North Carolina, which remains one of the slowest states in vaccinating people for COVID-19, is facing new federal recommendations on who should be among the first to get shots.
Questions about stumbling vaccine distribution consumed Raleigh on Tuesday: Two legislative health oversight committees spent more than two hours talking about vaccine distribution, and it was the major topic at Gov. Roy Cooper’s news conference.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, North Carolina ranks 42nd among states and Washington, D.C ., in first doses of vaccine administered per 100,000 people.
Republican legislators criticized the pace of vaccinations. Some said it was a mistake for the state to rely on local health departments to set up their own vaccination procedures, and called for a stronger centralized control.
Medical workers and people who live in and work at long–term care facilities were the first in line for shots. Some counties, but not others, have moved to the second group, people 75 and older.
Hospitals and local health departments are administering vaccines to their workers and the general public. CVS and Walgreens are giving shots to residents and workers in long–term care facilities.
“Why don’t we have one system?” Sen. Jim Burgin, a Harnett County Republican asked. “Why do we allow counties to do different things?” He mentioned the hundreds of people who waited for hours in Benson to get a shot on Tuesday.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, head of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told legislators it was a priority to get vaccines to every county.
Some local health departments are doing well, and the state is trying to help those that aren’t, she said. The National Guard is working on vaccine distribution and contact tracers; regional Health and Human Services employees have been reassigned to help.
“We needed to rely on the infrastructure we had,” Cohen told legislators.
Cohen said sites that can administer a lot of shots, as well as vendors will be brought on to assist.
Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, reminded Republicans that they usually do not like state control. “Seems to me a lot of folks are asking that question who don’t favor central control on anything else,” he said.
Later, at the news conference, Cohen said plans call for getting 45,000 doses of vaccine to 10 “high throughput sites” across the state.
As of Monday night, about 417,000 vaccine doses had been allotted to hospitals and local health departments; more than 257,000 of those had been administered, Cohen told legislators. CVS and Walgreens had been given 165,000 doses for residents and workers in long–term care facilities and had administered 37,992, she said.
Even as the state lags in getting vaccines into arms, the federal government might be about to change the rules. The Trump administration is going to make more doses available to states , the Washington Post reported Tuesday. President-elect Joe Biden had already announced he would make that change.
The federal government plans to send states vaccines  based on their populations of people 65 and older, and how quickly they administer shots, Politico reported Tuesday.
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Cooper said he had just been told during a phone call with Washington, D.C. officials that the prioritization criteria would change again to lower the age range to people 65 and older.
“One of the continuing problems we have had with the federal government, they have continued to shift their advice on what the priorities should be,” he said. “We have known we were going to need to prioritize vaccines. We have seen several iterations of their recommendations.”
Cohen said the state had not seen the new federal guidance in writing yet.
She also said the state was trying to balance quickly dispersing vaccines to every county, while accounting for racial and ethnic equity.
Early in the pandemic, Black and Latinx residents were becoming infected with the coronavirus at disproportionately high rates. Black residents were also dying at higher rates; Latinx residents are still becoming infected at disproportionately high rates.
“We’re trying to employ a lot of strategies,” she said. “We will continue to evolve this to make sure we’re solving for speed and we’re solving for equity at the same time.”
Cooper criticized the lies and disinformation that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol last week, which have helped the coronavirus spread out of control.
“Words matter,” he said. “People listen to leaders and often follow their calls and imitate their actions. As the death toll from this pandemic continues to increase, our leaders must listen to science, focus on the facts and tell the truth with their words and the examples they have set. The truth is that this disease is spreading fast. We’re in a dire situation. The truth is, in order to saves lives, people need to follow the safety protocols we have in place.”
The state set a new high of reported coronavirus infections on Saturday, at 11,581. DHHS reported 7,638 COVID-19 related deaths as of Tuesday. Hospitals ICUs are at or near capacity.