RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – With vaccinations slowing in North Carolina, some health experts are urging caution as Gov. Roy Cooper (D) prepares to lift more COVID-19 restrictions next month.
As of Monday, about 49.6 percent of the state’s adult population is partially vaccinated against COVID-19, with 41.7 percent of adults being fully vaccinated, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
For the nation as a whole, 56.3 percent of the adult population is partially vaccinated and 40.6 percent is fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
“We certainly thought at this point in time we’d be a lot further along than we are,” said Dr. Dennis Taylor, president of the North Carolina Nurses Association, about the pace of vaccinations. “The virus is no less deadly. It’s actually more virulent now, easier to spread, than it ever has been.”
Gov. Cooper has set a goal of June 1 to lift capacity, distancing and other restrictions while leaving the indoor mask mandate in effect until two-thirds of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Taylor said he has concerns about how behaviors will change in June with so many people likely still unvaccinated.
“Are you willing to take that risk and let your guard down, particularly when you’re around a lot of people that you don’t know if they’ve been vaccinated or not?” he asked. “It is your social responsibility to get this vaccine to where you don’t spread the virus.”
Data from the state shows the total number of doses administered to people each week has been on the decline since early April.
The week of April 5, state and federal providers administered almost 680,000 first and second doses. That number dropped to about 414,000 two weeks later. There’s also been a drop in the number of people getting first doses. The week of April 19, the 128,000 first doses administered accounted for about 30 percent of the total doses administered that week.
In a recent interview, state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen pointed out 78 percent of people over 65 are partially vaccinated. That age group includes people at high risk for death and severe illness.
With increasing vaccinations among the most vulnerable people, the state has seen significant improvements in the key COVID-19 metrics since the surge of cases around the holiday season.
“We are seeing a lower level of cases and hospitalizations. Most importantly, we are seeing less deaths from COVID, which is fantastic. So, we are continuing to make progress and we want to acknowledge that progress,” Dr. Cohen said. “We’re moving in the right direction. We can make those steps in terms of lifting restrictions.”
Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease expert at UNC-Chapel Hill, said he does still have concerns.
“The virus will go to places where people are not vaccinated. So, if a community remains at 50 percent, that community is going to be more vulnerable,” he said. “I think you’re going to see sporadic outbreaks in communities that have not vaccinated sufficiently.”
He said he’s hopeful there will not be large surges in cases similar to what we experienced previously “unless new emerging viruses come that evade our vaccines. That hasn’t happened yet.”
“Maybe over time we’ll get that immunity we want the hard way, through people getting sick,” he noted.
Though overall hospitalizations have dropped in recent months, Dr. Wohl said it still worries him to see so many middle-aged patients facing serious complications due to the virus.
“If those numbers remain high, then it’s going to be very hard to disregard some of the mitigation strategies we have in place now,” he said. “There are people who are really seriously getting ill now, and we don’t want that to happen to any of us.”
He said one change that could help is if the COVID-19 vaccines are approved soon for children ages 12-15. Pfizer has requested the FDA allow its vaccine for that age group.