Nearly a month after COVID-19 vaccines made it to North Carolina, the state has administered only a quarter of the doses it has on hand — one of the slowest roll-outs in the country.

Lawmakers grilled the Cooper administration over its slow handling of vaccine distribution during a General Assembly oversight committee on Tuesday, Jan. 12. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen rebuffed the questioners, saying now is not the time to criticize crisis management. 

As vaccine doses remain on ice, North Carolina is facing a renewed surge of the virus. Nearly 4,000 people are in the hospital with COVID, near an all-time high, and the state has reported record high numbers of new cases over the past few weeks.

By the numbers 

The state’s Department of Health and Human Services reports 257,165 doses of the vaccine have been administered as of Monday, according to data presented to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and N.C. Health Choice. That represents under 28% of the more than 830,000 doses North Carolina has received — placing the state at No. 43 nationally, according to data compiled by Bloomberg

The vast majority of the doses have gone to health care workers, who are part of Phase 1A under the Cooper administration’s guidelines for distribution. Roughly half of the recipients are between the ages of 25 and 49, 65% are women, and 81% are white. About 40,000 vaccine doses have gone to people in long-term care facilities through the state’s partnership with CVS and Walgreens. 

Some parts of the state have moved into Phase 1B, which include people age 75 or older.

Why so slow?

A key reason vaccine distribution has been delayed is the method the Cooper administration has used to roll out doses across the state. North Carolina has relied heavily on counties to handle distribution, much like it does with disaster relief. 

This decision was made despite North Carolina being criticized for its slow distribution of hurricane recovery funds in 2018 and 2019. The federal government labeled North Carolina a “slow spender” of money to recover from Hurricane Matthew, and a report by the Program Evaluation Division of the General Assembly slammed the Cooper Administration’s “administrative missteps and lack of expertise.”

The COVID vaccine distribution appears to be similar. So far, some counties have moved quickly, while others have been slow to distribute doses, Cohen told the General Assembly. 

On Tuesday, lawmakers asked why the Cooper administration chose the county model for COVID vaccine distribution given its troubled past. They also called on executive branch officials to move with more urgency.

“The administration had 10 months to draft and refine a plan to distribute a vaccine that everybody in the world knew was in development, but they didn’t even effectively plan for something as simple as what to do when too many people call asking to schedule their vaccination,” said Sen. Joyce Krawiec, a Republican from Forsyth County and chairwoman of Tuesday’s oversight committee hearing. “The status quo is completely unacceptable.”