Vivian Johnson, 94, of Littleton, receives the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine at UNC's Friday Center in Chapel Hill on Jan. 19. Travis Long / News and Observer

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While the state’s current COVID-19 vaccine schedule prioritizes only front-line health care workers, long-term care staff and residents and individuals ages 65 and older, some people are getting the shot ahead of the timeline, raising questions about the enforcement of the state’s prioritization system. 

UNC Chapel Hill employees and students on payroll can be designated front-line health care workers if they volunteer for a minimum of two four-hour shifts at one of the UNC Health system’s vaccination clinics. 

An online form from the UNC School of Medicine does not offer vaccines in exchange for volunteering, said Alan Wolf, a spokesperson for UNC Health, but those who were accepted receive Group 1 designation, the highest priority group in the state’s rollout. 

In short, a shot is not guaranteed for volunteers, but the ability to move to the highest priority group for vaccination is.

Volunteers greet vaccine recipients, escort recipients to various stations and distribute personal protective equipment — roles that do not require medical expertise or qualifications. They are not required to receive doses to begin their shifts, Wolf said. 

Eligible volunteers complete training during their first shift and additional training online that takes about an hour, according to Wolf. Once they show up for a shift, they are eligible for the health care worker designation. 

UNC received more than 300 applications and accepted more than 160 volunteers. The application form asks whether participants are interested in remote shifts, but Wolf said only in-person volunteers are eligible for vaccination as health care staff.

“These volunteers are coming in direct contact with patients, so they are eligible to get a vaccine as health care workers,” he said. “But there are no promises of how quickly or when.”

UNC graduate student Rachel Woodul received an email forwarded from other members of the UNC community saying the volunteer opportunity was a way to skip ahead in line. She signed up with the understanding that the role would make her eligible ahead of her designated group. 

Wolf said the forwarded email’s offer of a dose in exchange for volunteering was not accurate, but students and staff who signed up would be entered into the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Management System, or CVMS, as health care providers, thereby making them eligible in all counties immediately. 

UNC Health is encouraging volunteers who receive the Group 1 designation to wait until the end of the day for “leftover” doses that might otherwise be wasted, Wolf said. 

K-12 staff ahead of schedule

University volunteers are not the only people receiving vaccine doses ahead of their otherwise scheduled priority group.

Primary and secondary school teachers and staff are designated Group 3 “front-line essential workers” under guidelines from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but school employees in several counties were vaccinated ahead of schedule because their appointments were made prior to the state’s shift in vaccination prioritization.

Under the earlier vaccination plan, front-line essential employees ages 50 and older, including school staff, were Phase 1b, following front-line health care workers, individuals 75 and older, and long-term care staff and residents. 

The revised plan, in accordance with new guidance from the CDC and released by state officials in mid-January, moved school staff to Group 3, regardless of age. The new plan also moved the age for Group 2 from 75 to 65, increasing the possible vaccine recipient pool ahead of school staff by thousands.  

Although school employees moved down the list, some districts that had planned clinics prior to the changes held vaccination events for school staff. 

Approximately 650 of Dare County’s 800 school employees received their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine at a clinic on Jan. 23, according to Schools Superintendent John Farrelly. 

The early doses give him hope for fewer staffing challenges for the remainder of the school year.

“Feb. 27 would be the two-week period of time where the 95% immunity is supposed to surface,” he said. “So that puts a lot of light at the end of the tunnel for us.” 

Teachers ages 50 and older in Union County also received doses at a previously scheduled event on Jan. 22 and 23, according to Liz Cooper, public communications manager for the Union County Health Department. School staff members who did not attend that event will have to wait until Group 3 is prioritized, she said. 

While the state wants counties to follow the schedule, “there has to be some flexibility at the local level,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, at a press conference in late January. 

“We know folks, for example, had appointments scheduled before we made a shift to the 65 and up population. We wanted folks to be able to honor those appointments.”

State officials will offer guidance on when the next priority group will receive the COVID-19 vaccination, and while she recognized the need for flexibility at the local level, Cohen requested that county leaders use the state’s prioritization for vaccine distribution.

“We encourage folks who feel like they are moving on to the next group please to have a conversation with our team so we understand what their plan is,” Cohen said.

Asked if the shift to the next group is one health directors can make, Gov. Roy Cooper said, “I think what we want is for there to be some discretion locally about who would fall into that category. We’re going to give good guidance.” 

He expressed the desire to move vaccines into arms quickly and to avoid a complex process that could slow vaccine distribution.

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Laura Lee

Laura Lee is the News Editor at Carolina Public Press. Contact her at llee@carolinapublicpress.org.

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  1. At the current rate it will take 9 months to vaccinate all the 65+ in Brunswick County. I guess this article explains some of it.

  2. Both your examples are well justified. I am all for people who are working with the public, and especially teachers, to go to the head of the line! I am well over 65 but have the option of isolating, so I don’t think I should be prioritized over those who MUST deal directly with others.