North Carolina's COVID-19 trends are moving in a positive direction since Phase 2.5 of the state's reopening began Sept. 4, state Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said Tuesday.
However, Cohen cautioned it remains too early to determine if additional public activity — whether Labor Day holiday events or President Donald Trump's campaign rally in Winston-Salem — will produce an uptick in new cases.
And the optimistic news comes on the same day that the state reported 51 deaths since the day before, a record high for North Carolina's daily COVID-19 death toll.
Cohen pointed to Sunday's N.C. COVID-19 tests, with only 5% of people testing positive out of the 25,472 tests conducted.
The Cooper administration is monitoring five public-health data points: number of hospitalizations; number of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators available; number of positive cases; percentage of positive cases; and number of individuals coming to hospital emergency rooms with COVID-19 symptoms.
Cohen said DHHS continues to monitor COVID-19 metrics over 14 to 21 days for determining any new trends.
"While it is too soon to know how the easing of restrictions and the Labor Day holiday will affect our trends, we are currently seeing positive signs," Cohen said.
"More people are wearing masks, practicing social distancing, helping our state stand out from the rest of the Southeast."
Officials with the Forsyth Department of Public Health have said it could take up to two weeks to determine whether Trump's Sept. 8 event in Winston-Salem contributed to any community spread of the virus.
Smith Reynolds airport director Mark Davidson estimated 7,000 to 9,000 people turned out for the event. Photos from the event suggest most people who attended did not wear face masks despite state requirements to do so.
"We do know that when people get together and they are not wearing masks, they are more high-risk events," Cohen said. "It's possible that people attended that rally not knowing they have COVID and could have spread it to others."
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Cohen said they discussed with Trump administration healthcare expert Dr. Deborah Birx “the need for our elected officials and candidates to lead by example on the campaign trail this fall by holding events with face coverings and social distancing.”
Cohen said the appeal was made to both presidential candidates and their surrogates who chose to campaign in North Carolina.
Flu shots grow in importance
DHHS reported Tuesday that virus deaths reached another statewide daily high of 51. There were 50 deaths reported on Sept. 5. Across the state since mid-March, North Carolina has seen 3,111 COVID-19 related deaths.
The state count was up 1,106 cases Monday for a total of 186,887.
The 2020-21 flu season officially begins Oct. 1, and Cohen said the pandemic makes a flu shot even more important this year. There are concerns, she said, about individuals with compromised immune systems having to fight off two respiratory illnesses at the same time.
Flu shots are available at most health-care providers, typically free for individuals with health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid.
"It can help prevent the overwhelming of our hospitals this winter," she said.
The 2019-20 flu season in N.C. finished with 186 deaths. The typical flu season is measured as Oct. 1 through March 31, although DHHS extended the reporting period for 2019-20 to the week that ended May 16.
Of the 186 who died, 105 were 65 or older, 53 were ages 50 to 64, 21 were ages 25 to 49, three were ages 5 to 17 and two each were ages 18 to 24 and birth to age 4.
New testing vendor added
DHHS has added another vendor, Optum Serve, to offer additional free community COVID-19 testing sites.
"Testing is a core element of North Carolina’s response to this pandemic, and that means making sure cost and access challenges never act as a barrier to a needed test," Cohen said.
Optum Serve, similar to N.C. Community Health Center Association and StarMed Urgent and Family Care PA, is offering turnkey testing sites — including clinical and administrative staff, tents, marketing materials, specimen-collection supplies, registration and interpreter or translation services.
The three testing vendors have 230 sites planned across 80 counties during September and October.
Among the counties Optum Serve initially will serve are Alamance, Davie, Surry and Yadkin counties in the Triad and Northwest N.C.
NCDHHS recommends testing for anyone with COVID-19 symptoms as well as for asymptomatic individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19, especially people from historically marginalized communities.
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