COVID-19, News

As NC health workers anticipate the COVID vaccine, Duke researchers look ahead to the next hurdles

The success of two COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon certainly offers hope in what has been a very dark year.

But several potential obstacles remain in the process before we can even think about letting down our guard and putting aside our masks.

Researchers from Duke University this week examined some of the challenges we face in getting the vaccine distributed globally, the inequities between rich and poorer countries scrambling for limited doses, and how to combat people who may be hesitant to take the vaccine.

Thomas Denny, chief operating officer, Duke Human Vaccine Institute

Thomas Denny, chief operating officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, said it is a remarkable achievement to be where we are today, but there will be challenges in distributing billions of doses.

“We need to be thinking about the long-term efficacy of these vaccines. We know that the data is suggesting good efficacy in the short-term, but how does that hold up six months, nine months 12 months. Is this something we’re going to have to keep doing as we go forward until maybe we get another vaccine developed that gives us longer lasting coverage?”

Dr. Gavin Yamey with the Duke Global Health Institute notes that the pandemic cannot be eradicated if the medicine only goes to those countries that can afford it.

“An outbreak anywhere can become an outbreak everywhere. So we’re really not going to bring this pandemic under control until we’ve controlled viral transmission everywhere. It can’t just be in the rich world,” he cautioned.

Yamey said that over 80 percent of the initial doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have already be purchased by wealthier nations, leaving poorer nations behind.

“That is an enormous concern.”

Yamey is hopeful the COVAX facility led by the World Health Organization, the Gavi vaccine alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) will guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.

Dr. Gavin Yamey, professor of the practice, global health and public policy

According to Yamey, if all goes according to plan, COVAX could secure enough vaccine to vaccinate one billion people by the end of next year —  about 20% of the population in each low income and lower-to-middle income country.

Key to the success of course will be getting a sufficient number of people to take the vaccine once it is readily available.

“One of the most powerful indicators of whether a community will take up a vaccine is whether the health providers in that community take it themselves,” explained Professor Yamey.

Denny with the Duke Human Vaccine Institute believes each community will need to have so-called vaccine ambassadors.

“Former Presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama have agreed to be filmed taking the vaccine early on. That’s a wonderful start, but it has to go down into every local level where community leaders, church leaders, other people that have status in a community say, ‘This is safe, this is good, we must do it.’”

Denny calls 2021 a transition year.

“As we begin to get more people vaccinated, and I think it will take us at least into the second quarter, that slowly we begin to come out of the social distancing, maybe less masking. But I do think the majority of 2021 we’re still behaving like we’re behaving right now,” explained Denny.

According to Denny, there is a massive amount of work underway in the Operation Warp Speed labs to understand the neutralizing antibody levels of the approved vaccines, just how robust the response is and how long it lasts.

Research must also determine when children can safely receive a vaccine. The current trials have been mostly done in adults or older children.

Dr. Yamey agrees that we will all be wearing masks and distancing ourselves in public for the foreseeable future.

“Science is our way out of this, but I would have loved to have been starting from a point where Taiwan is or New Zealand or Australia or Vietnam,” said Yamey noting that those countries have done better in limiting community spread.

On Thursday, a week after Thanksgiving, the U.S. saw more than 3,100 daily deaths from the virus.

Coronavirus cases have also spiked in North Carolina in the past week with a record 5,637 new  cases reported Thursday and more than 2,100 people hospitalized.

State officials hope North Carolina’s health care workers may begin receiving the Pfizer vaccine by mid-December.


NC readying to distribute Pfizer vaccine, COVID-19 vaccine to be free to all

Gov. Roy Cooper

On a day that saw more than 2,000 COVID hospitalizations, Governor Roy Cooper said that work is underway to distribute a vaccine in the coming weeks that will be free for everyone.

“North Carolina is working hard to hit the ground running when these vaccines are approved and shipped.  But there’s still a lot of work to get the vaccines to from the manufacturers to our health care providers like hospitals and health departments and ultimately to each of us,” explained Cooper on Tuesday.

North Carolina will be distributing the Pfizer vaccine that has shown in preliminary data to be 90 percent effective against COVID. State officials acknowledge that one challenge will be keeping this vaccine stable in ultracold freezers at minus-70 degrees Celsius.

Once approved by the FDA, the state expects to receive an estimated 85,000 doses, which will be distributed to North Carolina health care workers and first responders.

HHS Sec. Mandy Cohen

State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen says that as other vaccines win approval (likely Moderna followed by AstraZeneca-Oxford) the state will begin receiving weekly allocations of vaccines.

