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State to vaccinate medically vulnerable starting March 24

RALEIGH (AP) — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday the state will more quickly open up COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to those who are frontline essential workers or have serious underlying health issues.

The state had been set to allow a broad group of workers ranging from mail carriers to elected officials to begin receiving vaccines March 10. But with approval of a single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine and more than 80,000 doses arriving soon, public health officials will now allow frontline workers to get vaccinated starting Wednesday — a week earlier than anticipated.

Meanwhile, North Carolinians under 65 with high-risk medical conditions that put them at greater risk of severe illness if they become infected with the virus will become eligible March 24.

“We’ll open group four first to people with medical conditions that put them at a higher risk for severe risk to COVID-19 illness,” Cooper said in a news conference. “The third vaccine and improving vaccine supply of the two we already are getting will help us get more people vaccinated more quickly.”

Medically vulnerable people have steadily been dropped toward the bottom of the prioritization schedule since the state unveiled its initial distribution plan in October. After former President Donald Trump’s administration encouraged states to give greater preference to those who are at least 75 years old, North Carolina adjusted its plan and dropped people with chronic conditions down to phase two in the distribution schedule. When the federal government again revised guidelines to include people 65 or older toward the top of the list, younger adults with medical issues were pushed even further down the list to phase four.

The reprioritization prompted some complaints from advocates for the medically vulnerable. Initial guidance favored those with two or more chronic conditions, while the new guidance announced Tuesday allows anyone 16-64 years old with one chronic condition to get vaccinated starting March 24, though providers may decide not to open up appointments if demand remains high for earlier groups.

Under the state’s current guidance posted online, people can get a vaccine in about three weeks if they have at least one of 18 eligible conditions, ranging from cancer and cystic fibrosis to being overweight or a current or former smoker. Representatives from Cooper’s office and the state health department did not immediately provide an explanation about whether people of all conditions will be given equal preference.

North Carolina is not the only state expanding vaccine eligibility to those with serious underlying health issues. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced Tuesday that his state would offer doses to medically vulnerable groups starting next Monday. People would be required to show proof confirming their high-risk medical condition. California has responded to frustrated residents by opening up vaccinations to disabled people and at-risk adults starting March 15.

North Carolina’s top public health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, noted the state would update its website to bundle more people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and neurologic conditions into phase four. Cohen also announced that those who receive long-term home care for more than 30 days but don’t live in a long-term facility will be retroactively under phase one, which launched in December.

Cohen said President Joe Biden’s administration has told the state it won’t ship any Johnson & Johnson vaccines next week and will likely have a small amount available for the week of March 15. By the last week of March or first week of April, North Carolina expects to receive more than 80,000 weekly Johnson & Johnson doses. About 215,000 new first doses of the Pfizer and Moderna are being sent to the state this week, paving the way for a total of nearly 300,000 North Carolinians to begin their vaccinations.

The leader of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services plans to get a vaccine later this week and said the third vaccine, while not as effective as Pfizer and Moderna in preventing milder illnesses, is nearly equally effective at preventing COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths. Regardless, she wants people to have the ability to know which vaccine they’re getting at the time they schedule an appointment.

“When folks are signing up for the vaccine, we’re working with our vaccine providers to make sure that they are being very clear about whether or not this is a one-dose vaccine clinic or two-dose vaccine clinic,” Cohen said.

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