University’s frontline essential workers next in vaccine line

Here’s what Carolina’s frontline essential workers need to know about their next steps to getting a COVID-19 vaccination.

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccination at the UNC Health clinic at the Friday Center.
A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccination at the UNC Health clinic at the Friday Center. (Photo courtesy UNC Health)

This story was updated Jan. 28 based on new information from the NC DHHS.

The University is putting Group 3, defined by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services as “frontline essential workers,” in position to receive a COVID-19 vaccination when the state authorizes them to do so.

Since December, campus Environment, Health and Safety has been sending names of employees in Group 1 — health care workers and long-term care staff and residents — to the DHHS as verification of their eligibility for the vaccine. Those employees, ranging from doctors to housekeepers in frontline health care jobs or in health care clinical settings, have been receiving vaccinations.

Now, as vaccinations for Group 2 — adults 65 years of age and older — are underway, many on campus wonder how Carolina’s frontline essential workers in Group 3 are defined and become eligible for vaccinations.

Advocacy for employees

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Provost Robert Blouin and three faculty members from the Gillings School of Global Public Health who serve on DHHS advisory committees ─ Leah Devlin, James Thomas and Douglas Urland ─ have advocated with the state for inclusion of University instructors and support staff who teach in-person, including graduate teaching assistants, and frontline support staff members in early phases of the rollout. Their advocacy paid off: DHHS released a new prioritization framework on Jan. 14 that includes higher education in-person faculty and support staff as essential workers.

The prioritization framework outlines who is eligible to receive the vaccine and in what order. Eligibility in some groups depends on job function, such as a health care worker or essential worker. Individual characteristics, such as age or underlying health conditions, define other groups.

“We are continuing to advocate to DHHS and with Orange County and UNC Health to move individuals who are at the frontline so that they are in line and ready to receive the vaccine whenever their time comes up,” Chancellor Guskiewicz told the Carolina Community Advisory Committee on Jan. 21.

Who’s in Group 3?

As defined by the state in its revised guidelines issued on Jan. 22, Group 3 workers would have to be in-person at their place of work and work in one of the eight essential sectors. The sectors and examples are:

  • critical manufacturing (workers who manufacture medical supplies or PPE);
  • education (child care staff, K-12 teachers and support staff, college and university instructors and support staff);
  • essential goods (workers in stores that sell groceries and medicine);
  • food and agriculture (meat packing, food processing, farm workers, migrant/fishery workers, food distribution and supply chain workers, restaurant workers);
  • government and community services (U.S. Postal Service and other shipping workers, court workers, elected officials, clergy, homeless shelter staff);
  • health care and public health (public health workers, social workers);
  • public safety (firefighters, EMS, law enforcement, correction workers, security officers, public agency workers responding to abuse and neglect); and
  • transportation (workers in public transit, division of motor vehicles, maintenance and repair, highway infrastructure).

An opaque situation

In the CCAC meeting, Dr. David Weber of UNC Health used the word “opaque” in referring to changing CDC guidelines and the lack of firm knowledge of how many doses are in the pipeline to clinics. “That makes it hard for clinics to scale up with only 24 hours’ notice of what’s coming in,” Weber said.

Weber wanted to allay fears, saying that allergic reactions have been rare at about 1 in 100,000.

He also reminded everyone that a vaccine is not a license to resume normal activities. “This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card like in Monopoly,” he said. “[You] don’t get to go out all that you want, but you should keep physical distancing, wearing a mask and staying with bubbles.”

Weber said that UNC Health would have to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people over 65 in Group 2 before vaccinations could begin with people in Group 3.

Learn the latest on vaccines from Carolina Together and Environment, Health and Safety.

Employee considerations

In the CCAC meeting, Blouin asked faculty and staff to encourage peers to get the vaccination. “Our campus will not be safe for all of us without a high percentage of people getting the vaccination,” he said.

Some CCAC members suggested that the University consider in its plans that employees work varying schedules with limited time outside of work and that some are without transportation to vaccine sites. The state announced Jan. 21 a program to help local transit agencies across North Carolina to pay for rides to vaccination sites.

What’s next for Group 3?

Cathy Brennan, executive director of Environment, Health and Safety, said that it’s hard to pin down when Group 3 employees will be vaccinated, especially with the Biden administration putting new plans into place.

North Carolina is currently vaccinating individuals in Groups 1 and 2, as those individuals are at the highest risk of exposure and severe illness.

When the state moves into Group 3, eligible essential workers will have options of where they can go to get a vaccine. For more information, visit the NC Vaccine Resources website and Deeper Dive on Group 3.

The University is anticipating final guidance from DHHS soon on how employers can ensure their employees who meet the criteria for Group 3 will be able to access the vaccine and is working to ensure Carolina is ready.

Details of vaccine supply and processes have changed frequently, Brennan said. “We’re trying to keep on top of it to make sure that we’re providing the best information to our campus community. [The vaccine process] has changed multiple times since we started tracking it in early December. And we anticipate that it’s going to continue to be like that.”

The University is also working with its own public health experts on effective vaccine communications, as well as targeted communications and outreach to students and employees who are Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Find the latest University-related vaccine news at the Carolina Together website and the EHS vaccinations page.