By Anne Blythe

If North Carolinians want to keep going to restaurants and retail stores through the winter, now is not the time to let coronavirus pandemic fatigue give way to less mask wearing and social distancing.

That was the message from Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, who acknowledged Tuesday that the state’s trends and metrics are going in the wrong direction.

ad reminding readers to support our COVID coverage

No single event has sparked the flare-up, she said.

“This has been a long and challenging year,” Cohen said during a briefing with reporters. “It’s hard to imagine that we didn’t know a year ago that this virus even existed.”

Over the past seven months, science, research and hands-on experience treating people sickened by COVID-19 has put the state in a much better place to know what works to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“Right now, like much of the country and the rest of the world, our trends are moving in the wrong direction,” Cohen said. “Our cases are up, our hospitalizations are up, and our early surveillance data is up.”

In mid-August, when universities opened to in-person learning and on-campus living, North Carolina’s case count jumped after dropping for weeks since a July peak.

“Our current worsening trends don’t link to any one place, any one age group or any one type of activity,” Cohen said. “Overall, we’re seeing that when people follow the three Ws, the virus is less likely to spread. And when people don’t wear a mask and don’t stay physically apart, this virus spreads.”

The virus spread has happened when people get together in groups or in their homes, as well as in businesses and religious settings that do not follow health and safety guidance specific to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We need to do all we can to turn these trends around,” Cohen said. “We do not want to have to go backwards.”

Lynn Minges, president and chief executive officer of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, and Andy Ellen, president of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, spoke at the briefing about what restaurants and local shops and stores have been doing to stay open while trying to keep employees, diners and shoppers safe.

Minges has spoken before about the Count on Me NC program that her association launched in late May, when Gov. Roy Cooper eased the statewide stay-at-home order to allow for limited indoor dining and safety protocols.

Ellen encouraged people to shop locally for the coming holiday seasons but to do so with face masks, physical distancing and rigorous hand washing so the state does not have to reverse course on business reopenings to prevent health care systems from becoming overwhelmed.

On Tuesday, the state DHHS COVID dashboard reported that 1,103 people were in the hospital with serious illness related to COVID-19. More than 300 of those people are in intensive care.

“Since COVID began in mid-March, the main priority for North Carolina retailers has been to ensure the safety of their staff and their customers,” Ellen said. “Many retailers were closed for weeks and are just now beginning to get back to some sense of normalcy.”

The retailers have done frequent cleanings as they reopen, according to Ellen, installed plexiglass as virus barriers, adopted social distancing procedures and required face masks to enter their establishments.

“I want to remind retailers to continue to comply with these guidelines as if COVID just began,” Ellen said. “As we head into the holiday shopping season, North Carolina’s brick-and-mortar retailers need your business now more than ever.”

“Right now many businesses are struggling just to survive,” Ellen added. “They need a strong shopping season and cannot afford for us to let our state slip backwards in how we handle COVID. So please do your part. Go get your flu shot at your pharmacy, an easy in and out, and shop smart. Help your local retailers, the backbone of your community by practicing the three Ws. Wear your mask, wait six feet apart and wash your hands.”

Andy Ellen, president of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association, urged people to wear masks and practice social distancing so that businesses could remain open and functioning during a press conference Tuesday afternoon. Screenshot courtesy: UNC TV

Trump to rally in NC again

This renewed focus on the three Ws comes as President Donald Trump, back on the campaign trail after being sidelined by a COVID-19 infection and related hospitalization, is scheduled to hold a rally at the Pitt-Greenville Airport on Thursday.

The push also comes as some kindergartners through fifth-graders across the state are returning to in-person classes inside their elementary schools for five days each week.

Some school districts are offering online instruction only while others are offering a mix of online and in-person classes.

Early in-person voting begins Thursday in North Carolina, also.

“I know that folks are weary of this virus and folks have been doing good on the three Ws, but maybe are getting a little tired of it,” Cohen said. “We are also starting to see a change in the season now, which is what we’re seeing around the country and around the world. We’re just seeing more opportunities for this virus to spread.”

The increase in cases and hospitalizations also comes almost a week and a half after the state entered Phase 3 of the reopening plan, allowing bars with outdoor seating, amusement parks, movie theaters, sports stadiums and other entertainment venues to open with limitations on Oct. 2.

