As key COVID-19 metrics continue to rise in North Carolina — particularly new cases, the positive test rate and hospitalizations — Gov. Roy Cooper has scheduled an update for Wednesday likely to focus on statewide masking policies.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported Tuesday a three-month high in the statewide positive test rate to 7.3%, and a six-week high on COVID-19 related hospitalizations at 672.
New cases were reported at 871 for Monday, while there were six additional COVID-19 related deaths.
The state reached a near two-month high for new cases at 1,163 reported Friday. The case counts were at 1,053 on Saturday and 734 on Sunday.
Meanwhile, DHHS continues to report a low number of new cases in Forsyth County, including 16 listed Tuesday with no additional COVID-19 deaths.
Since the onset of the pandemic in mid-March 2020, 37,277 Forsyth residents have tested positive for the virus and 427 have died from COVID-19 related illnesses. Forsyth has had 233 new cases so far in July.
DHHS lists COVID-19 cases and deaths on the day they are confirmed by medical providers and public health officials, so people may have been infected or may have died days or weeks before their cases were counted.
For the pandemic, North Carolina has had 1.03 million COVID-19 cases and 13,541 COVID-19 related deaths, with the number of deaths up 12 since Monday’s report.
The federal Centers for Disease Control has said the vast majority of new COVID-19 cases — 99% — have occurred in people who are not fully vaccinated, particularly those between ages 18 and 50.
Masking in schools
North Carolinians, particularly K-12 school districts, parents and students, have waited since July 9 for a potential masking update from Cooper.
Most public schools in North Carolina, including those in Forsyth, will return to school on Aug. 23 — about the same time that the highly contagious delta variant is expected to peak, according to Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious diseases expert with Wake Forest Baptist Health
The latest CDC COVID-19 guidance allows vaccinated middle and high school students, teachers and other educators to go mask-less in K-12 indoor settings.
Cooper’s Executive Order No. 215, issued May 14, lifted most public-health mask restrictions. The order came three days after the CDC adjusted its masking guidance on May 11.
However, North Carolinians still have to mask up in certain indoor settings, such as schools, hospitals and in prisons.
NCDHHS said June 9 that CDC guidance “continues to recommend that unvaccinated persons continue to wear masks in schools, which includes the vast majority of K-12 students, as well as other settings that serve children, including child care and camps.
Local public-health and school officials have expressed hope that the relaxing of some COVID-19 restrictions by the CDC could spark another round of vaccinations.
However, the officials also expressed concern that the new guidance could take the COVID-19 vaccination honor system to a whole new level of accountability and potential unintended consequences.
About 70% of North Carolinians between ages 12 and 17 remain unvaccinated. No COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for kindergartners through age 11.
“My recommendation is for schools to begin the school year with students and staff masked,” Ohl said. “As time goes on, and if the rates of COVID-19 continue to be low, we can consider relaxing things.”
Ohl has said the current youth vaccination rates “is just not high enough to protect us from the delta variant and slow its circulation. It’s going to be the younger people who are going to be getting infected.”
Ohl said he is concerned that if schools allow those vaccinated to go mask-less, “virtually nobody will be wearing a mask, regardless of whether or not they have been vaccinated.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended Monday that students and staff be fully masked, regardless of vaccination status, for the opening of the 2021-22 school year.
Delta variant update
North Carolina public health officials are concerned that the recent uptick in cases is the delta variant, which has been classified as a “variant of concern” by the CDC,
The delta variant spreads faster than other strains of COVID-19 and could pose an increased risk of hospitalization.
Dr. David Priest, an infectious diseases expert with Novant Health Inc., said Tuesday the Triad “is well on its way for the delta variant being the variant we see in COVID cases.”
Priest said it is concerning that the delta variant is not necessarily producing the same “classic” symptoms as the earlier version of COVID-19, in particular the temporary loss of taste and smell.
“Symptoms with delta tend to be a runny nose, sore throat, things that are less specific to COVID, and that’s going to present a real diagnostic challenge for clinicians as we head into the fall and the circulation of the flu and other respiratory viruses,” Priest said.
He said community spread is concerning because of the vulnerability of the unvaccinated, particularly those who are school age.
“Delta seems to be more contagious and a more severe case, but not necessarily more deadly right now,” Priest said.
“Other variants could come that could change that equation. Because of that, it can become even more contagious.
“When that happens, it’s going to run through parts of our community who are not vaccinated.”