By Anne Blythe
As public health officials predicted in late December, North Carolina is seeing the Omicron variant of COVID-19 bring record-high cases counts and putting strains on systems across the state.
Finding COVID-19 tests has become difficult again. Rapid tests are in short supply. Many testing sites have long lines and time-consuming waits.
On Tuesday, during his first briefing with reporters as the new secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Kody Kinsley acknowledged the aggravation that many are experiencing while sometimes waiting for more than an hour to get swabbed and tested for COVID-19.
“Last week, we set a single-day record for COVID-19 cases. The next day we broke it, and the next day we broke it again, topping out at 19,620,” Kinsley said at the briefing with Gov. Roy Cooper and Susan Kansagra, the DHHS acting senior deputy director of public health. “We are not alone. The highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 is setting record case numbers across the country, putting a strain on testing services and creating concern about hospital capacity.”
North Carolina’s daily case count had a downward tick this week after last week’s record highs. There were 10,276 new cases of lab-confirmed COVID-19 on Tuesday, according to the DHHS dashboard, but even that number was one of the ten highest daily case counts since the beginning of the pandemic.
There were 3,008 people in the hospital with disease related to COVID-19, 603 of those were in intensive care unit beds, taking up 80 percent of the state’s hospital beds and 83 percent of the ICU beds, Kinsley said.
“Most people in the hospital are unvaccinated,” Kinsley said. “More than 80 percent of the people in the ICU are unvaccinated.”
North Carolina has lost 19,494 people to COVID deaths, a sober reminder of the deadly scourge of the coronavirus pandemic.
Kinsley, Cooper and Kasangra urged North Carolinians to get vaccinated and boosted when eligible to help slow the spread of Omicron and any other COVID-19 variants that might come along.
“Vaccines are our way out of this,” Kinsley said. “They provide the best protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death. Boosters are critical. Early evidence shows that boosters provide a significant level of protection against Omicron.”
“You can still decide to get vaccinated and help us save lives, protect hospital capacity and keep kids in school,” Kinsley added.
DHHS is taking steps to make sure hospitals do not become overwhelmed by the surge in COVID cases, and Kinsley said he is in frequent contact with hospital administrators, keeping track of what they’re seeing and planning ahead for any shifts in resources that are needed.
The hospital systems still have capacity according to Kinsley and Cooper, but that could change quickly if the case counts continue to soar.
Each of North Carolina’s 100 counties has a high level of community COVID-19 transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID tracking map, putting the state back in the red zone.
“As the new year unfolds before us, I have so many reasons to be hopeful about our state’s progress in dealing with this pandemic, educating our children and growing our state’s economy, all at the same time,” Cooper said. “But we have to do what works, and I know we will.”
Talks with the White House
One thing Cooper plans to do is to require state employees who are subject to his executive order requiring vaccination or routine testing if they want to continue their employment to also get boosted once the CDC updates the definition of full vaccination to include a booster shot.
“We want to make sure that our state employees are vaccinated and that they are protected,” Cooper said. “One of the things we are seeing more and more is that really keeping up with your vaccination is making sure you get boosted because more and more with this Omicron variant we are seeing so much more protection because the booster ramps up the immune system.”
While working to get more North Carolinians vaccinated and boosted across the state, Kinsley and Cooper have been talking with the Biden administration and vendors about how they can increase testing supplies during the Omicron surge.
“We’ve had a record number of tests over the holidays and that’s a positive thing,” Cooper said. North Carolinians are doing the right thing, he added, by getting tested before gathering with families or going back to school or work.
The positivity rate for those tests is nearly 30 percent, according to Kinsley, nearly six times as high as the 5 percent mark that DHHS sets as a goal to be at or below.
Cooper said he was on the phone with the White House this week trying to find out how his administration could get more tests distributed to counties and sites during this time of high demand. This was going on as complaints came from across the state that testing sites were having to close because they ran out of supplies.
