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'I felt a sense of relief' | North Carolina opens vaccine appointments to front-line essential workers

Gov. Roy Cooper announced North Carolina will open COVID-19 vaccine appointments for all essential front-line workers starting Wednesday, March 3.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One year after North Carolina reported its first lab-confirmed case of COVID-19, all essential front-line workers are eligible to get vaccinated against the disease. 

They're the employees who have not been able to work from home or slow down, so that some aspects of life could remain business as usual.

Some have witnessed first hand the hardships local families have faced because of the pandemic.

"In 2020 with almost no volunteers we fed 120,000 people," said Paige Stryker, IT director for Loaves and Fishes. She can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Working for Loaves and Fishes makes her an essential frontline worker. Wednesday morning, she scheduled a vaccine appointment for later in the week.

"I'm just so excited to move forward and kind of be able to escape what we've all been dealing with for the past year. I felt a sense of relief that finally there's an answer, there's a solution for the pain and hurt this illness has caused a lot of Americans," she said.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday that the state was opening vaccine appointments to the remainder of Group 3 one week ahead of the previously announced date of March 10. Now, pharmacies across North Carolina, in stores like Walgreens and Harris Teeter, have some appointments available, including some this week.  

“The state and our providers continue to work extremely hard to get people vaccinated in a way that’s fast and fair,” Cooper said. “The third vaccine and improving vaccine supply will help us get more people vaccinated more quickly. Our essential front-line workers have remained on the job throughout this pandemic and I am grateful for their work.”

Group 3 includes first responders and emergency personnel such as police and firefighters, people who work in-person in manufacturing, food and agriculture, grocery stores, government workers, and clergy, among others. The state will begin Group 4 vaccinations on March 24. 

"They're ready to feel like they have some protection. Our clerks are required to wait on customers even without masks, and they have these plastic shields up but that doesn't protect everything," said Miriam Bell, a Charlotte-area USPS worker and president of the local APWU chapter. 

Postal workers are among those that became eligible to get vaccinated on Wednesday.

"While I might get COVID and I'm okay, you could get covid and you could suffer debilitating illness from it or even lose your life. I think its important that people who can be vaccinated are," said Bell.

Allowing more people to get the vaccine is good news and shows vaccine distribution is gaining momentum. But, getting an appointment will be more competitive until the supply grows.

"While we're going to move into group 3, if the amount of vaccine allocation remains the same our efforts can't really be expanded," Dr. Jerome Williams with Novant Health said.

And until there's enough vaccine for everyone who wants it, those working on the front lines will be better protected.

"It's going to help us feel safer when we're in the community providing these necessary services and it's also going to help us provide more services because we'll be able to be better available in different pockets in the community," said Stryker.

Read more details about North Carolina's Vaccination Group 3 and Group 4.

Cooper received his first COVID-19 vaccine dose on Wednesday. He is eligible under group 3 because he is an elected official.

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As the race to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible continues, tens of thousands of doses of the recently approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine will arrive in North Carolina Wednesday. State health leaders are expecting more than 80,000 doses, with 10,000 of them going to Mecklenburg County's health department. Those 10,000 shots will be shared with Atrium Health and Novant Health, the area's two largest health care providers. 

"When you've been vaccinated you are incredibly well protected from covid. And as more and more people in our communities are vaccinated, we can get back to life," said Dr. David Priest with Novant Health.

The Mecklenburg County Health Department will begin booking appointments from March 10-31 starting at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, March 4. 

"I think the main point here is that this is a fluid process as we learn more about what vaccine is available, and I think all of us are working as hard as we can to get those folks who need to be vaccinated," Health Director Gibbie Harris said.

State officials say people who can work from home should wait to get vaccinated with Group 4 if they qualify then or later.

RELATED: Enough COVID vaccine for every US adult by end of May, Biden says

RELATED: Mecklenburg County to open more COVID-19 vaccine appointments Thursday

Have a relative or friend in another state and want to know when they can get vaccinated? Visit NBC News' Plan Your Vaccine site to find out about each state's vaccine rollout plan.

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