On February 24, the state will expand eligibility to Group 3, starting with educators and school personnel.
"This includes teachers, principals, childcare providers, bus drivers, custodial and cafeteria staff and others in our pre-K-12 schools and childcare centers," he said.
That group makes up about 240,000 people.
"North Carolina public school educators are eager to get back into their classrooms as soon as it is safe to do so, and today's announcement from Governor Cooper is an important step forward in making that a possibility," said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly. "By giving all educators, including bus drivers, maintenance workers, nutrition workers, and those who work directly in the classroom vaccination priority, we will be able to resume in-person instruction more quickly and safely. We thank Governor Cooper for listening to the overwhelming message from educators, parents, and the community that educators require vaccination priority.
The state will then expand to additional Group 3 frontline workers on March 10.
"Starting with a smaller number of Group 3 frontline workers helps providers streamline vaccine distribution effectively and efficiently," Cooper said. "Providers can start distributing the vaccine methodically for essential workers while continuing to vaccinate those currently eligible.
"Because supply is so limited and the Group 3 population of workers is so large, we will need to move to that next group gradually," Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen added.
The opening of vaccinations to Group 3 enables several new categories of individuals to seek appointments for a COVID-19 vaccine:
- Critical manufacturing (including manufacturing medical supplies, medical equipment or PPE, manufacturing products needed for food and agricultural supply chains)
- Education (including child care staff, K-12 teachers and support staff, college and university instructors and support staff)
- Essential goods (including workers in stores that sell groceries and medicine)
- Food and agriculture (including meat packing workers, food processing workers, farm workers, migrant farm/fishery workers, food distribution and supply chain workers and restaurant workers)
- Government and community services (including US Postal Service and other shipping workers, court workers, elected officials, clergy and homeless shelter staff)
- Health care and public health (including public health workers, social workers)
- Public safety (including firefighters and EMS, law enforcement, corrections workers, security officers, public agency workers responding to abuse and neglect)
- Transportation (including public transit, Division of Motor Vehicles workers, transportation, maintenance and repair technicians, workers supporting highway infrastructure)
Individuals in Groups 1 and 2, including seniors ages 65 and older, can also still get vaccinated.
Where can you get a COVID-19 vaccine in NC? Tracking availability and progress
For weeks, if not months, state officials have promised to expand access to vaccines once the supply of available doses increased to meet the insatiable demand. The Biden administration has upped the weekly allotment from 120,000 to 160,000 doses, and officials say the federal government is promising an additional 5% increase soon.
"Yesterday, the Biden Administration told us that each state would receive 5 percent more vaccine, which amounts to about 7,500 more doses in North Carolina this week," Cooper said on Wednesday. "The more vaccines we can get, the better off we are. And we're going to keep pushing for that every day."
Still, the opening of vaccinations to Group 3 means increased pressure on an already-taxed logistical infrastructure of wait lists, phone banks, websites and administrative staff trying to handle the clamoring public.
"Vaccine providers will need to figure out methodology and systems," Cooper said.
What could help, however, is the concurrent review of the next vaccine candidate to hit the market; the single-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson is scheduled for an Emergency Use Authorization hearing Feb. 26.
Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine candidate 'a really big deal,' experts say
Next week, some Wake County high school students will return to the classroom for the first time since the pandemic started. Some school officials worry not all teachers will be vaccinated as students begin to come back.
"Yeah, I think we have teachers that are concerned," said Principal Stephen Mares. "I'm concerned I'm not vaccinated. I'd love to be, so that is in the back of people's minds. I mean, you know, we all want to be safe during this pandemic. There's no doubt about it. But as I told our staff, 'You know that we can make it happen safely.'"
Have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine? Send them to us here
North Carolina teachers react to Governor Cooper's announcement
Cheryl Rhodes, an Exceptional Children's Teacher at the Howard Learning Academy and Vice President for the Cumberland County Association of Educators tells Eyewitness News the state's latest vaccination rollout plan is bringing more peace of mind to local teachers.
"I'm looking forward to being in the classroom, with the kids, because I love kids," Rhodes noted.
The longtime Fayetteville resident and teacher in the Cumberland County Schools says these vaccinations won't stop the other precautions from taking place. "In addition to that, you know, we still have to use the 3 W's. You know, continue to use the 3 W's, continue to stay six feet apart, washing hands, you know, and wearing a mask."
Cumberland County Schools is set to return to an in-person blended learning option on March 15 for some of its grades. Right now, school faculty are modifying the buildings and classrooms to protect students and staff from COVID-19.
Gerald Hernandez Jr. is the principal at the year-round E.E. Miller Elementary School. "You'll see social distanced desks; you'll also see that the systems in place like bringing lunch to the classrooms as well as kiosk stands for breakfast in the mornings."
Hernandez says Governor Cooper's decision to prioritize K-12 employees will be good for everyone, adding, "I also want to make sure our students and staff, here in Cumberland County, feel most comfortable coming back into the building."