That easing of restrictions happened even though North Carolina emergency department surveillance data showed at the time a slight uptick in people arriving with COVID-19 symptoms.

Gov. Roy Cooper said then that he was allowing the limited re-openings of some of the activities deemed to be among the riskiest for infection spread while “cautiously encouraged about where we are in this pandemic.”

Cohen plans to give an update on the trends and metrics on Thursday, she said, but stressed more often than usual about the importance of getting behind the face mask, as well as physical distancing and hand washing.

When asked whether previous Trump rallies, such as the ones at a Winston-Salem airport on Sept. 8 and at a Cumberland County airport on Sept. 19, had resulted in COVID-19 infections, Cohen said it has been difficult to figure out how widespread the problem might be since many people ignore the calls of contact tracers.

Many at the rallies, including the president himself, ignored calls for face masks and social distancing measures.

That area of the state now accounts for 233 of the state’s 1,103 hospitalizations.

“We do try to get in touch with every single person here in North Carolina who has COVID and understand their source of exposure,” Cohen said. “But, not everyone picks up the phone and works with us, and when they do they are not always sharing all those details. What we have been able to figure out is that there are certain events that folks have been to, whether they are political events or large gatherings with folks who are close together and not wearing masks, where this virus spreads.”

Trump announced in the early hours of Oct. 2 that he and his wife Melania had tested positive for COVID-19, but there has been little revealed about any White House contact tracing measures for where the infection might have occurred.

Many who attended a White House event to announce the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat held by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg since have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, was at the event and wore a face covering while outside, but was photographed inside without one while talking with Barrett and with one of her children. Tillis tested positive for COVID-19, according to an announcement on his Twitter account.

“I think we learned that from Washington D.C. and the White House itself,” Cohen said. “When you are close together and without masks, this virus spreads.”

In Florida on Monday, Trump held his first rally since his hospitalization. Neither he nor many in the crowd, supporters packed close together at the Sanford airport, wore face masks.

Cohen and Cooper have stressed that they would like all visitors to the state, whether they are political candidates or others, to follow the measures that have been proven to slow the spread of the virus.

“We really need to be working hard all together on those three Ws,” Cohen said. “And if you are positive, pick up the phone so you can work with your local health department so they can identify people you may have been exposed to and we can make sure that others know they may have been exposed to COVID.”

Will NC follow NY targeted tamp downs?

In New York, which early in the pandemic saw its health care systems overwhelmed with people severely ill from COVID-19 infection, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is employing a regional system to tamp out hot spots flaring again after the state got its infection rate down to 1 percent.

Cuomo, who has written “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” a book just published chronicling what he has learned since March while offering a path forward, has ordered the closing of restaurants, schools, businesses and mass gatherings in houses of worship in some ZIP codes while not putting the whole state through a lockdown.

Cohen, who grew up on Long Island not far from some of the city hotspots, was asked whether North Carolina might employ a similar bulls-eye strategy.

“Right now any of our local municipalities can do more,” Cohen responded. “I encourage them to look at the metrics on our dashboard. We make sure that data is both at the county level and down to the ZIP code level to allow local officials to look at that and use some of their additional authority to do exactly what you’re saying: ’Should we think about some more targeted restrictions where we’re seeing higher cases.’”

Cohen encouraged local officials to look at their own data and track along with the state to make sure they are employing all the tools they can to tamp down hot spots.

Some cities and counties set local curfews earlier this year, when the state did not. Some cities and counties have called for the halt of alcohol sales in restaurants earlier than the state’s 11 p.m. curfew for selling beer, wine and mixed drinks when bars were not open. The statewide curfew continues even as bars open at limited capacity.

“We are acting at a statewide level in trying to set a baseline for the state,” Cohen said. “Local officials, looking at their own data, I encourage them to think about what else they can do at the local level to be targeted. We can be targeted here in our efforts to try to slow the spread of this virus.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • 3,816 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 234,481 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,103 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.
  • 206,471 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. Nor does it reflect the number of so-called “long-haul” survivors of COVID who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
  • To date, 3,437,598 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so that figure includes all of the COVID-19 tests performed in the state.
  • People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (40 percent). While 13 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 81 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 366 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,398 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 913 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital. As of Tuesday, 306 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

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.