By Anne Blythe

Gov. Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, are making an appeal to faith leaders across the state to help build faith in COVID vaccines.

North Carolina continues to see more than 6,000 new COVID cases per day, according to Cohen, and more than 3,400 people are hospitalized across the state because of the virus. Since late August, there have been more than 900 North Carolinians in intensive care beds on all but two days. 

Cohen and Cooper celebrated the milestone that at least 90 percent of North Carolinians 65 and older have had at least one COVID vaccine dose, and 87 percent are fully vaccinated. But vaccination rates for the 12-and-older population are nowhere near what they want to see.

“Getting vaccinated is one of the deepest expressions of our shared values to protect human life and love our neighbor,” Cooper and Cohen said in the two-page letter. “It is an act of love to our families and our communities. While we have made much progress in the state, too many people are needlessly getting seriously ill, being hospitalized, and dying. Our hospitals are strained, and in other states we’ve seen that care is not readily available for people experiencing non-COVID life-threatening health crises. We need your help.”

During a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Cohen presented charts and graphs showing that the number of daily cases is starting to level off after the sharp spike in July and August.

The number of people who visited emergency departments with COVID symptoms also has started to decline, another bit of hopeful news amid the Delta variant surge that has sickened more children than ever during the pandemic.

Impact on children

For the week ending Sept. 18, children made up a third of the new COVID cases, Cohen said. Nearly a third of all the new hospital admissions, Cohen added, are people younger than 49.

As Pfizer begins to release more information about the company’s vaccine trials on children younger than 12, only 38 percent of North Carolina’s 12- to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, according to Cohen.

Forty-two percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds are vaccinated, Cohen added, and 51 percent of the 25- to 49-year-olds are inoculated against COVID.

“The COVID-19 virus is more contagious than ever, and we are seeing it attack the unvaccinated and make them very sick at an alarming rate,” Cohen said. “My heart breaks for each life lost, for each person living with ongoing symptoms of COVID, even after they recover, and for the families, friends and communities picking up the pieces. This doesn’t need to happen.”

‘Fevered pitch’ at school meetings

Public health teams have not only been battling COVID for the past 19 months, they have been battling almost as fierce a foe — the prevalence of misinformation.

“More than 181 million Americans have been safely vaccinated,” Cohen said. “Vaccines are safe and effective, and saving lives. It is COVID that is making so many people critically ill, leaving many with long-lasting symptoms and sadly killing more than 15,000 North Carolinians.”

Despite the information that masks protect adults and children from COVID and vaccinations protect people from severe illness, vaccine and mask mandates continue to bring out vocal protesters.

Hospital workers have protested such requirements. School board meetings draw crowds.

U.S. Congressman Madison Cawthorn, a Republican from Henderson County, recently led a rally outside a Johnston County school board meeting, far outside his home district in western North Carolina, to end the school district’s mask mandate.

As part of a law shepherded through the General Assembly this summer, districts that adopt mask mandates must revisit the issue at least every month to decide whether to extend the requirement.

Johnston County decided a week after Cawthorn’s visit to keep the mask requirement in place.

On Sept. 16, Cohen sent a letter to the Union County school board chair threatening to pursue legal action if steps were not taken to better protect the children in that district from COVID.

‘Our children are watching’

During the briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Cooper said that while some of the recent COVID metrics and trends were heading in a more optimistic direction, there was more work to do.

“As we head into the fall with the school calendar in full swing, let’s also work together to keep our commitment to students and teachers this school year,” Cooper said. “Keeping children safe, healthy and learning while in person, and in the classroom: That’s the number one priority. We cannot lose sight of that critically important goal.”

Cooper admonished adults for the more egregious behavior at school board meetings during this phase of the pandemic.

“Many are concerned about the fevered pitch that many school board meetings have reached in recent weeks,” Cooper said. “I am, too. Threats, bullying, intimidation. None of this belongs in our public schools, particularly by adults. Remember our children are watching.

“They are absorbing everything they see and hear even if we think they aren’t paying attention,” Cooper added. “Being civil and respectful of one another is more important than ever as we navigate another COVID school year. Let’s behave the way we want our kids to act. We owe it to them and we owe it to each other.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • 15,811 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 1,350,697 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 3,464 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.
  • 1,255,168 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, 17,205,478 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 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 13 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 78 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state. 
  • 497 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, 908 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state. On Aug. 1, only 372 patients were in ICUs. 
  • As of Aug. 17, 5,941,164 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Eighty-seven percent of people over the age of 65 have been completely vaccinated, while only 52 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.