By Anne Blythe

The COVID-19 Delta variant continues to have a tight hold on North Carolina.

Gov. Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, pleaded on Thursday with North Carolinians not yet vaccinated against the coronavirus to get a vaccine to help loosen that grip.

“If you’re still unsure about getting one, how about getting off social media and getting on the phone with your doctor,” Cooper said during a Thursday afternoon briefing with reporters. “That’s the best place for accurate medical information.”

Many health care workers across the state are exhausted 19 months into a global pandemic that has strained both rural hospitals and regional providers where many sicker patients go for more specialized care.

North Carolina’s COVID trends look similar to what they were at the height of the pandemic in January, when vaccines were not readily available, hospitalizations were high and case counts were climbing rapidly.

Only 62 percent of the 18-and-older population in North Carolina is vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a chart Cohen showed during a Thursday briefing with reporters. That number drops to 59 percent when the 12- to 17-year-olds are included, meaning that only 35 percent of eligible children have gotten a vaccine, according to Cohen.

North Carolina’s deaths related to COVID-19 have now topped 15,000 — 15,004 as of Thursday.

“How many more people have to get sick and die because people don’t get this miraculous, God-given, effective and extraordinarily safe vaccine?” Cooper said. “How many more people will have to witness the painful, cruel death of a loved one to finally see that vaccines are the way out of this?”

The state is nearing its second straight week in which more than 900 people lay in intensive care unit hospital beds fighting severe illness related to COVID-19 infection. As of Thursday, a total of 3,815 people were hospitalized.

“By far, the most people hospitalized by COVID right now are unvaccinated,” Cooper said. “For the most part, ending up at the hospital because of COVID is largely preventable. COVID-19 vaccines are continuing to do their job by stopping most of the severe illness and death among those who’ve had their shots. They remain our best tool to end this pandemic.”

The number of new lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported Thursday was 6,290, according to the DHHS dashboard. The rate of COVID test results coming back with positive results has been at least 10 percent since July, more than double the 5-percent-mark that the public health team considers tolerable.

More children with COVID

The spread of COVID-19 is so prevalent across the state that each of the 100 counties is red, for high viral spread, on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map.

Children, who started back to elementary, middle and high schools in late August, account for some of the new COVID infections.

“Our case rates are highest for children 17 and under,” Cohen said. “For the week ending September 4, they made up almost a third of the state’s COVID cases. That’s the highest percentage since the pandemic began.”

Because more children are back in school, and principals are calling parents to tell them their child was either exposed to or in close contact with someone with a lab-confirmed case of COVID, more people have been on the hunt for tests.

Some have heard from pharmacies that it could take up to three days to get a result.

Hospitals strained from treating so many people sickened by the Delta variant have closed drive-through testing sites to shift limited resources to better care for the sick.

Finding testing

Cooper and Cohen said the state has ramped up testing, in part so people can find out early enough to take advantage of monoclonal antibody treatments that work best if administered within 10 days of infection. 

Anyone looking for testing can check the state site Find My Testing Place and see where free state clinics are.

“A number of the hospitals and emergency departments have told us that people are often going there for testing and we know that they are burdened now with sick people who are coming in so we have worked to set up special clinics and places people can go and get tested,” Cooper said.

Testing is one layer of protection that the public health team advocates as the Delta variant continues to pose a threat.

Cohen and Cooper have encouraged all school boards to require all employees and students to wear masks in classrooms and on school grounds to lower the risk of COVID spread. Though he has stopped short of a statewide mandate, Cooper is also urging all teachers and students eligible for vaccines to get a shot.

With the Delta variant’s tight grip on much of the state, Cooper has resisted issuing stay-at-home orders and other restrictions in place for much of the first year of the pandemic.

“Eighteen months ago, we did not have vaccines,” Cooper said. “Now we do. Now many more people across the state are protected from this virus, and we’re getting more and more people vaccinated every day. That’s what’s going to work. That’s where we’re going to continue to be laser-focused.”

Federal, state employee vaccine verification

Imposing restrictions again, Cooper added, could impede such initiatives.

“We also want to do things that people are going to pay attention to and that people are going to obey,” Cooper said. “I think it’s important that we not put things into place that’s going to detract from the effort to get more people vaccinated, which is what we want to do right now. We want to have everybody coming together, businesses and others, to step up. We’re seeing more and more people to do that.”

Restaurants in some counties, such as Pizzeria Mercato in Carrboro, have required employees to be vaccinated and their guests to show proof of vaccination to dine indoors.

Cooper announced in late July that some 50,000 workers in the cabinet administration he oversees will have to show proof of vaccination or be required to wear masks and get COVID tests often. That requirement went into effect on Sept. 1. Not enough time has passed, Cooper said, to compile and share data about how many of the state workers were vaccinated.

As Cooper discussed efforts to get employees in his administration vaccinated, President Joe Biden issued an executive order requiring all federal workers in the executive branch and contractors who do business with them to be vaccinated. There no longer will be an option to mask up and get tested regularly instead.

As part of the Biden plan announced late Thursday afternoon, the federal Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration will require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure that its workforce is totally vaccinated or require those who are not to be tested often and show a negative result weekly to come to work.

According to the Small Business Administration 2018 statistics, that’s about 2 percent of U.S. companies, but those companies employ about 65 percent of American workers. 

Cooper applauded Biden’s plan.

“I’m glad to see the president making this requirement for federal employees,” Cooper said. “It’s going to take at least 45 days for them to ramp up, to set up the verification process, which we have been doing for weeks to know who is vaccinated, to know who is not, whether there is a medical or religious exemption and putting all of that into place.”

Cooper said he would wait to see what happens in his administration before considering whether to remove the testing option for state employees.

“We want to see how this works,” Cooper said. “We believe that this is getting more state employees to step up and get vaccinated. So we’ll look at what the feds do over the next couple of months, because it’s going to take them a while to ramp up, and we’ll see how effective our verification requirement is for state employees. The idea is to get more shots in arms, but right now since our state verification requirement has just taken effect, we want to see how this works.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:

  • 15,004 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus, up more than 1,000 from mid-August.
  • 1,273,623 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 3,815 are in the hospital, up from 1,390 people on Aug. 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.
  • 1,154,222 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, 16,393, 214 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 14 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 80 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state. 
  • 447 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities, that’s up from 107 outbreaks in early August.
  • As of Wednesday, 919 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state. On Aug. 1, only 372 patients were in ICUs. 
  • As of Aug. 17, 5,810,398 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Eighty-six percent of people over the age of 65 have been completely vaccinated, while only 51 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated. 

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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.

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