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By Anne Blythe

Gov. Roy Cooper kept coming back to one word Wednesday during a COVID-19 update with reporters: Vaccines.

The fast-moving, extremely contagious Delta variant has caused a crushing new wave of COVID-19 cases in some regions of the state, pushing many of North Carolina’s metrics closer to what they were at the height of the pandemic at the beginning of the year.

North Carolina reported 3,413 new COVID cases on Wednesday, pushing the pandemic total to 1,062,300 lab-confirmed cases since March of last year when the coronavirus made its first appearance in the state.

The number of people hospitalized with severe illness from the virus on Wednesday was 1,580, and 388 of them were in intensive care units.

The testing positivity rate was 12.2 percent, more than double the 5-percent mark that public health officials set as a goal to stay at or below.

All this is happening as North Carolina’s colleges, universities and 115 public school districts are gearing up to reopen this month to a flood of students, and the long politicized question about masks or no masks is once again dividing some communities.

Cooper’s public health team strongly recommends that students, staff and teachers in all K-12 schools wear masks while indoors even if they have been vaccinated.

When asked whether he would reinstate a statewide mask mandate or order masks in schools, Cooper sidestepped and instead made the push for vaccines.

“The battle we are fighting most is vaccinations, and that’s where we want to continue our focus,” Cooper said.

Email spam or $1 million?

To highlight that mission and offer a splash of good news amid the disappointment and frustration over the new wave of COVID cases, Cooper introduced Audrey Chavous, an 18-year-old from Winston-Salem.

Her decision to get vaccinated came with more reward than the calm and security of being better protected from a virus and new variant that’s been described as almost as contagious as the chicken pox.

Chavous is the third winner of a $1 million drawing from North Carolina’s  Summer Cash Drawing vaccine lottery.

The rising college freshman at Fayetteville State University works two jobs — one at a restaurant, the other at an ax-throwing center.

When Cooper asked her Wednesday what her reaction was when she learned that she had won the lottery, she told him she still had trouble believing it while standing at the podium in the Emergency Operations Center from which the governor has provided briefings to the state throughout the pandemic.

“My first reaction, honestly, was just pure shock,” Chavous said. “I honestly didn’t think it was a real thing. I kind of thought it was spam mail when I first saw it in my email.”

Nonetheless, Chavous called the number provided to her in the email.

“I give the woman a call and she’s telling me about it,” Chavous told reporters after the briefing. “She’s giving me the information and I like froze. I didn’t scream. I didn’t like drop my phone. I literally just stood there.

“And I remember her going, ‘you’re very calm for someone who just won a million dollars.’ So I was like, hmm, trust me, I’m freaking out. I just don’t know what to… like, I don’t know how to react.”

Chavous had not received any of her winnings by Wednesday, and she said it might seem “surreal” until she does.

“Honestly, I’m standing at this podium and it’s still not clicking for me for some reason,” she told Cooper. “I’m ecstatic, over the moon. I still have no words to describe how happy I am. It’s incredible for me. It’s indescribable.”

Chavous plans to use some of her winnings to pay for her education as she pursues an undergraduate and master’s degree in psychology, she said, to become a family marriage therapist.

“I plan on saving most of it, investing maybe five or 10 percent of it, and the rest of it, I don’t know,” Chavous said. “I might treat myself to a shopping spree or something.”

A shot at winning the lottery was not why Chavous sought her shot, though.

“I chose to get vaccinated not only for the safety of other people around me but simply for the safety of myself,” Chavous told the governor. “When COVID first became big, it took away my senior year, and I saw how much it impacted everybody around me, all my fellow classmates, teachers, people around the world, and I saw how big of a deal it was.”

Chavous was thinking about others, too.

“Not only did I want to get vaccinated for my own peace of mind, but for everyone around me who could have been affected by COVID, anybody who has a sickness or something that could prohibit them from being able to live their life normally,” Chavous said. “I wanted to get vaccinated so I could be calm about going about my life and being able to get back to normal as soon as I possibly could.”

Cooper asked her what she would say to people who still are on the fence about whether to get vaccinated.

“I understand that there are people out there who are skeptical about what it could do to their bodies or how it could affect them negatively,” Chavous responded. “But if you do your research, and you take your time, the positive definitely outweighs the negative.”

“There are way more plusses than minuses to getting your vaccination,” Chavous added. “It’s easier to just get vaccinated and not have to worry about it than have to worry about constantly wearing a mask or putting yourself at risk, putting other people at risk. It’s easier to just listen to science, listen to the facts and get vaccinated.”

