CDC: You can ditch the mask in most places, indoors and out, if fully vaccinated

National and state unemployment insurance data show initial claims return to pre-COVID-19 levels

The release of national weekly unemployment insurance claims data shows that initial claims for unemployment insurance (UI) are 92 percent lower than this time last year in North Carolina.

The continued decline week-over-week similarly points to the continued improvements in the labor market and the important role UI plays in ensuring jobless workers stay engaged in the labor market and looking for work.

“North Carolina’s unemployment system is the first line of defense against people leaving the labor force out of frustration that too few jobs are available,” said Alexandra Sirota, Director of the Budget& Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center. “For more than 467,000 North Carolinians our state system fell short, failing to sustain them until their job searches resulted in employment.”

New research from the Economic Policy Institute points to the critical role that federal extensions of UI eligibility and the number of weeks have had in North Carolina, as well as the heavy reliance in our state on those programs to stabilize the economy. Federal UI provided more than 80 percent of the unemployment benefits in North Carolina, which went a long way to stabilizing household budgets, local commerce, and state revenue.

In North Carolina, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which reaches those who would otherwise not be eligible for state UI, such as the self-employed or those on contracts, provided wage replacement during the week ending April 24th to more than 83,000 North Carolinians.

UI must be the foundation of the state’s work to ensure people get back to good, family-sustaining jobs. Right now, national data show that despite improvements in the number of job openings economy-wide there are still 12 workers officially counted as unemployed for just 10 job openings. Moreover, well-documented barriers—including here in North Carolina—point to the real barrier of childcare faced by a significant share of the labor force, which makes it difficult for every worker to return to their jobs.

“Unemployment Insurance is one of the most effective tools we have to support the economy to recovery,” said Bill Rowe, Deputy Director of Advocacy at the NC Justice Center. “The key is to provide adequate wage replacement for those who have lost employment until the labor market has the quantity and quality of jobs that ensure workers can go back to work.”

Julia Hawes is the Director of Communications for the N.C. Justice Center.

State audit faults oversight of $3.1 billion in coronavirus relief

State Auditor Beth Wood

The state Pandemic Recovery Office did not monitor spending of $3.1 billion in federal pandemic funds in a way that would catch misuse in a timely way, according to a state audit released Thursday.

The recovery office required recipients provide receipts and monthly spending reports with supporting documentation, the audit said. But the office did not independently verify the spending by comparing the reports to the supporting documents until November 2020, after most of the money had been spent.

Additionally, the recovery office sent out money without making sure all recipients had goals for accomplishing their objectives or ways to measure results.

In response, state budget director Charles Perusse and recovery office executive director Stephanie McGarrah said the state legislature funded the office at half the requested amount, which resulted in understaffing and a delay in full verification of recipient spending. The office established a nine-step process that balanced release of money to recipients with monitoring expenditures, they wrote. The office is adding staff in response to the audit findings.

In December, the Auditor’s Office released a report  critical of the state Department of Public Instruction’s monitoring of coronavirus relief fund spending. The audit faulted DPI oversight of the summer learning program and the school nutrition program.

The state legislature started the distributing the federal money in May 2020. Initially, federal law required it be spent by December 2020.

Thursday’s audit looked all 490 recipients of Coronavirus Relief Act money. Forty-three recipients did not report objectives, 302 of 447 reported objectives but no goals, and 57 of 145 reported objectives and goals, but had no way to measure progress, the audit said.

In their response, Perusse and McGarrah wrote that lack of staffing and funding, and the temporary nature of the recovery office contributed to the finding that performance measures “were not as robust as they could have been.”

The recovery office is set to dissolve in December.

CDC advisory panel signs off on Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for kids 12 to 15

Leading Duke pediatrician: I would definitely vaccinate my children against COVID

Good news in the battle against COVID-19 this week as the Food and Drug Administration on Monday granted Pfizer’s request to allow their vaccine to be given to 12-15 years olds under an emergency use authorization.

Dr. Michael Smith, a Duke University pediatrician and infectious disease specialist, was involved in the pediatric trials of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

Smith told the media during a Tuesday video conference that he would trust the vaccine with his own children.

Duke University pediatrician Dr. Michael Smith

“For me personally, I have no doubts about that. I wish my children were old enough to get this vaccine. I would definitely vaccinate them,” said Dr. Smith.”But I think there’s a lot of myths and rumors out there we need to work on dispelling.”

Roughly 2,300 hundred children nationwide took part in the initial study, with half receiving the Pfizer vaccine and half receiving a placebo. Just over 100 of those children enrolled in the study got the vaccine at Duke.

“If you got the vaccine in this trial, you did not get COVID.”

If the CDC signs off on emergency authorization on Wednesday, Thursday would be the first day shots could become available for children 12 to 15 years old.

It’s worth noting in that age group, the dosage of the Pfizer vaccine will be the same as what adults have received. Also, as with adults, this will be two shots, given three weeks apart.

Side effects are similar to what has been seen in adults, a sore arm, in some cases a mild fever.

“Once we get younger, we have to slow down things down a little bit and make sure we have the right dose that is safe for younger children and effective for younger children,” Smith explained.

The Duke clinic is currently conducting a smaller trial on children younger than 12-years-old to make sure they find that right dose for a smaller person.

Once they have than answer, they will begin work on a larger randomized, controlled trial of the vaccine down to children as young as six-months.

And even with thousands of  additional young people soon eligible to get a protective vaccine, Dr. Smith believes there will not be a shortage.

“This would be a great problem to have that there’s so much demand that we run out of vaccine, but again there’s plenty of vaccine that can be made. I don’t see this being a problem down the road.”

Since March of 2020, North Carolina has recorded 39,053 (4%) COVID-19 cases in the 10-14 age group. Nearly 34,000 cases (3%) fall in the 15-17 age bracket.

Source: NCDHHS