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A free Covid-19 vaccine may be available to health care providers, people in long-term care and those at risk for severe illness before Christmas, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday. 

As North Carolina’s Covid-19 cases steadily increase, Cooper said a “newfound hope” is imminent as biotechnology company Moderna and biopharmaceutical company Pfizer has produced vaccines with “remarkable early results.” 

About 85,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, which requires ultra-cold storage, will be delivered to a limited number of hospitals in North Carolina once the Food and Drug Administration authorizes it for public use, Cooper said.  

State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said the vaccine will imitate an infection, so peoples’ bodies will think a virus is attacking, and in turn, produce antibodies that will protect the individual from the actual virus or illness. 

“Covid-19 vaccines will help us defeat this virus and get back to people and places we love,” she said. 

While a vaccine is on the horizon, Cohen said it’s not a quick fix, and it will take several months to have enough supply so anyone can readily get a dose. Until a vaccine is readily available to the public, she said, people should continue practicing the three W’s and get behind a mask when they are with people from another household.  

Cohen confirmed that the vaccine will be free of charge, and any fees associated with administering it will be paid for by either the individual’s insurance company or the government.

With the number of Covid-related deaths in North Carolina reaching 5,284 as of Tuesday, Cohen said in just 11 months, Covid-19 has killed more than three times the number of people who have died from the flu in the past 10 years (slightly under 1,500). 

“These are more than trends and numbers; they are people,” she said. “Too many people are becoming seriously ill with Covid-19.”

Prioritization of the vaccine

The state’s prioritization plan for the vaccine is based on guidance from the North Carolina Institute of Medicine’s independent Covid-19 vaccine advisory committee and the National Academy of Medicine.

With North Carolina being a big state with rural areas that stretch for hundreds of miles, Cooper said the Covid-19 task force will have to work hard to overcome the geographical challenges and distribute the vaccine to everyone once it’s more available. 

“Every person is important,” Cooper said. 

Although the state’s interim vaccination plan outlines who will initially receive the Covid-19 vaccines, on Tuesday, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education officially requested that all K-12 staff who work directly with students — or in a school — be among those who receive priority after health care providers. 

The board sent the request to Cohen, Deputy Director for Public Health Service and Implementation Nathaniel Smith and Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris. 

The letter said the request is in the best interest of CMS students and staff. CMS welcomed 1,448 middle school students who attend K-8 schools back to classrooms on Monday. The majority of CMS middle school students, and all high school students, are scheduled to return to in-person learning on Jan. 5. If the request is denied, Cooper said more doses of the vaccine will be available by January, which could coincide with the beginning of the second semester. 

Another statewide lockdown?

Regarding a possible statewide lockdown, Cooper said all options are on the table, and the task force will look at ways to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Last week, he extended the statewide mask mandate and declared North Carolina “in danger” because of the increased Covid-19 spread. 

[Related: Gov. Cooper extends mask mandate, declares NC ‘in danger’ as Covid-19 cases increase]

“Masks are going to be with us particularly as we think about celebrating Christmas and New Year’s,” Cooper said on Tuesday. “We’re all in this together.”

The state initially locked down in March at the onset of the pandemic when case numbers were high, and now the number of cases (367,395 as of Tuesday) is trending in the same direction. 

Jonathan is a former QCity Metro reporter who covered Charlotte neighborhoods north of uptown. He also reported on education, public safety and health.

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