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By Anne Blythe

Two very different messages about the coronavirus pandemic came from two different podiums in North Carolina on Thursday.

In Greenville, at the Greenville-Pitt Airport, President Donald Trump downplayed the pandemic to the crowd gathered for a campaign rally.

“North Carolina, tell your governor open up your state, open up your schools,” Trump said.

After talking about the therapeutics he received after contracting COVID-19 and laying out his vaccine schedule, Trump said the pandemic “is ending anyway. It’s going to peter out and it’s going to end.”

In Raleigh, Gov. Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, stood at a podium that same afternoon and presented a more dire narrative of the impact COVID-19 is having on the state.

On Thursday, North Carolina reported 2,532 new lab-confirmed cases, the highest daily count thus far.

“We’re reporting our highest day of cases since this pandemic has begun,” Cohen said when asked about the president’s depiction. “It doesn’t feel like petering out to me.”

Cohen presented North Carolina’s trends and metrics during a briefing with reporters on Thursday, repeating the same summary she gave earlier this week.

“We are moving in the wrong direction,” Cohen said.

The number of people showing up to emergency departments with COVID-19 symptoms has been on the rise for several weeks. Not only are the number of cases on a sharper rise than Cohen would like to see, more people are being hospitalized again.

On Thursday, there were 1,140 people suffering from serious illness related to COVID-19 in hospital beds across the state, up from 921 just two weeks ago on Oct. 1.  Though there remains capacity in the state’s health care system, Cohen said some of the smaller hospitals are feeling the pinch and worried about being overwhelmed with more cases.

“Recently, like much of the country and other parts of the world, we’ve seen higher numbers,” Cooper said. “It will be important to continue to watch these numbers over a 14 day period, but one thing is clear. North Carolinians must be even more vigilant in our effort to prevent the spread of this virus. Complacency will cost lives and hurt our economy. It’s up to every one of us to continue wearing masks, social distancing and using good judgment.”

Cooper and Cohen have said there is no one event, part of the state or specific industry causing the hike in cases. Some of it can be traced to people letting their guard down and not keeping masks on in gatherings with family or close friends.

What about the weather?

The change of season also can have an impact.

“As we are seeing a change in weather, we’re seeing both lower temperatures and lower humidity,” Cohen said. “The virus likes that. So that, in and of itself, is giving the virus more opportunities to spread in the same settings in which people already were.”

People are retreating to indoor settings more as the temperatures drop, and the virus spreads more easily in such confined places.

“But it is also just the sheer fact that the temperature is lower and the humidity is lower that makes it more conducive for this virus to spread,” Cohen said.

Despite being asked multiple times, Cooper would not speculate about what could happen in a week, when his executive order that moved the state into Phase 3 of his reopening plan is set to expire.

The order allowed bars, theaters, amusement parks to open on a limited basis. Bars can have outdoor service only.

First flu death of new season

For weeks, Cooper and Cohen have urged North Carolinians to get flu shots, especially since the pandemic is not showing signs of abatement.

DHHS reported the first flu-related death of the season that started in September and extends through May 2021.

The person who died was older than 65, according to a DHHS news release, and the death happened in the central part of the state.

During this past flu season, there were 186 deaths reported with 105 of the people ages 65 and older. Five deaths were children younger than 18.

“This is a sad reminder that flu can be a serious illness and can lead to complications and even death in some cases,” Zack Moore, the state epidemiologist, said in a statement. “With flu season starting during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever for people to get a flu vaccine this year.”

Rolling out COVID-19 vaccine plan 

Trump said at the Greenville rally that hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 vaccines would be ready by the end of the year, though no trial yet has resulted in a request to the Food and Drug Administration for an emergency-use authorization.

Johnson and Johnson, which is running a Phase 3 clinical trial with 60,000 participants, paused its study this week “due to an unexplained illness in a study participant,” according to a statement issued by the company. “Following our guidelines, the participant’s illness is being reviewed and evaluated by the ENSEMBLE independent Data Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB) as well as our internal clinical and safety physicians.”

AstraZeneca temporarily stopped its COVID-19 vaccine trial in early September after a participant developed serious neurological symptoms.

Though the trial has resumed again in some countries, it has yet to in the United States because of questions the FDA had about some of the data.

Other trials are underway, too. North Carolina and other states have been instructed by federal authorities to develop vaccine distribution plans so that if and when a safe and effective one becomes available, there will be protocols in place for who gets the inoculations first and how they will be moved and stored across the state.

Cohen and Cooper said North Carolina’s plan is likely to be ready on Friday.

“We look forward to the day when a safe and effective vaccine comes down,” Cooper said. “We’ve got to keep working until that time. We also know that it will take a while to distribute the vaccine and we have to set priorities.”

“We’ll be making sure we take care of at-risk frontline health care workers, at-risk staff at nursing homes, people in nursing homes,” Cooper added. “We’ll be ready to reveal that tomorrow.”

Cohen said at the briefing that she thought it was a good sign that some trials had been paused. Such a step, she said, showed “us that the process is working.”

“They are looking to make sure that all of these vaccines that would come out of these trials that would go for approval are going to be safe and effective,” Cohen said. “So I think the process is working as intended.”

Even after a vaccine is approved, Cohen stressed, “there is only going to be a limited supply.”

“So we’re going to have to prioritize certain folks who will be able to get access to that vaccine at first,” Cohen said. “Then they would be working on ramping up manufacturing of that vaccine over a period of time.”

Cohen repeated what she has said on other occasions when asked about the likelihood of a vaccine either before Election Day or later this year. Earlier this year, Trump said a vaccine would be ready around Election Day, a statement that top public health officials disputed, leaving many to wonder whether the approval process would be politicized and cause safety measures to be skirted.

“A lot more … scientific work still to come, and data for us still to look at,” Cohen said.

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:

  • 3,874 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 238,939 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,140 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, 3,493,186 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.
  • 364 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,423 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 958 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital. As of Tuesday, 311 suspected COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.

Anne Blythe

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.