligible for the vaccine on March 10, which includes first responders, farm workers, restaurant and grocery store workers and more.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.