New COVID-19 Vaccination Priorities Aim to Avoid Waste, Improve Speed & Equity

Blog | January 21, 2021


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge in North Carolina, the state Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) has updated its vaccine allocation and distribution protocol.


As of January 19, North Carolina has seen 674,637 total cases and 8,083 deaths, with 3,862 people currently hospitalized. More than 325,000 vaccine doses have been given, as the state makes its limited supply available in phases. These phases, and other vaccine distribution considerations, have been (and continue to be) discussed in detail by the NC COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee, convened by the NCIOM. The committee is charged with providing feedback on the operationalizing of the state’s plan for ordering, allocating, distributing, and communicating about the vaccine, especially with regard to prioritized and critical populations.


In response to new lessons learned thus far and new guidance from the federal government, last week NCDHHS announced that providers with the resources to do so could expand vaccine eligibility to all health care workers and all residents aged 65 and older. This was a change from the previous guidance to provide vaccines to only certain health care workers and people aged 75 and older as part of Phase 1a.


Instead of multiple phases per group, the vaccine allocation plan now includes five prioritization groups. The currently active prioritization groups include Group 1) direct health care workers and long-term care staff and residents and Group 2) people aged 65 and older. Group 3 will include frontline essential workers, Group 4 will include adults at high risk for exposure and increased risk of severe illness, with the final group including everyone who wants a vaccine.


Groups 1 and 2 alone include more than 2 million people. Approximately 160,000 doses are administered in North Carolina each week. During a press conference announcing these changes on January 14, NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen emphasized that while eligibility parameters have changed, providers are still working with limited supply of vaccine doses.


“Doctors, hospitals and local health departments are working hard to get people vaccinated,” she said. “There may be a wait, but when it’s your spot, take your shot to stay healthy and help us get back to being with family and friends.”


The NC COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee continues to meet regularly with providers and other stakeholders to improve the speed and equity of vaccine distribution. The creation of broader, simplified prioritization groups was part of this effort; other steps include guidance to help ensure no vaccine supply is wasted, from shifting staff resources and onboarding additional vaccine providers to coordinating major vaccination pushes.


Providers and residents across the state have expressed concerns about the speed of vaccination. As of last week, 72 of 100 counties had used less than 50% of their dose allocations. Those numbers are expected to improve as things speed up, thanks in part to the adjusted prioritization and allocation plan. During the January 14 press conference, Secretary Cohen noted that NCDHSS has offered to help providers, county health departments, and anyone else who needs help with staffing and data entry related to the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Management System. The department is also partnering with local health centers and hospitals, as well as private companies, to host large-scale vaccination events beginning as early as this week.


Equity efforts include, among other strategies, prioritizing providers who can reach historically marginalized populations (e.g., FQHCs and community health centers); regularly engaging with leaders such as AMEXCAN, the Legislative Black Caucus, and community health groups across the state; and offering trainings to trusted messengers in historically marginalized communities.


For more information, and to find a place to get vaccinated, visit YourSpotYourShot.NC.Gov.