With a third vaccine now approved and a bigger supply coming, Governor Roy Cooper announced Tuesday that all those under Group 3 can sign up for the shot starting Wednesday, March 3rd. Group 3 includes grocery store workers, restaurant workers, first responders, farm workers and more.
Cooper also announced people in Group 4 will be able to get the vaccine starting March 24th. Group 4 includes those at higher risk from COVID-19 due to underlying medical conditions.
Cooper said the decision to increase vaccine eligibility comes as North Carolina moves swiftly with getting shots into arms, and many providers are ready to move to the next phase.
"The state and our providers continue to work extremely hard to get people vaccinated," Cooper said. "Having the third vaccine and improving vaccine supply will help us get more people vaccinated more quickly. Our essential frontline workers have remained on the job throughout this pandemic and I am grateful for their work."
More than 80,000 Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccines will be shipped to providers across the state this week.
Group 3 vaccinations were originally broken up into two parts, starting with teachers and childcare workers. The remaining Group 3 workers would have had to wait until March 10th to sign up for the vaccine, but now, they'll get to sign up a week earlier than previously planned.
As we report this from the Coronavirus Task Force briefing Tuesday, the Lincoln County Health Dept. issued a news release that somewhat contradicts the report. The news release (dated March 2nd but not sent out to news media until Wednesday morning) says:
"Due to the inclement weather across the nation in the previous weeks, the allocated vaccine shipment for the Lincoln County Health department was delayed. As a result, appointments were rescheduled from previous weeks. At this point in time, we are not able to allow for open scheduling due to limited vaccine supply and the addition of priority Group 3. Since we are currently receiving limited vaccine supply, we must move into Group 3 prioritization through a gradual process.
"For those in Group 3, we are scheduling this population based on a tier system. We will be prioritizing those in Group 3 in accordance with the Governor’s directive to include teachers, school workers, day care staff and frontline essential workers. We will also offer preferred prioritization for this group by scheduling appointments for those who are 50 and older first.
"We continue to schedule appointments based on the current priority groups being served and will be adding open appointments for those in Groups 1‐ 3 as vaccine supply allows. The goal is to offer open scheduling for those in Groups 1‐3 by mid‐March. Open scheduling will be conducted in the same manner as before with a press release indicating the number of appointments available and when the link will be made available for scheduling. The health department will provide additional information on our vaccine shipment allocation, priority distribution and appointment scheduling when available."
Of course, local residents can schedule appointments to get vaccinated at Atrium Health-Lincoln or at Walgreens. Kintegra Health held a vaccination clinic Tuesday (March 2nd) at its Lincolnton location on Gamble Drive near the Health Dept. Another is scheduled there for this Saturday (March 6th) from 9 - 11 AM but as of Thursday morning all appointments for that clinic have been filled. Kintegra will also hold a vaccination clinic next Friday (March 12th) 9 AM - 3 PM at the Cherryville Fire Dept. on E. Church St. in Cherryville. It is open to anyone who meets the current eligibility standards set by the NCDHHS. CLICK HERE to see the Kintegra Health vaccination clinic schedule.
Catawba County Public Health issued the following update Wednesday:
"As the state's vaccine rollout plan opens up to frontline essential workers, Catawba County Public Health, Catawba Valley Health System (CVHS) and Frye Regional Medical Center (FRMC) are making significant changes to the joint vaccination appointment request process for local employers and individuals. Due to limited vaccine supply and anticipated high demand for vaccination appointments, these changes are being implemented to help make the scheduling process more efficient for eligible employers and individuals.
"Public Health, CVHS and FRMC are working directly with Catawba County employers to coordinate group scheduling for their eligible workers who wish to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. This will help streamline the vaccination request process and minimize disruptions for the local workforce in light of the anticipated high demand for vaccination appointments.
"To get started, local employers should log on to CatawbaVaccine.org and click on the Business portal, where they will find more information about the process. They will also be able to submit a brief information form, and a member of the scheduling team will contact them within two weeks with next steps.
"Frontline essential workers for companies located in Catawba County should first talk with their employer before requesting an individual appointment. Due to the extremely high demand for vaccinations and limited vaccine supply, scheduling appointments through employers will be the quickest way for frontline essential workers in Catawba County get an appointment with the vaccination team.
"Independent contractors or people who are self-employed and believe they are part of Group 3 may request an appointment online at CatawbaVaccine.org, where an eligibility determination will be made.
"Appointment requests for other eligible individuals will be handled online only through www.CatawbaVaccine.org. No appointments will be made by phone.
"Individuals seeking appointments online will be required to indicate their eligibility category. Frontline essential workers will also be required to enter the name of their employer.
"Individuals without internet access may call the new COVID-19 Referral Line at 828-282-2002. Referral specialists will not be able to schedule an appointment for callers. They are available to assist individuals with completing the online appointment request form on www.CatawbaVaccine.org.
"Individuals who are unsure of which eligibility group they are in can use the Find My Vaccine Group tool to determine if they are part of Group 3.
"For more information about COVID-19 and vaccinations, visit www.CatawbaCountyNC.gov and click on the COVID-19 information page or call the COVID-19 Referral Line at 828-282-2002."
On Monday (March 1st) Governor Cooper issued an Executive Order that the Department of Commerce establish a flexible work search requirement for all new claimants who apply for unemployment benefits on or after March 14th, which he said will increase efforts to help North Carolinians who file for unemployment benefits return to work.
With the end of the Extended Benefits program for state unemployment under federal law, this step directs the Department of Commerce to interpret work search laws flexibly to account for burdens posed by COVID-19 that could affect a job seeker's ability to satisfy search requirements.
"More jobs are being created as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, and people who are out of work need help getting them. Unemployment payments have been critical for families and we want them to have jobs before the payments end," said Cooper.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than $10 billion in unemployment benefits has been disbursed to North Carolinians through multiple state and federal benefit programs, despite the state providing among the fewest weeks of state benefits in the country.
In his COVID relief budget announced in February, Governor Cooper proposed expanding state unemployment benefits, which are still among the lowest in the country. Since the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund balance is high and the ongoing need of North Carolinians out of work due to the pandemic is great, he proposed that the maximum duration of benefits be increased to 26 weeks and the maximum benefit be increased from $350 to $500 per week.
Lincoln County's number of active cases, down to 84 on Friday, increased to 140 active cases Tuesday (March 2nd). The number of COVID-19 deaths remained at 77.
Catawba County reported eight more deaths since Friday, bringing the total to 287. The good news is that the number of new cases was down to 25 on Tuesday and 31 Wednesday and hospitalizations down to 20.
Gaston County had five more deaths (now 396). Hospitalizations were down to 26 on Wednesday.
Statewide, hospitalizations, at one time around four thousand, were 1353 on Tuesday and 1303 Wednesday. The number of North Carolina counties considered 'red zones' has declined to 27; at one time 97 of the state's counties had critical conditions. Lincoln & Cleveland County are now listed as 'orange' (substantial but not critical community spread of the virus). Gaston & Catawba are still shown as red on the latest County Alert map. In Gaston County, where tests were running over 15% positive in December, they were down to 7.5% last week.
The NCDHHS says 14% of the state's population have now had their first vaccination against the virus. 8.2% have now had two shots. The new Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one dose. It also works differently from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which use RNA sequencing to block the virus replicating. The Johnson & Johnson version works in a more traditional way--directly attacking the virus.