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Mecklenburg health officials update COVID-19 metrics

Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington was joined by officials from Novant Health and Atrium Health Wednesday afternoon.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Across the state, more than 5,000 beds are occupied with COVID-19 patients, marking again another record high amidst the pandemic. Even more alarming, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reports nearly every county across the United States is seeing high virus transmission.

Mecklenburg County health officials noted those trends and more information. They provided an update on COVID-19 cases and vaccination data Wednesday as the omicron variant continues to drive those increases in new cases and hospitalizations.

The overall message: the county likely has hit the peak with the omicron variant. But experts say we can't keep repeating this cycle.

Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington was joined by Dr. Jim Hunter of Atrium Health, as well as Novant Health's Dr. Sid Fletcher for Wednesday's 3 p.m. update. During the update, the group encouraged vaccinations and booster shots for everyone and to get tested if they're feeling any COVID-19 symptoms.

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The telltale sign the surge in cases was waning was the fact many testing sites were seeing less visitors. Dr. Jim Hunter with Atrium Health, however, was quick to point out it's not over just yet for the virus.

"From the hospital's perspective, we are nowhere out of this pandemic," he said. "I think as the community looks at those positive signs of decreasing cases, we need them to know that your healthcare workers are still in this battle knee-deep."

This was a sentiment with which Dr. Washington agreed; Hunter and Dr. Fletcher both noted most coronavirus patients in hospitals were not vaccinated, so getting the shot and booster is crucial. Washington noted this will help everyone better live with the virus as the endemic stage approaches.

"That's what protects our healthcare system and of course it protects life. It keeps people alive, it keeps them well, and avoids the likelihood people have long haul symptoms related to the virus," said Washington.

With COVID-19 hospitalizations at an all-time high in North Carolina, state health leaders asked FEMA for help staffing Charlotte-area hospitals. Gov. Roy Cooper and the Department of Health and Human Services formally requested support last week in partnership with Atrium Health, which says it is above 95% capacity despite actions taken to reduce patient numbers. 

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Breaking down statewide numbers 

NCDHHS reported 5,090 hospitalizations Wednesday, which is a 27% increase from last winter's record. If you're looking for a silver lining, the day-over-day increases in patient counts are slowing down after peaking earlier this month, according to an analysis from WCNC Charlotte's Vanessa Ruffes. NCDHHS reported 20,286 new cases Wednesday with a 32.4% positivity rate. 

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Three new testing sites opened in Charlotte Tuesday to help with overwhelming demand. However, lines were almost nonexistent at MAKO Medical's Park Expo Center testing site. Other usually busy sies were also quiet, raising the question if the new sites were too late. Just a few days ago, wait times at many COVID-19 test sites in the Charlotte area were hours long. 

"We went from testing 30,000 people a month to 130,000 people a month," Michael Estramonte, CEO of StarMed Healthcare, said. "We wish we had it a month ago."

MAKO Medical has test locations open at the Park Expo, First Baptist Church of Cornelius and R.C. Bradford Park in Huntersville.

Earlier this week, doctors at Duke University said they believe COVID-19 could be nearing the endemic phase. Dr. Jonathan Quick said the number of people getting infected with omicron could put immunity in a place where hospitals aren't overwhelmed, case levels drop and the virus is manageable. 

As that endemic phase approaches, Dr. Washington also announced Mecklenburg County has stopped contact tracing for the general public under the direction of the state of North Carolina. However, it'll still be used in high-risk settings, like long-term care facilities and schools.

"With the high level of community transmission and fact that COVID is again with us and going to be with us, the idea of utilizing contact tracing and case investigation as a primary method of containment is not suitable or feasible for the long term," he said.

However, medical masks and rapid COVID-19 tests are still being handed out. The county will hold a mass distribution of both at two locations on Saturday, Jan. 29 from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m.: one at North Mecklenburg High School in Huntersville, and another at the Central Piedmont Community College's Harper Campus in southwest Charlotte.

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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