By Anne Blythe
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, brought out her charts and graphs on Tuesday to update North Carolinians on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That latest COVID news, even as the Omicron variant adds new mystery about how long the pandemic will last, was dwarfed by Cohen’s announcement that she is stepping down as DHHS secretary at the end of December.
North Carolina Health News will have more extensive coverage of her decision to resign in the morning.
At the briefing with Gov. Roy Cooper and reporters, Cohen talked about the questions scientists will be trying to answer over the next few weeks about the newest COVID-19 variant.
“All viruses change over time and COVID-19 is no exception,” Cohen said during the Tuesday afternoon briefing. “The latest variant Omicron was recently designated as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization. We still have a lot to learn about Omicron.”
Many questions remain: Is the new variant more contagious? Does it make people sicker? What impact will it have on the treatments and immunity?
“Cases with the Omicron variant have not yet been detected here in North Carolina or elsewhere in the United States,” Cohen said. “But many experts believe it is likely already here. While there’s no need for alarm, we do need to closely monitor the science and data on this new variant.”
The Omicron variant can be picked up by a standard PCR test, the same test that’s been used all through the pandemic, according to Cohen.
“Interesting part about the Omicron variant, it does give off a particular signal on the PCR test,” Cohen said. “It does help our lab folks actually hone in on which sample they should be sequencing. So I do think there we’re going to be looking for this particular signal that it gives off on a PCR test, and doing a lot more samples of that, do the sequencing.
“All of the samples that come at least to the state lab, we sequence every single one of those positives,” she said. “That’s a small fraction of the tests that are done here in North Carolina, we have many labs that have been helping us with testing.”
Though North Carolina has seen its COVID-19 caseload drop significantly since a high in September, when the Delta variant was causing severe illness and hospitalization, there has been a slight increase over the past few weeks in the number of people visiting emergency departments with symptoms of the virus.
North Carolina reported 1,755 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday. There have been more than 1.5 million cases reported during the pandemic.
There were 1,121 people hospitalized with illness related to the virus on Tuesday.
Since the start of the pandemic, 18,740 people in North Carolina have died from the virus.
Cooper and Cohen stressed COVID-19 vaccines are the best tool for moving beyond the pandemic.
In North Carolina, 68 percent of the 18-and-older population is fully vaccinated, according to the DHHS dashboard. Though parents have started getting children 5 and older vaccinated, the state still has a ways to go to get those numbers where Cooper and public health officials would like to see.
Up to 13 percent of the children ages 5 to 11, who only became eligible in early November, have received a COVID-19 vaccine in North Carolina.
“Getting children vaccinated helps keep them healthy and protected from COVID-19. It’s why I got my daughters vaccinated right away,” Cohen said. “With the holidays approaching and people gathering, don’t wait to vaccinate.”
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:
- 18,740 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 1,534,005 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,131 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.
- North Carolina has tracked COVID-19 re-infections in the case counts from March 1, 2021 through Sept. 20, 2021. All told, North Carolina has tracked 10,812 reinfections, 200 of those were in people who were previously vaccinated. Ninety-four people who were reinfected with COVID-19 have died.
- 1,489,392 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-COVID” survivors who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
- To date, 20,272,361 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. Most recently, 9.4 percent of those testing were testing positive.
- People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (39 percent). While 12 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 74 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
- 310 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, 288 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
- As of Nov. 30, 6,423,443 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Ninety-one percent of people over the age of 65 have been completely vaccinated, while 57 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated. 1,525,741 boosters have been administered.
- Children between the ages of 5 and 11 became eligible for vaccination during November. A total of 120,103 first doses have been given to those children, a total of 13 percent of that population.