CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After months of driving the numbers down, North Carolina is now seeing the same level of daily new coronavirus cases, on average, as it was during peak viral spread back in July.
More than half of October's daily case jumps have been above 2,000, and that is now the average number of new cases the state nets each day.
Friday set a new record for the Tar Heel State, with 2,684 new cases reported that day. While the positive test rate is not as high as it was in July, when it sat above 9%, the metric is increasing and is averaging about 6.2% over the last two weeks.
The percentage of total tests incorporated into this calculation has also increased since the start of the pandemic, making it difficult to directly compare the two figures.
All four of the state's key coronavirus metrics are rising, with hospitalizations, as a lagging indicator, being the last to give up its declines over recent months and start to trend back up. Now, North Carolina is averaging nearly 1,100 total COVID-19 patients a day.
State health officials report that while hospital capacity statewide remains, smaller hospitals are running out of room. North Carolina's healthcare workers are also feeling the emotional strain, as the state's hospitalizations show no signs of slowing down.
"There's probably not a day I don't cry. I'll just sit in my office and cry, and then it'll be a few minutes, and I'll walk out and it will be fine," said Loc Culp, Patient Services Manager at UNC Hospital.
Health officials have expressed concern over how full hospitals might get over the next few months, as even a normal flu season would typically drive up bed usage.
As for what is driving the virus spikes, health experts believe it is both the cooler weather, which pushes folks into riskier indoor settings and creates a more favorable environment for the virus, and pandemic fatigue. They have asked everyone to stay vigilant with coronavirus protections like masking and social distancing and to get a flu shot.
"We've watched lots of patients die from this, and what's difficult is just seeing people not being able to breathe," Culp said. "It's real. It's very real."
The numbers are set to play a key role in any reopening plans. Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to make an announcement this week about what comes after Phase 3 expires Friday.