Forty-seven percent of North Carolinians who are 12 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the DHHS vaccination dashboard.

People who are 65 and older have embraced the vaccine more readily. Eighty-four percent of that population, a group at risk for more severe illness from COVID, is fully vaccinated. Nearly 82 percent of North Carolina’s deaths were people in this age demographic, despite older adults making up only 14 percent of the total cases.

Since the week of July 5, when the rate of vaccinations hit the lowest point since vaccines have been widely available to anybody 12 and older, there has been an uptick in inoculations. 

On July 26, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported on its vaccine dashboard, 75,845 first doses of vaccine were administered the previous week along with 32,529 second doses.

That’s progress, Cooper acknowledged, but not nearly as much as he would like to see.

“I can’t stress this enough,” Cooper said. “The sharp rise in our numbers is driven by the unvaccinated. The data and the science are clear that getting a COVID vaccine dramatically lowers the chance of severe illness, hospitalization and death.”

Confusing message

As Cooper stressed the need for more vaccinations, community health workers shared concerns earlier in the day about confusing messaging during a Zoom meeting of Latin-19, a group formed by LatinX colleagues at Duke Health to help share crucial pandemic information with Hispanic communities.

Humberto Trejo, a regular Latin-19 attendee who works with Durham’s Back on the Bull initiative, told the Latin-19 group that he has been getting asked recently why people should get a vaccine if they can still become infected with COVID.

A very small percentage of people who are fully vaccinated have tested positive for COVID-19 as the Delta variant roars, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and North Carolina public health workers to recommend that vaccinated people mask up indoors again in areas where there is high community spread.

That would include all but a handful of North Carolina counties.

The message that public health workers want conveyed, though, is that vaccines have prevented those who get breakthrough infections from becoming seriously ill or dying from COVID-related disease.

Masks add another layer of safety.

“It’s important to remember that by far and away vaccines are our best tool to fight this pandemic,” Kody Kinsley, DHHS chief deputy secretary, said at the governor’s briefing. “At the same time, like in any other part of your life — driving a car, seatbelts, airbags — there’s a number of measures that we put in place to try to control that risk. Right now, we have so much risk because we have so many unvaccinated people. Just by getting that number down, that’ll help us and that’s why vaccines are our most important tool right now.”

To mask or not in schools

Most school children do not have access to vaccines, and that’s why two Duke pediatricians stressed the importance of masking up when the new year begins soon.

“Clearly, from a medical safety perspective, the optimal choice here is universal masking for K-12, regardless of what policy decisions might get made or where those decisions are made,” said Danny Benjamin, a Duke pediatrician and co-chair of the ABC Science Collaborative.

Nonetheless, across North Carolina, some school boards have decided to make masking optional, even as the Delta variant sends infection rates soaring.

That troubles Benjamin and Kanecia Obie Zimmerman, another Duke pediatrician who collected and analyzed data from North Carolina school districts during the pandemic and found that masking is what kept infection rates low in schools.

They hope people will pay more attention to the physicians and public health workers.

“People whose job it is to keep you alive encourage masking,” Benjamin said. “People who are running for re-election have very mixed opinions about whether there should be masking.”

Masking became a political issue in 2020 and some continue to argue that whether to cover one’s nose and mouth amid a pandemic should be a personal choice, not one regulated by others.

“Over the spring, we collected data from 100 districts in North Carolina,” Zimmerman said.

They considered the different social distancing measures used by different schools and concluded that consistent mask-wearing was the best way to keep students in classrooms day after day.

“Schools that are successful…are monitoring their masking rates, are watching people come through, are reporting that and being very transparent about what is happening in their schools with regard to masking, as well as with regard to secondary transmission,” Zimmerman said. “Having transparency, reporting data, having third parties analyze these data are also very important.”

The past school year presented problems for many families, some of whom had to essentially become teacher’s aides while their children were in remote classes and carve out time for their own work if they could do it from home. Many children were socially isolated. Some had difficulty connecting to broadband networks. Others fell behind for a variety of reasons.

“With masking in place…we have an opportunity to keep kids in school,” Zimmerman said.

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:

  • 13,700 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 1,062,300 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,580 are in the hospital, up from 391 people on July 1. 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.
  • 1,012,724 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, 14,527,065 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 (40 percent). While 14 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 82 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state. 
  • 107 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities, that’s up from 86 outbreaks two weeks ago.
  • As of Wednesday, 388 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of August 4, 5,304,392 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

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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.