The Cooper administration said Wednesday it will expand COVID-19 vaccinations to teachers and most educators beginning Feb. 24. Vaccinations for other essential frontline workers are expected to start March 10.
Gov. Roy Cooper said the goal is taking "a balanced approach with the limited vaccine supply ... and to ensure that we use our entire supply each week."
The latest round of vaccinations will be aimed at 240,000 teachers and educators, which includes child care centers, pre-K administrators, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, Head Start programs, preschool and pre-K programs.
It includes educators in traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools.
Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state's health secretary, stressed that people 65 and older as well as healthcare workers remain priorities for vaccinations.
Cohen said setting Feb. 24 as a target date does not mean teachers will automatically secure a vaccination appointment.
"There are thousands and thousands of people that are on waiting lists across the state who are 65 and older," Cooper said.
Cohen said the vaccinations could be administered at some school sites, as during a teacher's work day or other community events. She is hopeful that some vaccinations can be provided from pharmacies, dentists and other medical providers.
The governor said starting with a smaller number of frontline essential workers, who make up Group Three in the state's vaccination strategy, will help providers distribute the vaccine more effectively and efficiently.
Group Three also includes essential frontline workers in sectors such as food-processing and medical equipment manufacturing; food and agriculture supply chains; essential goods; government and community services; public health and social work; public safety, first responders and law enforcement; and transportation.
On Tuesday, the N.C. Retail Merchants Association told the N.C. House Health committee that its members want more information on when employees should expect to start receiving vaccinations.
Cooper said his administration is reviewing whether to prioritize other essential frontline workers. Any such prioritization would be largely based on available vaccine supplies as March 10 nears, he said.
Cooper said that waiting until Feb. 24 to begin vaccinating teachers, other educators and staff gives providers more time to vaccinate health care workers and people who are 65-and-up — who are in Groups One and Two — and gives providers time to plan the Group Three rollout.
Focusing on the first two groups has bipartisan support from state Republican legislative leaders, who have stressed elderly residents should be prioritized over young, healthy essential workers.
However, many of those state GOP legislative leaders also support legislation to reopen schools sooner without mandating vaccinations for teachers, educators and other staff.
Cohen believes North Carolina is close to having vaccinated 50% of North Carolinians 65 and older, "so we are making a lot of progress. The governor's priorities track with those who are at highest risk for death in North Carolina."
Cooper said he continues to encourage school superintendents to provide in-person instruction with safety guidelines in place, such as middle and high school students following six-feet social distancing protocols.