By Anne Blythe

While many questions linger after Election Day about key political races still not called in North Carolina, there is less ambiguity about one thing: The campaign rallies that brought candidates to this swing state in search of blue and red votes are expected to disappear.

COVID-19, however, shows no signs of going away any time soon.

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Gov. Roy Cooper, who emerged from the 2020 election on Nov. 3 a declared winner, had a briefing with reporters on Thursday to discuss the coronavirus pandemic and other things.

Cooper, a Democrat, beat back a challenge by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican who cast aspersions on the statewide mask mandate, as well as executive orders that closed businesses and schools early in the pandemic and reopened them only in very measured phases.

Throughout the campaign season, Cooper voiced his frustrations with how certain pandemic safety measures such as mask wearing and crowd-size limitations had become politicized.

When asked how that politicization might be reversed as COVID case numbers have been coming in at some 2,800 a day several times during the past week, Cooper said he hoped that would happen naturally.

“The election is over,” Cooper said. “We are now past that. I think most every North Carolinian, every American, is ready to move on from the rough-and-tumble election and to go about our business of trying to fight this pandemic, get better-paying jobs for people, get kids educated.

“I think it’s going to be a natural occurrence,” Cooper added. “We believe that since it won’t be part of campaigns anymore, more people will look at this holistically and will try to come together to slow the spread of the virus because I do believe that our economy and slowing the spread of this virus are tied together.”

Cooper said he hoped the focus now could be on improving the economy while also battling the pandemic.

“We won’t have the distraction of this election where the politicizing of the pandemic was central in many ways, and wearing a mask, whether you did it or not, seemed to be a political statement,” Cooper said. “Now we don’t have to worry about that. Hopefully, we can move forward with science and facts and making sure that we’re protecting the health and safety of North Carolinians.”

Highest day-over-day case count

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, presented North Carolina’s trends and metrics with a cautionary note.

“It’s concerning that we see high COVID cases across North Carolina,” Cohen said.

The number of people showing up at emergency departments with COVID-19 symptoms has declined over the past 14 days, Cohen said, but the number of lab-confirmed cases and the percentage of tests coming back positive trouble the public health team.

“We are experiencing our highest number of day-over-day cases since this pandemic began,” Cohen said.

Since September, the number of cases has been trending upward, Cohen added.

“Today, we once again surpassed 2,800 cases in just one day,” Cohen said. “And last week, we had three days where we reported more than 2,800 cases each day. These are our highest daily numbers so far.”

North Carolina is testing more as the weather gets colder and pushes more people indoors. The positivity rate hovers at 7 percent, which is higher than the 5-percent threshold that public health officials prefer.

The number of people hospitalized with severe illness related to COVID-19 has hovered between 1,100 and 1,200 for much of the past two weeks. Though there remains capacity in the health care systems, the high numbers come at a time when flu and other illnesses common in the late fall and winter often fill hospital beds, too.

Some advice about Thanksgiving

“I’m concerned that our numbers will trend even higher as people gather together for the holidays,” Cohen said. “While the safest thing we can do for our friends and family and loved ones is to avoid getting together in person, especially indoors.”

Cohen acknowledged how that runs counter to the traditions of many families and friends. “Folks want and need to be together during the holidays,” she said.

Her public health team will put out guidelines next week, she said, but for planning purposes, Cohen suggested that if anyone is thinking about a gathering with family or friends outside their immediate households to consider an outdoor gathering.

“If you have tables, have each group of folks who live together at their own table and keep tables at least six feet apart from one another,” Cohen said. “This is especially important as people will need to remove their masks when eating or drinking.”

Sink faucets, door handles and other commonly touched surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected regularly. Hand washing and mask wearing is also important.

Those who plan to travel or attend family gatherings should consider getting screened for coronavirus. But Cohen emphasized that a test only reflects a point in time and might fail to detect recently contracted virus or infection while traveling.

Cooper echoed Thursday what he has previously said. Though past Thanksgivings have typically meant the Cooper family gathered with others, this year the governor only will be with his immediate family.

Will federal aid come soon?

Like others across the state, Cooper awaits more North Carolina election results that will give a clearer picture of who will be in the White House, U.S. Congress and the state legislature. Those results are expected from the state Board of Elections on Nov. 12 or 13, when more concrete information will be released about the number of provisional and absentee ballots accepted that are not reflected in current vote counts.

Cooper not only hopes the pandemic will become less politicized. He also anxiously awaits additional federal funds, he said, that can help North Carolina weather the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The House passed the HEROES Act which had significant help for all our states across the country,” Cooper said.

The proposal, more formally known as the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, has not yet been voted on by the U.S. Senate. Negotiations have broken down between the Congressional chambers and the White House.

Included in the act is federal aid for schools, universities and community colleges, which have had to make sweeping changes to try to keep students, educators and others safe while educating children and others on higher education campuses.

Cooper hopes to get more federal help with testing supplies and personal protective equipment. Hospitals, nursing homes, cities, towns and counties need additional aid, Cooper added.

“It is a long list and I do believe that HEROES Act provides a lot of what we were looking for,” Cooper said. “We know that that is going to be negotiated. It’s disappointing that it hasn’t been negotiated before now. But we’re hoping that getting this election past us, we really need to focus on the future and trying to work together as much as we can. We hope we can get significantly more resources from the feds.”

Cooper also said he hopes there might be a different response from the top of the federal government now that the presidential campaigns are over.

“From the get-go, we have wanted a more coordinated national strategy in the fight against COVID,” Cooper said. “I think it’s positive the federal government is moving in trying to do the research and trying to get us a vaccine, and I’m hoping that can come sooner rather than later. But I do believe we could have had a more effective strategy.”

As the case numbers grow, Cooper said he not only would look to the federal level for a more coordinated response, but also to other governors. Cooper has worked with a group of governors from both parties to try to level buying power for supplies.

“That has proven to be a positive thing,” Cooper said. “But it would be better if we could have a strong coordinated national strategy that takes this seriously. We’ll see what happens in the coming days to see if that can occur.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:

  • 4,548 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 285,661 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,193 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with coronavirus 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.
  • 246,318 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 coronavirus who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
  • To date, 4,214,454 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 15 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 82 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 399 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,454 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 1,001 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital. As of Thursday, 146 suspected COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.

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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.