Before the FDA will authorize the vaccines an independent advisory board will review the data for safety.

Click here to listen to Dr. Cohen discuss who will be among the first to get the highly-anticipated shots:

It’s difficult to determine how many North Carolinians will be covered initially, as both Pfizer and Moderna require two shots given several weeks apart to be effective.

“The COVID-19 vaccine will be free regardless of whether someone has health insurance,” the governor reassured.

Cooper says when it’s his turn to receive the vaccine, he will gladly roll-up his sleeve.

Because it will be several months before there is sufficient quantities of the vaccine for everyone, Sec. Cohen cautioned that mask wearing and social distancing will remain critical.

“Masks are going to be with us particularly as we think about celebrating Christmas and New Years. Masks are going to be incredibly, incredibly important.”

With a 10.2% positivity rate, Cohen also suggested on Tuesday that people further limit their social circles to minimize community spread.

NC Budget and Tax Center, News

As Biden introduces key cabinet members, economically stressed North Carolinians await a just recovery

Logan Rockefeller Harris

As President-elect Joe Biden formally introduces his economic team on Tuesday, there’s a long list of financial challenges facing many families.

Logan Rockefeller Harris, a senior policy analyst with the NC Budget and Tax Center, says North Carolina entered the pandemic with more than 1.4 million residents in poverty.

COVID-19 has also magnified gender inequalities in the labor market in unprecedented ways, with women in North Carolina being far more likely to file for unemployment than men, according to Harris.

As the Budget and Tax Center explains in a new report:

Economic insecurity is not an uncommon experience — almost 60 percent of Americans will experience poverty at some point in their adult life, and more than 3 in 4 will spend at least one year below 150 percent of the poverty level. But mass unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with a total lack of sustained government response, has pushed levels of hardship to new extremes.

How should the new administration, Congress, and the North Carolina legislature address this daunting challenge?

Listen to Rob Schofield’s full interview with Harris below and read the Center’s 2020 Poverty Report.



NC certifies 2020 election results and puts up some staggering numbers

The North Carolina State Board of Elections voted Tuesday to certify all but a handful of contests in the 2020 general election.

“We officially recorded the voices of more than 5.5 million North Carolinians in certifying this historic election,” said Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections.

Other notable numbers from the November 3rd election as highlighted by the state board:

7.36 million: Registered NC voters (most in NC history)

5.55 million: Ballots cast (most in NC history)

75.35: Percent turnout of registered voters (most in modern NC history)

1 million: Absentee by-mail ballots cast (most in NC history)

471: Early voting sites (most in NC history)

77,887: Early voting hours (most in NC history)

348,000: In-person early votes cast on October 15 (most ever in a single day)

3.63 million: In-person early votes cast (most in NC history)

900,000: Approximate ballots cast on Election Day (November 3)

2,660: Precincts open on Election Day

57,017: Poll workers recruited through Democracy Heroes program

14 million: Items of personal protective equipment delivered to county boards of elections

6 million: Single-use pens delivered to county boards

0: Clusters of COVID-19 tied to voting sites in North Carolina

Only five races were not authenticated this week due to pending election protests: Chief Justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, District Court Judge – 10F (Wake County), N.C. House District 36 (Wake County), Hoke County Board of Education and Wayne County Register of Deeds.

A statewide recount is underway in the Chief Justice race where Paul Newby holds a 432 vote lead over Cheri Beasley.

COVID-19, News

As a third COVID-19 vaccine shows promise, NC’s distribution plan takes shape

AstraZeneca announced Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine is up to 90% effective, with no hospitalizations or severe cases of the disease in those receiving the vaccine.

Dr. Leah Devlin, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health

AstraZeneca now joins Pfizer and Moderna with a late-stage vaccine showing real promise in addressing the pandemic.

All three will require regulatory approval, which could come for at least one of those vaccines by mid-December.

Dr. Leah Devlin, professor of practice in health policy and management at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, recently co-chaired the advisory committee for a COVID-19 vaccination plan developed by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. Devlin, who is former health director for Wake County and the State of North Carolina, joined Policy Watch last week to discuss the promise these new vaccines, the challenge of dealing with initially a limited supply, and the how to win over those who may be hesitant to take the vaccine.

An estimated 51 % of North Carolina’s adults are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 based on being 65 or older or having at least one underlying health condition.

Click below to listen to our full interview with Dr. Devlin:

For more on North Carolina’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan click here.