By Anne Blythe

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, sounded an alarm on Wednesday, cautioning North Carolinians that COVID-19 metrics are trending the wrong way.

On Wednesday, the state reported 1,011 new laboratory-confirmed cases, among the higher day-over-day increases reported during the pandemic. During the past week, the number of new lab-confirmed cases has consistently exceeded 1,000.

On Wednesday, 780 were reported as hospitalized with serious COVID-19 illness, representing the highest number so far, an increase that has public health officials at the state and national levels troubled by the data and metrics they are seeing.

“I’ve been ringing the warning bell this week, to say ‘Look, our trends had been going in the right direction, let’s jump on this now and see if we can make those trends go back to level and decline, and not continue to see them go in the wrong direction,’” Cohen told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday.

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The state eased social distancing restrictions on May 22, and in the nearly three weeks since then, people across the state have been moving about more freely.

There have been mass protests against police brutality and systemic racism in the wake of the recorded George Floyd killing in Minnesota. More businesses are open and some people have blatantly defied executive orders issued by Gov. Roy Cooper restricting the size of crowds.

“Many of our neighboring states in the Southeast are seeing similar trends,” Cohen said. “It is a reminder that COVID-19 is still a powerful threat and that this virus is going to be with us for some time.”

Given that, the state is focusing on eight counties of concern, some of which are larger urban counties, but others in rural areas, and surging testing and tracing resources there.

Surge resources to eight counties

The counties of the state health department’s current surge focus are Alamance, Durham, Duplin, Forsyth, Johnston, Lee, Mecklenburg and Wake.

“While these are a few communities that we’re working to surge some additional tracing and capacity this week, we know there will be more to do,” Cohen said.

Last week, Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, called the state Department of Health and Human Services, with concerns about Mecklenburg and some of the counties on the state’s surge list.

COVID test rate counties
In a press briefing on June 10, state Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen expressed concern about the number of cases and the rate of cases in these eight counties. She also said that White House Coronavirus Task Force leader Deborah Birx had expressed concern about six counties, which were a “subset of these.” Table data: NC DHHS

Cohen said the White House task force, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal health department all use data sets and attend to trends that each are slightly different.

The state tries to glean information and guidance from all those sources and then shape a plan that takes into account a clearer picture of what is happening in North Carolina.

“We are closer to the ground and we rely on our local health departments that really are at the tip of the spear to tell us what’s going on in their individual communities,” Cohen said.

In Johnston County, Marilyn Pearson, the county health director, spoke this week about a spike in cases that pushed her to ask the state for more contact tracing and testing support.

In Forsyth County, the increase in cases has been tied in part to an outbreak at a meat processing plant in a nearby county.

The state has more than 400 testing sites, but has put out a request for proposals from companies or organizations that can help with increased testing and tracing in communities of color.

screenshot of the NC COVID testing site finder homepage
Click on the image to go to the NC Find My Testing Place website.

During the past month, North Carolina has more than tripled the daily testing average from 5,000 per day to 15,000 per day.

“Now we need to make sure people are going to those testing sites and getting tested,” Cohen said.

Though some of the increase in lab-confirmed cases is due to more testing, the percentage of overall tests coming back positive also has gone up recently.

“What we’re seeing across our state, we’re seeing trends go up in lots of places,” Cohen said.

North Carolina is one of 14 states that have hit new highs on their seven-day averages, according to an analysis published by The Washington Post. The other states are: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah. In addition, Puerto Rico hit daily highs this week.

Earlier this week, Cohen and Cooper shifted their messaging to urge North Carolinians to wear face coverings, continue to distance themselves in public, and wash their hands so that schools could reopen in August as planned.

“What our goal is overall is really to keep that virus spread low so we can continue to reignite the economy and ease restrictions,” Cohen said. “We all play a part in doing that. Right? Whether it’s the individual action of the three Ws or it’s the recognition of ‘Oh, I went to a protest and I’m going to go get tested this week.’

“All of those actions are going to help us keep the virus level low, identify where there might be increasing spread, and try to surge resources to those communities so we can stay ahead of things as best we can.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday morning:

  • 1,053 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 38,171 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 780 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
  • 23,653 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious.
  • More than 553,000 tests have been completed thus far, though not all labs report their negative results to the state, so the actual number of completed COVID-19 tests is likely higher.
  • Most of the cases (45 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 15 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 82 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 182 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,216 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 902 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.