By Anne Blythe

Passover begins in 10 days.

Palm Sunday is March 28 and Easter follows on April 4.

The last time North Carolina saw a series of holidays that brought families together, they were followed by a disturbing surge in COVID-19 daily case counts, hospitalizations and death. Now that coronavirus vaccines are reaching more North Carolinians, the guidance for the coming holidays could have a different tone.

North Carolina’s COVID-19 trends and metrics have continued to improve in recent weeks, and Gov. Roy Cooper hinted Wednesday that he might further ease pandemic restrictions after his current executive order expires on March 26.

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“We are very hopeful as we look toward the order that ends, not this Friday, but next Friday,” Cooper told reporters during a Wednesday briefing. “Our numbers continue to improve. We’ve said from the get-go that we’re going to follow the science and the data.”

The governor has been easing coronavirus restrictions created by some of his executive orders already over the past few weeks.

“We hope to do that again this time as we continue to see improvement in our numbers,” he said.

Cooper declined to go into detail about what restrictions might be eased or how religious leaders, families, business owners and others should plan for the holidays ahead.

“More and more people are getting back out and doing things and that’s a positive, it’s a positive for our economy,” Cooper said. “We just want people to make sure that they are careful and responsible, to get vaccinated.

“The more people we get vaccinated, the better off we’re going to be when it comes to looking at these numbers and preventing serious illness and death. And the more people who are careful to wear masks and do the things they need to do, the better off we’ll be.”

Positive trends, metrics

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, gave North Carolina mostly green check marks in her report Wednesday about the coronavirus trends and metrics that have been guiding the governor’s decisions during the pandemic.

The number of people showing up in emergency departments with COVID-19 symptoms continues to drop sharply. The number of new cases each day has continued to trend downward from a peak reached on Jan.16, when the caseload had surged after the Christmas and New Year holidays.

With more contagious coronavirus variants around, though, Cohen was worried about a plateau, assigning a cautionary yellow mark to that trend.

three maps show a steadily decreasing number of counties colored red over the course of a month
Image courtesy: NC DHHS

The number of people hospitalized, just slightly more than 1,000 on Wednesday, also merited a yellow cautionary line because that number is still higher than the public health team would like to see.

Only one North Carolina county —  Randolph County  —  had critical community spread in the latest DHHS county alert system report, a marked improvement from Jan. 6, when 84 counties had such a high prevalence of COVID-19 spread.

“This is a big improvement from where we were just a month ago,” Cohen said.

One of the more encouraging trends, Cohen pointed out, was how many people are getting vaccinated against coronavirus.

Nearly 25 percent of all North Carolinians 18 and older are at least partially vaccinated, she said. Sixteen percent, or more than 1.2 million residents, have been fully vaccinated, Cohen added.

North Carolina also is seeing improvement in getting vaccines to communities of color and the economically and socially marginalized.

“We’re committed to using every lever we have to ensure that historically marginalized populations can easily access a COVID-19 vaccine,” Cohen said. “That includes how we allocate vaccines, who we allocate the vaccines to, which events we can support, where we deploy state resources, and who we engage on the ground to help address barriers like transportation and internet access.”

President Biden’s May 1 goal

On Wednesday, vaccine eligibility was opened to people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, autoimmune disorders, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

People who have smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, even if they are former smokers, also are eligible for vaccines.

North Carolina opens eligibility on April 7 to even more people — those essential workers in Group 4 who were not included in the frontline essential workers eligible in Group 3.

Cohen and Cooper said North Carolina is vaccinating at a pace in which they are confident the state can meet President Joe Biden’s challenge for all states to open vaccine eligibility to all adults 18 and older by May 1.

If that happens, Biden estimates that by July 4 people across the country could gather with friends and family for Independence Day backyard barbecues and other events.

“This is all good news,” Cohen said. “However, our work is not done just yet. Keep wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart and washing your hands. Let’s keep protecting each other until everyone has a spot to take their shot.”

Requiring vaccines?

With all the enthusiasm for the swift and equitable distribution of vaccines, Cooper knows some people remain hesitant.

Some employers have weighed whether to require their employees to get vaccinated. There also have been questions about whether lawmakers should develop a statute to spell out what should happen at some businesses where being vaccinated against COVID-19 is crucial.

“It’s really important to educate people about getting a vaccine,” Cooper said. “Yes we have seen a lot of vaccine hesitancy out there, but at the same time, once people learn more about it, once people see community leaders, doctors that they trust, other people that they trust tell them that this is safe, then more and more people are coming over. So we want to give as much time for that kind of education.”

Cooper, a lawyer and the former state attorney general, said he did not want to weigh in from the podium extemporaneously on legal questions about employers requiring vaccines.

“Suffice to say, we’re going to be pushing for people to get this vaccine,” Cooper said. “We know that employees, particularly those who have to deal with the public, need the vaccine to protect themselves and the public, and we’re going to keep working with businesses and others to find the best way to do that.”

What’s on the other side?

As North Carolina accommodates more people ahead of previously laid vaccine distribution plans, Cooper was asked whether that’s because there has been an increase in supply with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the mix, and the Biden administration ramping up vaccine production. Or could it be because the demand for vaccines is hitting a plateau among the eligible?

“That’s a good question,” Cooper told the ABC11-WTVD reporter who asked the question. “It’s one that I was just having a conversation with Dr. Cohen and other health officials about. Right now all of our appointments for vaccines are filling up and people want them and we’re reaching out to communities.

“…We’re going to have to, at some point in this process, really work toward convincing people that this vaccine is safe and effective because it absolutely is,” Cooper added. “The more people who get vaccinated, and the more people that you know who’ve gotten vaccinated, the more likely people are to change their minds and to say, ‘Okay, I’ll get a vaccine.’ I’ve seen it happen personally with people and I’ve heard lots of stories about it.”

As the state works to get a high percentage of the population to vaccine appointments in the coming months, Cooper also is looking ahead to what could happen in North Carolina on the other side of the pandemic.

“We’re already planning our pandemic recovery, how we’re going to help the businesses that have been hurt the worst by this,” Cooper said. “We’re getting so much response from businesses all over the world about being very interested in coming to North Carolina or expanding their number of jobs here.”

The governor said he feels “positive and confident” about business rebounding.

“The more people we can get vaccinated, the less we can worry about this virus, and the more time we can spend on getting our children educated, getting people trained for good-paying jobs, making sure everybody’s covered with health insurance, making sure we get high-speed internet access all across our state, making investments in capital,” Cooper added.

Cooper said he has had preliminary discussions with lawmakers about what he might put in his proposed spending plan for the coming two years, a proposal he could present as soon as next week.

“We are making long-term plans on recovery from this virus,” Cooper said. “Our data looks really good at this point. We still need to keep up our guard and keep our masks on and be responsible and get people vaccinated. But I believe we can emerge from this pandemic even stronger than we were before if we continue along this path.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:

  • 11,757 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 889,310 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,002 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.
  • 852,732 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, 10,851,648 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, 2020, 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.
  • 223 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Thursday, 245 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of March 17, 3,455,805 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

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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.