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By Anne Blythe

North Carolina will remain under curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. through the end of February to try to keep late-night socializing to a minimum as the battle against COVID-19 continues.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Wednesday that he was extending his modified stay-at-home order through Feb. 28 with hopes that in the weeks ahead the number of people hospitalized with serious illness related to COVID-19 will drop significantly, daily case counts go down and the test positivity rate will be cut in half.

“If people follow the safety protocols, they reduce their chances of getting sick and infecting others,” Cooper said.

The extension of the order means that mass gathering limits for indoors are no more than 10 people and capped at 50 people outdoors.

Restaurants, bars, breweries and wineries must stop serving alcohol indoors at 9 p.m., but they can continue to serve cocktails-to-go through an executive order that Cooper extended until March 31.

Cooper also extended a moratorium on evictions so people who have not paid their rent cannot be thrown out of their homes.

This week, an analysis performed by Duke University economists and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that moratoria on evictions and utility shutoffs reduced COVID-19 case and death rates in counties that had them in place in a way that matched federal policies enacted throughout 2020.

“Although we’re often frustrated and weary, we’re entering a time of hope,” Cooper said. “The vaccine team and health care providers are working night and day to get more vaccines to people, and more are on the horizon. Our COVID numbers are stabilizing. We are charting a path forward, but we have more work to do.

“Let’s continue wearing our masks, working hard to get people vaccinated and taking this seriously. If we work to keep ourselves and each other safe, we will defeat this virus and move to better times ahead.”

Beyond the holiday spikes

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, gave an update on North Carolina’s COVID-19 metrics and trends, which have improved some since the spike in cases and hospitalizations after the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

The number of people visiting emergency departments with COVID-19 symptoms has declined but remains higher than it was before the holiday spikes.

The daily case counts have dropped from the pandemic high of 11,581 cases reported in one day on Jan. 9 to 5,587 new cases reported on Wednesday, according to the DHHS dashboard. However, the percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive is hovering at 11 and 12 percent, double what public health officials would like to see.

This graph shows a closeup of the trendlines for new COVID-19 cases between Nov. 26 and Jan. 26. Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said on Wednesday that she believes the state has passed the peak generated from cases of the virus passed among people who gathered over the Christmas and New Year’s Eve holiday weekends.

The number of people in hospital beds fighting illness related to the virus is 3,305, straining health care systems that also are working to get vaccines into arms as quickly as possible.

“The overall takeaway is that we are past the spike from the winter holidays, but we are still experiencing worrisome levels of virus,” Cohen said during her update. “This worry is compounded by the fact that we now have a new, even more contagious COVID virus strain in our state.”

On Jan. 23, North Carolina reported that a COVID-19 variant first detected in the United Kingdom and considered to be more contagious than other variants had been identified by Mako Medical Laboratories in a sample from an adult in Mecklenburg County.

Cohen has said that since the variant began to show up in other states, North Carolina has operated as if it were present here, too, urging people to double down on mask-wearing, hand washing and social distancing.

Slightly larger vaccine shipments

As many pin hopes of escaping from this pandemic with the widespread deployment of vaccines, North Carolina got a bit of good news from the federal government on Tuesday night.

The number of first doses that will be shipped to the state will go up 16 percent over the next three weeks, meaning that 140,000 doses will be in the weekly allotments. This week, the state received only about 120,000 doses.

The news comes the day after Cohen explained how her public health team had tweaked its distribution plan so providers could have a better idea of what would be coming to them after several large-scale vaccination events left smaller sites without their expected dose allocations.

After facing criticism for not getting vaccines off the shelves quickly enough, the state used large events such as one at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Friday Center in Chapel Hill to the point where 99.8 percent of the first doses sent to the state have been injected into someone’s arm.

That has led to some vaccines being administered to people who are not health care workers or 65 and older, the groups currently eligible for vaccines.

There have been reports of teachers being vaccinated in some counties across the state, though essential workers who are younger than 65 are not in the groups eligible for vaccines under the state’s tiered system designed for equitable distribution.

Questions about equity

Cohen and Cooper addressed concerns about equitable distribution, saying there is some discretion given to local providers so that if enough people in groups eligible for the vaccine are not seeking it others who want it can get shots.

“We want local health leaders and providers to stick with what we have proposed for the list of prioritization,” Cooper said. “We also know that things are going to get a little more complicated when you move into the essential workers. It’s pretty easy when you’re talking 65 and above and a health care worker, but it will get a little more complicated when we go into essential workers and defining those.”

Cohen and her team have been reaching out to all the vaccine providers to try to get a sense of where each stands one month into the vaccine rollout.

They want to know whether some providers, such as the ones that gave vaccines to teachers and other public school employees, are administering doses left over because people in eligible groups did not demand them.

The idea that some with means could jump the line and leave behind people of color and marginalized communities that historically have faced health care access issues unable to get shots defies the fundamentals of the state’s equitable distribution plan.

Soon, Cohen said, the state will provide information on the DHHS vaccine dashboard so people can get data about individual counties and how well they are doing getting vaccines distributed equitably.

“When we say equitable, we also mean making sure that vaccines get to underserved communities,” Cooper said. “That’s something that’s in the plan and instructions to providers. That’s something the state will know whether they’ve been able to do. I think everybody’s working together, but the state is going to insist on that.”

Cohen encouraged providers to get in touch with her team if they think they are at a point in administering vaccines where they are not getting enough interest from those eligible under the current prioritization group and want to open up for others.

“We recognize on the ground realities,” Cohen said. “We need to be open and flexible. We encourage folks who feel like they are moving on to the next group, please, to have a conversation with our team so that we can understand what their plan is. Are they honoring appointments that were already in place? Or are they seeing something on the ground that we’re not seeing?”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:

  • 8,915 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 733,010 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 3,305 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.
  • 635,543 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, 8,580,157 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 (39 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.
  • 770 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Wednesday, 676 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of Jan. 25, 728,148 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

 

 

 

 

 

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.