North Carolina’s vaccine goal is welcomed, but how long might it take to reach it?

BY Randy Brechbiel, Guest Columnist
Posted 5/5/21

On April 21, Gov. Roy Cooper announced a clear goal for North Carolina — get two-thirds of the adult population vaccinated with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Should North Carolina hit …

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North Carolina’s vaccine goal is welcomed, but how long might it take to reach it?

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On April 21, Gov. Roy Cooper announced a clear goal for North Carolina — get two-thirds of the adult population vaccinated with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Should North Carolina hit that goal, the mask mandate could be rescinded, taking the state a step closer to life beyond the pandemic.

This news was welcomed as many were beginning to worry there was no endgame. But data from the North Carolina Dept. of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) shows that reaching Cooper’s 66% vaccination goal might take much longer than many had hoped.

NCDHHS data shows that, as of last week, 48.5% of the adult population in North Carolina had been vaccinated with at least one dose. That equals to roughly 3.95 million people, and to hit 66% of the adult population, another estimated 1.4 million adults will need to get at least one dose. Data tells us which age groups have the most numbers to gain for vaccinations.

Provided that 77% of those 65 years and older have already received at least one dose, it is unlikely this age group will make gains in the weeks ahead. The age groups 35-49 and 50-64 have made up the bulk of first doses administered in the last two months, but those numbers have dipped in recent weeks. There’s some hope for those 18-24, but there has yet to be a surge among that age group since vaccines opening to all adults on April 5.

The data give us trendlines to guide expectations as well. During the weeks of April 5 through April 19, the state administered an average of 208,300 first doses to all adults per week. If the state held that pace moving forward it would take nearly seven additional weeks to reach Cooper’s 66% goal. Some may say that’s the best-case scenario.

Perhaps more applicable are the seven weeks after March 1, when vaccines opened to frontline essential workers. Total first doses administered to adults fell five of those seven weeks and weekly totals declined by roughly 40% on multiple occasions. If we applied a continuous, equivalent trendline starting from the prior week’s totals of over 113,000 first doses administered to adults, it would take over 12 weeks to reach 1 million first doses administered. That is still 400,000 shots short of the goal. That could stretch the state into August.

Where does that leave the hope of lifting restrictions?

There is no reliable way to predict how long it will take to achieve Cooper’s 66% goal. Certain, however, is that absent any abnormal surge in first doses administered — which would likely have to come from the 18-24 age group — the process could easily draw out for another two to three months, or more.

The reinstatement of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should help boost numbers if trust is restored. Unfortunately, pandemic-related trust issues loom over North Carolinians, and Americans in general. These trust issues run deeper than the Johnson & Johnson shot. An estimated 16% of all American adults are hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and according to the N.C. Watchdog Reporting Network, across our state’s 32 health systems, only 40% to 75% of hospital staff members have been vaccinated — a bloc of roughly 20% are refusing.

Further, even when vaccinations and social distancing are in place, hesitancy remains in the public’s return to normalcy. This could be driven by misinformation and inflammatory headlines that have frightened a large portion of the population. A March survey from Gallup found that roughly 60% of Americans think the chances people with COVID-19 must be hospitalized are 10 times higher than actual reality. That undoubtedly drives opposition towards lifting restrictions.

The state says it anticipates lifting the mask mandate once two-thirds of adult North Carolinians have received at least one vaccine dose, and if trends remain stable. Having a stated goal is informative given the lack of explanation and transparency throughout the pandemic, but the lines have been drawn for months now. The best tool we have to fight the virus is available to anyone who wants it. That’s a milestone that should be acted upon. Now is the time to let North Carolinians move forward — without the remaining policy decisions that continue to impact our state’s residents, businesses and daily routines.

Randy Brechbiel is a research and communications operator for The Results Company in Raleigh.


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