Gov. Roy Cooper added his voice Thursday to those cautioning that many key COVID-19 metrics in the state are “going in the wrong direction.”
That includes the state reaching a pandemic-high 2,532 new cases reported Thursday and approaching 3,900 virus-related deaths.
Like Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state's health secretary, Cooper said he does not want to go backward and tighten socioeconomic restrictions.
But he cautioned that the combination of the pandemic, the arrival of the 2020-21 flu season, and lax adhering to social distancing guidelines could push the metrics high enough to force his hand.
Thursday, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced the state's first flu-related death of the year, an individual age 65 and older.
Cooper indicated the COVID trends are likely to keep Phase Three restrictions in place. His latest reopening executive order is set to expire at 5 p.m. Oct. 23.
"It'll be important to continue to watch these numbers over a 14-day period," Cooper said. "With colder weather and people moving more indoors, there's more chance for viral spread.
"We have driven these numbers down before when we pulled together."
The Cooper administration has been monitoring since mid-March 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.
Cooper said he is concerned that North Carolinians, fatigued from the pandemic, "are letting their guard down with extended family and people we know."
"If you don't live with them, they can bring the virus to you and not know it.
"One thing is clear. North Carolinians must be even more vigilant in our effort to prevent the spread of this virus," Cooper said. "Complacency will cost lives and hurt our economy."
North Carolina's uptick in key COVID-19 metrics also has been noted by the White House Coronavirus Task Force in its weekly COVID-19 report to governors.
North Carolina was added this week to a list of now 26 states considered in the "red zone" for cases, which signals having more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents.
Being in the red zone brings a list of recommendations that include limiting gatherings to no more than 10 individuals, and not going to gyms or bars or dining inside at restaurants.
The task force said the most common denominator for the red zone states has been infections linked to family gatherings.
However, North Carolina was not in two other red zone categories: having at least 10% positive test rate the previous week; and having more than two deaths per 100,000 residents the previous week.
Since Phase 2.5 of reopening began Sept. 4 in North Carolina, the total case count has jumped nearly 36% from 175,815 to 238,939 as of 11:30 a.m. Thursday. The death toll has increased by more than 34% from 2,889 to 3,874.
Perhaps the most concerning of the trends is the fluctuating positive test rate, which has been as low as 4.6% on Sept. 24 and as high as 7.9% on Oct. 4. There was a 6.5% percentage positive rate out of Tuesday's 20,327 tests.
Cohen has said she prefers a 5% positive test rate when evaluating whether to ease COVID-19 socioeconomic restrictions.
The hospitalization count, which was at 1,140 on Thursday, has been above the 1,000 mark since Oct. 5.
Cooper said that on Friday, the state plans to file North Carolina's COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, which would emphasize essential workers, residents of long-term care facilities and healthcare workers with an expected limited initial supply.
President Donald Trump, during a campaign rally in Greenville on Thursday, repeated his claim that the coronavirus continues to diminish overall.
When Cohen was asked to address Trump's statement, she replied, "We're reporting our highest day of cases since the pandemic has begun."
"It doesn't feel like petering out to me."
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.