A sizable group of North Carolina college students will be eligible for a vaccine in April, under guidance from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

When North Carolina drafted its initial COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan in October 2020, college students were listed as a priority, just ahead of the general public. When schools reopened in August, the cohort proved it had the ability to rapidly contribute to community spread and fuel outbreaks through off-campus parties.

But in January, North Carolina bumped the group from the priority list amid a backlash from state lawmakers and encouragement from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to give stronger preference to older adults and those working in certain job sectors.

On Tuesday, health officials released a statement saying college students who live on campus or in other congregate settings will be able to receive starting on April 7, regardless of their age, health condition, or employment status. The students are included in Phase 4b of the state's COVID-19 vaccination plan, which also includes essential workers not yet vaccinated.

During a Wednesday news conference, state health department secretary Mandy Cohen signaled that college students not living in a dorm or apartment would get their shot a few weeks after those who live in more compact housing environments.

“We want to prioritize those in congregate settings,” Cohen said. “We know that's where the virus spreads fastest, so that is why we're doing that prioritization. I don't think there's going to be a huge time difference."

Starting Wednesday, medically vulnerable residents who have long waited for a vaccine and are at least 16 years old can get a shot if they have at least one of 18 eligible health conditions that may put them at risk of severe illness if they become infected with the virus. The medically at-risk and those who are homeless or incarcerated are the first populations prioritized under Phase 4a. The state is on track to make all remaining adults not yet vaccinated eligible by May 1.

Since the start of the fall semester, college students have become a major vector for transmission. A surge in cases at UNC-Chapel Hill sparked national attention and prompted the college to shut down in-person instruction for undergraduate students after one week of classes and have students leave their dorms and return back home.

Duke University announced this weekend that it would impose a weeklong campus lockdown following a string of new infections the university has mostly blamed on fraternity rush activities. The number of COVID-19 cases reported last week nearly matched the total number of cases the university recorded during the entire fall semester.

Duke has seen a total of 556 positive cases among students since the start of 2021. UNC has reported having 666 infected students this year, while North Carolina State University has seen 1,068 positive diagnoses.

Many colleges have started making students aware of their vaccine eligibility. At Elon University, the university has a vaccine section on its website that says, “Students, staff, and faculty are strongly encouraged to get the vaccine wherever and whenever it is available to them," noting that students in dorms or apartments are eligible on April 7.

Chris Marsicano, a professor at Davidson College and director of the College Crisis Initiative, urges additional campuses to provide clear messaging to help students understand when they will be eligible for vaccinations.

“I know we've been telling students for months now, ‘Just hold on. We're so close,'” Marsicano said. “We really are so close now. We're at the end of the fourth quarter. Just hold on a little bit longer until you can get that vaccine.”

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