The Food and Drug Administration recently authorized two more rapid tests for emergency use so that some 15 brands of antigen tests will soon be available for distribution in the U.S. market. One test is manufactured by SD Biosensor and distributed by Roche, according to a Health and Human Services press release. The other is manufactured by Siemens.
“That will help put millions more tests on the market for people,” said Cooper.
Additionally, the Biden administration plans to get half a billion tests out to states in the next couple of weeks, further increasing the supply.
In the meantime, the state, which provides only 10 percent of the testing, according to Kinsley, has been using its resources to open additional testing sites and thousands of appointments each day.
Before the holidays, DHHS distributed about 500,000 test kits across the state, Kinsley said, and stands ready to fill other requests.
“We are taking several steps guided by our laser focus on saving lives, ensuring that hospitals can provide care to people who need it and keeping kids in the classroom,” Kinsley said. “The first thing on everyone’s mind is testing. We set records there as well. On New Year’s Eve, more than 91,000 tests were reported to the state. I know many people felt the frustration of this increase and had to endure long lines.”
Kinsley said he expects the demand for tests to remain high throughout the coming weeks.
‘Test-to-stay’ in school
The surge in cases comes as millions of children and college students return to classrooms after a winter break.
The ABC Science Collaborative, a Duke group that pairs physicians and scientists with school and community leaders to help them understand current and relevant COVID data, recently shared the results of a study with DHHS about a “test-to-stay” program that allows children to stay in the classroom even after exposure to the virus.
The children and school staff would have to be tested for COVID-19 at specified intervals, continue to wear masks properly, not have any symptoms and remain negative on the rapid antigen tests.
Kinsley said DHHS plans to talk with state school board members and others toward the end of this week to discuss whether this is something North Carolina schools should and could do.
Such a program would mean children no longer would have to quarantine after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID, easing child care issues for many working parents and offering students an option to be in the classroom instead of isolated from their classmates.
Prison cases start to tick up
In just the past day, the number of inmates in the North Carolina prison system with COVID rose sharply, according to the dashboard, going from 84 on Monday to 116 on Tuesday.
Researchers who have tracked what’s happened in prisons around the country say the Omicron variant is likely to rip through prison populations, who live in close contact and who often have pre-existing conditions.
Tim Moose, the Department of Public Safety Director of Adult Corrections, said at the briefing with the governor and others that 74 percent of inmates throughout the system currently are vaccinated with two shots. Of that number, a third have chosen to get boosters, according to Moose.
Inmates should be able to request boosters through their case managers or during medical appointments, Moose added, but he could provide no further details during the briefing about which facilities had more boosted inmates.
According to the DPS spokesman, John Bull, the department does not perform genetic sequencing on the positive tests from inmates.
That makes it difficult to track Omicron, which is fast-moving. While Omicron appears to result in milder disease, it still can land an unvaccinated person in a hospital bed or worse.
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:
- 19,457 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 1,742,844 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 3,008 are in the hospital, an 84 percent increase since Dec. 20, 2021, more than half of the admissions are of people between the ages of 50 and 79. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day. The hardest hit areas are the Charlotte Metropolitan area, with 813 patients, and the Triad area, with 764 patients.
- As of Tuesday, 603 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
- North Carolina tracked COVID-19 re-infections in the case counts from March 1, 2021 through Sept. 20, 2021. All told, North Carolina 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.
- As of Dec. 20, 2021, 1,538,231 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, 22,067,976 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, 29.7 percent of those testing were testing positive. That doesn’t include home-based antigen tests that are reading as positives.
- 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.
- 338 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
- As of Dec. 20, 6,607,890 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Ninety-two percent of people over the age of 65 have been completely vaccinated, while 59 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated. 2,542,000 boosters have been administered.
- Children between the ages of 5 and 11 became eligible for vaccination during November. A total of 186,226 first doses have been given to those children, a total of 21 percent of that population.