North Carolina may be nearing an easing of some Phase Three pandemic socioeconomic restrictions by early March.
Gov. Roy Cooper said during his COVID-19 update Thursday that he and his administration expect to announce next week their plans. Some of the restrictions have been in place since Oct. 2.
Several restrictions in Cooper's executive orders are set to expire at 5 p.m. Feb. 28, including the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. statewide stay-at-home curfew, along with limits on public gatherings, such as retail.
The curfew order requires restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, personal care businesses and others to end all on-premises services at 10 p.m. Take-out, delivery, drive-thru and curbside services are permitted during the curfew hours.
The order also stops on-premises alcohol sales at 9 p.m., whether at a bar or restaurant, or by a vendor. Takeout and delivery services have remained available.
"All of the restrictions that are in place now ... all of these are on the table to be considered," Cooper said.
"Health officials are examining the data and looking at the science, talking to people in other states. They will continue to look at our (COVID-19) numbers ... as we look at the next executive order."
Cooper cautioned that easing restrictions will depend in large part on North Carolinians continuing to adhere to the 3 Ws and avoiding large public gatherings.
Whatever steps Cooper decides to take, he said "there will be continued restrictions in place to protect public health."
Cooper said that many coronavirus metrics are stabilizing, although still at elevated levels.
The daily statewide case counts, hospitalizations and positive test rate have dropped recently to levels seen in mid-to-late November.
"Day by day, North Carolina is making progress," Cooper said. "This is good news.
"We'll be examining other improving data as we work on the next executive order, but we must still keep our guard up."
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services issued new guidance this week to health-care systems and county health departments that allow them to restrict some non-North Carolinians from being vaccinated in the state.
Cooper said the new guidance allows vaccine providers in North Carolina to "be a bit more restrictive and focus mostly on North Carolinians."
The guidance is based on an update from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are provided by the federal government, individuals are not limited to the county or state of residence to get vaccinated.
"The CDC has stated that to achieve the public health objectives of ensuring the health, safety and welfare of all Americans, states and providers must distribute or administer vaccine without discriminating on non-public-health grounds within a prioritized group," DHHS said in a statement.
However, DHHS said CDC guidelines now say "it is permissible to allow limitations to vaccine based on public-health grounds" that include emphasizing "protecting the health of North Carolinians by preventing transmission within North Carolina."
"To achieve this, we must vaccinate as many people who reside or spend time in North Carolina and promote equity in vaccine distribution. We must ensure we have a vaccine supply for reaching priority populations, including historically marginalized populations."
That means continuing to provide vaccine to individuals "who spend significant time in North Carolina and are able to spread the virus in North Carolina. (They) should be vaccinated when and where they have access to vaccine."
CDC and DHHS define significant time to include individuals who have a residence and/or live, work and receive on-going health care in North Carolina.
"It is permissible to not offer vaccine to temporary travelers who do not reside, work or spend significant time in North Carolina," DHHS said.
That includes individuals coming to North Carolina" for the main purpose of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine and then returning to another state."
Joshua Swift, Forsyth's health director, said Feb. 11 that about 74% of the doses provided by the department were given to Forsyth residents. The remaining 25% were given to people from 65 other counties, along with 14 states.
Group Three impact
Cooper said state health officials don't expect a delay in this week's first vaccine dose supplies to affect the Group Three appointments slated to begin Feb. 24.
The first Group Three round of vaccinations will be aimed at 240,000 teachers and educators, which includes child care centers, pre-K administrators, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, Head Start programs, preschool and pre-K programs.
There are about 345,000 North Carolinians in the other Group Three frontline essential worker sectors. Appointments could begin for those individuals on March 10.
The sectors include: food-processing and medical equipment manufacturing; food and agriculture supply chains; essential goods; government and community services; public health and social worker; public safety, first responders and law enforcement; and transportation.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state's health secretary, has acknowledged there will be a limited number of vaccination doses available for the first segment of Group Three until the state's vaccine supply increases significantly.
"What (DHHS) is going to do is work with (vaccine) providers to see how the process with educators goes, and learn before any decisions are made about the other frontline essential workers on March 10," Cooper said.