Cooper may ease restrictions by next Friday, says vaccines open to all of N.C. likely before May 1

N.C. Governor Roy Cooper puts on his mask ahead of the press conference about Covid-19. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Governor Roy Cooper)

Update, 4:36 p.m.: The N.C. Department of Public Safety announced the FEMA vaccination site in Greensboro will stop vaccines at 11 a.m. on Thursday and will resume vaccinations on Friday, 8 a.m.

As a severe weather forecast looms over North Carolina on Thursday, March 18, Gov. Roy Cooper and emergency operations chief Will Ray acknowledged it may sidetrack Covid-19 testing and vaccination sites. Yet, progress is being made enough for Cooper to consider easing some restrictions next week. He also plans to open all of North Carolinians into the vaccination queue ahead of President Biden’s May 1 goal.

North Carolina Department of Public Safety has activated emergency operations for 373 days since Covid-19, even enduring natural disasters in its midst, like last month’s Winter Storm Uri, which spawned the tornado that hit Brunswick County, or Hurricane Isaias in August 2020. Ray said all precautions are under way at the emergency activation center with readiness checks in place to monitor the weather situation.


“Expected timing will be refined over the next 24 hours,” he said.

RELATED: National Weather Service releases potential severe weather forecast for Thursday

The storm is expected to move from the western part of the state tomorrow morning, bringing 1-to-2-inch diameter hail, winds up to 60 mph and possible tornadoes. The storm is slated to hit the southeastern coast of North Carolina from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.

“Now is the time to make sure [you know] all the ways to receive emergency alerts and where to go in emergency weather situations,” Ray said.

The Emergency Operation Center also oversees the FEMA site in Greensboro, which, according to Ray, has given 19,000 vaccinations since opening March 8.

Across the state, 3.4 million vaccines have been administered and 1.2 million people have been fully vaccinated. A push to reach minority populations continues, putting North Carolina in the top 10 states of equitable distribution of vaccines, according to the CDC.

“We are seeing significant progress with equity distribution to get closer to makeup of the population,” Cooper said.

As more vaccines are administered, Covid-19 data trends downward. Only one county on the Covid-19 County Alert Map remains in the red zone, which marks the population at critical viral spread.

“Last week we saw some of the lowest rates of the pandemic,” North Carolina’s top health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, confirmed. “Surveillance data is decreasing closer to our baseline.”

Multiple days last week, North Carolina’s positive percentage rate clocked in below 5% — the goal for health officials in showing low viral spread.

“The trajectory of cases is decreasing,” Cohen noted, “but less testing is happening, so it’s harder to interpret that in isolation of other metrics.”

With new variants proving more contagious, state officials still worry over backtracking.

“It spreads more easily and can make us sicker,” Cooper said. “We must still follow protocols, and continue speaking to prevention while vaccinating more people.”

Cooper did not ease more Covid-19 restrictions, though his executive order will sunset on March 28. He said he will make a decision next week on whether the state will begin opening its economy further.

“We are very hopeful as we look toward the order that ends next Friday,” he iterated. “More and more people are getting back out and doing things and that’s positive for our economy. . . . As more people get vaccinated, that contributes to what we are doing and our decisions.”

He will check in with health officials and scientists on the data, and converse with businesses to get feedback on how to move forward. As to whether those businesses can require employees to receive a vaccine, he said he is in talks with legislators about it.

“I don’t want to interpret the law at the podium, but we are encouraging everyone to get vaccinated,” he stated.

The state opened Group 4 partially today for folks with high-risk health conditions and in congregate living settings. Cooper said he expects all of Group 4 to open on track by April 7.

He also anticipates North Carolina being ahead of President Biden’s goal to ensure vaccines are available to every adult who wants one by May 1. Group 5 may open sooner and without staggering sub-segments, according to officials.

“We do not anticipate further splitting out,” Cohen confirmed. “But we need to understand the supply and demand at the time. Will vaccine providers be overwhelmed by demand if we open to all right away?”

With the federal government’s increase in vaccines coming to the state, they remain optimistic everyone will be able to get a shot when it’s their turn. In fact, Cohen said one of the largest is Group 4 with people with high-risk medical conditions, which make up around half adults in North Carolina.

RELATED: Ready for your shot? Here’s where you can get a vaccine

“We are continuing to be encouraged by what we are hearing from the president’s administration,” Cooper said. “What we ask for is a better runway to see what’s coming down the line to prepare. We will get an increase, which so far has let us open groups early — and we hope that continues to happen.”

Cohen said the state was receiving shipments of 120,000 a week until the end of January. Since, it’s been receiving around 240,000 vaccines a week. That doesn’t include federal allocations that go to mass vaccinations sites, like FEMA, the pharmacies, or federally backed health centers.

“We have seen it doubling Pfizer and Moderna,” Cohen said.

The state has received a Johnson and Johnson one-time allocation of 80,000 doses and a followup of 10,000 doses, but is forecasted to receive more by the end of March or beginning of April. It could bring the state’s average to 350,000 vaccines weekly.

More vaccines in combination with less spread shines a brighter light at the end of the tunnel for state officials. Cooper said they’re already planning post-pandemic recovery. He confirmed he will present his budget to the general assembly next week.

He also addressed his hopes to expand Medicaid to 500,000 or 600,000 adults who don’t have insurance or access to healthcare for preventative screening — something the pandemic has brought to light in greater numbers.

“It’s critical we pay attention to get ahead of things,” Cooper said, “to pay attention to opioid abuse, obesity, heart disease, mental health.”

“We have learned because of hurricanes and natural disasters that the impact of mental health emerges after the crisis,” Cohen added. “It goes back to an insurance card and access point. We have the opportunity to get Medicaid expansion as an important component to recovery efforts overall.”


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