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NC showing encouraging early signs for some COVID-19 metrics but doctors warn, 'there's a long way to go'

The past few days of daily cases and positive test rates show possible leveling after a long upward climb from the holidays, but doctors want more data first.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina could be turning a corner after suffering months under a holiday-related COVID-19 surge.

While the signs are still fresh, and health experts want to see more days of data before forming a conclusion on the trends, the last few statewide case reports and daily positive test rates show the metrics could be coming back down.

According to North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services data, the average daily case increase has stuck close to 8,000 since early last week. That's after rising fairly steadily from roughly 1,200 new cases per day back in September.

Similarly, the positive test rate over the last 14 days is now 12.8%. It had peaked last week at around 14.5%, and this is the first significant decline for the metric since early September.

Dr. David Priest, an infectious disease specialist with Novant Health, said he would like to see the current trend continue into next week before declaring the current situation a turnaround.

"We've been dealing with this for so long, we're almost a little hesitant to be too overly optimistic until we really see it. I am encouraged by it, make no mistake, but we know things can turn quickly," said Dr. Priest.

In Mecklenburg County, there are similar trends--flattening daily cases and positive test rates. Public Health Director Gibbie Harris thinks it could be because the winter holidays are far enough behind us.

Still, she agrees it is too soon to draw conclusions.

"I'd like to think that it means that people are being a little less active in the community and that we're seeing less spread, but we're just going to have to see how this plays out over the next couple of weeks," said Harris.

One metric that is still increasing, on average, is COVID-related hospitalizations. In North Carolina, the average daily coronavirus patient census is 3,900 over the last two weeks. Last Thursday, the state reported just shy of 4,000 patients, a record high.

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Dr. Priest said if the state is, indeed, experiencing a turning of the corner, it might take 10 to 14 days longer to see hospitalizations start trending downward as well. Health officials have long reminded that this metric is a "lagging indicator," meaning it responds slower to influence than other metrics, both in rising and in falling.

"We're hopeful that this surge from holidays is now turning the corner, but we've had peaks and valleys before throughout the entire pandemic," said Dr. Priest.

While these early signs in cases and percent positive are promising, Dr. Priest reminds us that their levels are still extremely elevated. Within the Novant Health system, he calls COVID-related hospitalizations "incredibly high."

"We also don't want to give the sense that we're out of the woods, it's fine, everything is doing fine, everyone can relax. We're not even close to that," said Dr. Priest. "We've got a long, long way to go."