By Anne Blythe
As the spread of COVID-19 rapidly worsens across North Carolina and hospitals scale back elective surgeries to make room for all the patients severely sickened by the virus, Gov. Roy Cooper extended a statewide curfew.
In a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, issued an urgent appeal and directive to North Carolinians.
Everyone, they said, should stay home except to go to school, jobs or to make essential trips to the grocery store, pharmacy, health care appointments or to make crucial checks on family members.
They urged residents not to congregate with anyone outside their immediate households, as the number of COVID-19 cases skyrockets in the wake of the holidays, the rate of positive tests hovers at 14 to 15 percent, and hospitals are near the tipping point.
“There’s an alarming amount of virus everywhere in our state,” Cohen said.
Only four counties — Chatham, Greene, Orange and Warren — do not have critical or substantial spread of COVID-19, according to the most recent County Alert System report.
All of North Carolina’s trends and metrics are much higher than Cohen and her public health team would like to see. Though hospitals still have capacity to care for the sickest across the state, they had to shift staff from their regular duties to help care for patients sickened with illness related to COVID-19 and set up isolated wards in areas typically used for other treatments.
“They’re needing to make major adjustments to how they operate but they’re doing it,” Cohen said. “Everyone’s doing all that they can, but I think we have a major challenge ahead of us.”
For that reason, Cohen issued a secretarial directive telling North Carolina residents to “take immediate action to protect themselves and others from COVID-19.” The order lays out many of the measures that were included in the statewide stay-at-home order issued in the early days of the pandemic.
“This is the most worried I’ve been through this pandemic,” Cohen said. “I think our hospitals are managing, but it’s going to take all of our work to make sure we don’t overwhelm our hospitals.”
Colleges, universities asked to delay campus returns
Since the first lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 in North Carolina back in March, there have been 582,347 more over the past 10 months.
On Jan. 1, North Carolina reported a record high one-day number of 9,527 new cases. The next day, the new daily case count remained high at 9,356 lab-confirmed cases, putting the state in “the most dangerous position in this pandemic,” Cohen said at the time.
On Wednesday, DHHS reported 6,952 new lab-confirmed cases, as well as 3,893 people hospitalized with illness related to COVID-19.
The state also passed another grim milestone as it recorded 7,076 deaths, crossing the more than 7,000 deaths threshold.
“We’ve turned the page on a new year, one that we’re hoping will bring us better times,” Cooper said. “But as we know, this virus did not disappear at midnight on Dec. 31. In fact, in North Carolina, we’ve seen some of our highest case counts, percent positives, hospitalizations and ICU bed usage numbers in the past few days.”
Eighty-four counties have critical spread of COVID-19, 12 counties have substantial spread and only four have significant spread.
One of those four is Orange County, home to UNC-Chapel Hill, which is scheduled to open its spring semester in less than two weeks on Jan. 19.
The COVID-19 County Alert System report issued on Wednesday recommends that institutes of higher education consider delaying the start of in-person classes and opening dorms and residence halls to on-campus living.
Though UNC-CH plans to implement a new testing program, building on a Duke University program that helped keep its COVID-19 spread to a minimum last semester, faculty have already raised concerns about moving ahead, saying late last year in an open letter published in the Daily Tar Heel that given the conditions at the time, the plans for the spring “were doomed to repeat too many failures of the fall.”
In the fall, UNC-CH brought students to campus and then within a week of the start of classes, quickly reversed course because of too many troubling COVID-19 clusters.
National Guard steps in again
College students and high school students older than 16 fall into Phase 3 of the North Carolina vaccine distribution plan and that could be months away, closer to the end of the semester than the beginning.
On Wednesday, Cooper and Cohen described how they hope to speed up vaccine administration across the state with assistance from the North Carolina National Guard and a tweak to the rate at which some health care systems and county health departments receive allotments.
Fifty guard members will work in teams of six and spread out across the state to assist with inoculations, data entry into the new state distribution tracking system and help with scheduling issues.
In some counties, the vaccines are being administered very quickly and the local health departments and hospitals are using up the limited weekly supplies.
In other places, the vaccines are not going into arms quickly enough, either because of hesitancy among health care workers eligible for them, scheduling problems or trouble with the new data entry program the state built to keep track of distribution and administration.
Cohen said going forward, how quickly the counties use their allotments will be factored into the weekly distribution.
The DHHS dashboard shows that between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, 109,799 people had received a first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine and 461 people have completed the two-dose series.
A spreadsheet issued by DHHS on Tuesday, shows that 669,650 doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been allocated to health care systems, county health departments and long-term care facilities across North Carolina, some 85,800 of which are second doses for those who got a first shot.
Confronting vaccine hesitancy
Many people who are 75 and older are anxious to get vaccines, but not aware of how to schedule an appointment or who to call to do so.
County health departments and hospitals across the state are the places to start for answers. Additionally, the state can field questions from its hotline at 211 or 888-892-1162.
Cooper and Cohen said they were concerned that some people who are eligible for the vaccine have declined a shot.
Cohen stressed that it’s important to listen to their concerns and then provide them with facts that might help alleviate their hesitancy.
“This is something we saw coming,” Cohen said. “We have been thinking about it for a very long time, particularly working with our advocacy partners in our historically marginalized populations for a very long time to understand it. We have to make sure that we really understand that there are real reasons for folks to be hesitant.”
Cohen said it is important for those who are hesitant to understand that the vaccines authorized by the federal Food and Drug Administration for emergency use have been rigorously tested and built upon proven science that has been years in the making.
She reiterated that clinical trials tested them on many thousands of participants and the vaccines have a 95 percent efficacy rate.
“You can’t get COVID from the vaccine,” Cohen repeated. “I think these are all really important things for folks to hear. I think now that we’ve had more than 100,000 people in North Carolina vaccinated with these two vaccines …we’ve had no serious safety concerns from the vaccines.”
“We hope that folks will learn more about this vaccine,” Cohen added. “And I think it’s incumbent on us and our partners in the media to be able to share these messages, but importantly to work with our community members. We want to make sure folks hear from those that they trust.”
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:
- 7,076 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 582,348 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 3,893 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.
- 487,090 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, 7,191,700 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 83 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
- 664 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
- There are 3,597 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 1,239 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital. As of Wednesday, 875 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.