RALEIGH, N.C., — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday said he is extending North Carolina’s modified stay-at-home order for three weeks, including a curfew, while the state’s top health official issued her own order to direct people to only leave home for essential activities.

The stay-at-home order requires people to stay home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. It now will expire Jan. 29 at 5 p.m.

North Carolina has been under Phase 3 of restrictions since the fall, an executive order that has been extended several times. Cooper’s executive order was set to expire Friday.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, also issued a directive telling people to stay home unless they are going to work, school, to exercise, to attend to health care needs or to get groceries.

“Simply put, don’t go places indoors where people aren’t wearing masks,” Cooper said.

Cooper on Wednesday said vaccine distribution is his administration’s “top priority,” but he and Cohen also warned that it will be months before the state will receive enough vaccine to stop the pandemic, heightening the importance of other public health measures.

“It will take many months to vaccinate everyone who wants it. Until then, I don’t want to lose any more North Carolinians to this pandemic,” Cohen said.

The orders come as all but four counties are considered red or orange under North Carolina’s coronavirus alert system, including 84 with critical spread. Last month, 65 were classified as having critical levels of community spread.

Orange and Chatham counties are among those four counties that are considered “yellow,” for significant community spread. Wake and Durham are in the orange category, for substantial.

The strain COVID-19 is having on local hospitals is among the factors North Carolina considers for the county alert system. Many hospitals throughout North Carolina are scaling back elective surgeries and shifting duties as COVID-19 numbers spike.

“This is the most worried I’ve been through this pandemic. I think our hospitals are managing, but it’s going to take all of our work to make sure we don’t overwhelm our hospitals,” Cohen said.

The last executive order extension in December included the addition of the curfew. Phase 3 includes restrictions on capacity at restaurants and bars, and bars must be outside only. On-site alcohol sales also stop at 9 p.m., as part of the latest executive order, though Cooper later said bars and restaurants could sell mixed drinks to-go.

However there are many exemptions, including for essential workers, work commutes, childcare, medical needs, grocery shopping and getting food or gas.

North Carolina has remained under a statewide mask mandate since June.

North Carolina’s rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has received criticism in many places, including the state’s General Assembly. The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and N.C. Health Choice plans to discuss “planning and execution” of the state’s vaccine distribution during a Jan. 12 committee hearing.

In a Wednesday morning update of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s state-by-state vaccine data, North Carolina’s vaccination rate was 39th in the country, at 1,162 doses per 100,000 residents. That was up slightly from Monday’s data.

Wednesday, the CDC reported that North Carolina has administered 121,881 “first doses” of vaccine so far, an increase of 20,530 from Monday’s CDC report.

Cohen, during a Tuesday afternoon interview with The News & Observer, said there isn’t any specific reason why the state’s vaccine rollout has been slow. She pointed to several factors, including that the process began just before year-end holidays, difficulties around data entry and, in some cases, providers lacking the personnel to actually administer doses.

The state started taking steps this week to hasten the vaccination process, with Cooper mobilizing the National Guard to help provide vaccine in urban areas with large medical facilities, as well as in underserved rural areas.

DHHS also sent a memo to health departments and hospitals saying that future allocations of vaccine from the state’s supply would be, in part, dictated by how much a provider has already used.

DHHS plans to launch a hotline this week that people can call to learn about the vaccine and to better understand where they can seek out a shot. The DHHS hotline will not be used to book appointments, Cohen said.

Federally qualified health centers will be the next group that is trained to provide vaccine, Cohen said, with more providers coming online as North Carolina moves to additional phases.

“That will be another opportunity and another access point for people across North Carolina as we move into our next phases,” Cohen said.

©2021 The News & Observer. Visit at newsobserver.com. Distributed at Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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