RALEIGH — The opening of COVID-19 vaccinations to anyone 16 and older who hasn't received the vaccine comes as the supply in North Carolina is as great as ever, health officials say.
The state received 391,760 first doses of the precious medicine this week — up from 64,980 from last week.
This week's increase was largely driven by the state beginning to see a long-expected rise in deliveries of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. This week, the federal government sent 149,800 Johnson & Johnson doses to North Carolina, more than twice the 58,800 that arrived last week.
Wednesday will be the first time the COVID-19 vaccine is available to anyone in North Carolina age 16 and older, regardless of their health or occupation. Because of limited supplies, the state initially narrowed availability to groups most at-risk for severe complications from the coronavirus, then gradually expanded eligibility.
"Because of the hard work of providers and commitment of North Carolinians to take their shot, we're getting people vaccinated more quickly than we predicted," Gov. Roy Cooper said during a press conference Tuesday. "This will help us turn the corner on the pandemic even sooner. But the work isn't over yet."
The extra doses will help with the increased demand. UNC Health, which operates 17 vaccination sites across the state, received 20,960 first doses this week, including 8,900 to be given out at its largest site — the Friday Center in Chapel Hill. That's up from 16,600 first doses UNC received last week.
On Monday morning, UNC still had appointments available this week at some of its vaccination sites.
"As each new group becomes eligible, the demand goes up and the appointments just fill up really fast," said Alan Wolf, a spokesman.
The arrival of 10,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week has helped Duke University Health System cut its waiting list for vaccinations in half, to under 20,000, said Dr. Thomas Owens, senior vice president. Someone added to the list on Monday would likely wait less than seven days to get an appointment, Owens said.
"I don't know how many people are going to come forward with this next step," he said, "so we imagine there could be some bump up in that lag time."
So far, the demand for COVID-19 vaccine has outstripped supply in North Carolina, and that will likely remain the case as eligibility is opened to everyone 16 and older.
But Owens said the vaccine shortage won't last forever, and people shouldn't let it discourage them from seeking an appointment or getting on a waiting list.
"We want to start getting the message out that the vaccine supply is improving," he said. "If the deliveries continue as are projected over the next month to month and a half, we're hopeful that there will be vaccine for everyone who wants to get vaccinated in North Carolina."
Despite the expected increase in demand, hospital systems in the Raleigh-Durham area don't plan to big changes in the way they distribute vaccine.
WakeMed, for example, will continue to vaccinate about 5,000 people a week by appointment at the Andrews Conference Center on its main campus. WakeMed provides another 500 to 2,000 vaccinations a week through special events at churches, community centers and businesses.
So far, the hospitals have offered the Pfizer vaccine, which requires a follow-up dose, but will switch to the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week.
In the early weeks of public vaccinations, just about the only place to get inoculated was through a hospital or public health department. That has changed, with more pharmacies and primary care physicians and clinics having vaccine to offer, which has taken some of the burden off hospitals.
"I do think demand will continue to remain high, but it's so nice to have others helping vaccinate the community," said Amanda Edwards, who is leading WakeMed's vaccination effort. "There are multiple pathways for anyone to get vaccine at this point, so it's nice to have more options for everyone."