CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As winter proves to be the most taxing season of the pandemic yet, questions loom over whether more restrictions could be coming to North Carolina. For now, the state will remain paused in its same phase.
The governor's executive order, detailing the state's current "modified" stay-at-home phase, was set to expire Friday at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper announced he would extend the Stay At Home order for three weeks.
"With hospitals feeling the strain and more people sick, there has never been a more important time to take this seriously," Cooper said.
Cooper began Wednesday's press conference by announcing the new county alert system shows 96 out of 100 counties are now in the red or orange zone, meaning critical or substantial COVID-19 spread.
"There's an alarming amount of virus everywhere in our state," NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said.
North Carolina's modified Stay at Home Order requires people to stay at home between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Additionally, many businesses -- restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, personal care businesses, most retail stores, and more -- have capacity limits and will be required to close by 10 p.m. each night.
All onsite alcohol consumption sales must end by 9 p.m. statewide.
When first announcing that new order in December, Gov. Roy Cooper had stated that further restrictions could come after, including to activities like indoor dining, if the state's coronavirus metrics did not improve.
Since then, the metrics have only worsened.
The NC Department of Health and Human Services also issued a Secretarial Directive Wednesday, urging North Carolinians to stay home except for essential activities and avoid gathering -- especially indoors -- with people who do not live with you.
“There is an alarming amount of virus everywhere in our state. We are in a very dangerous position,” Cohen said. “Every single North Carolinian needs to take immediate action to save lives and protect themselves and each other.”
NCDHHS said the directive aligns with recommendations from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the Governor Cooper's Executive Orders on COVID-19, and the COVID-19 County Alert System for North Carolina.
The directive asks North Carolinians to:
- Only leave home for essential activities such as going to work or school, for health care purposes, to care for family members or to buy food.
- Avoid leaving home if over 65 or at high risk for developing a serious illness; use delivery services or alternative pick-up methods for food and retail.
- Avoid gathering with people who do not live with you.
- Wear a mask and keep distance from people when you leave home.
- Avoid indoor public spaces where people are not wearing masks.
- Stay away from crowds and avoid places where people may gather in large numbers.
NCDHHS said the directive tells North Carolinians if they have gathered with people who do not live with them, to assume they have become infected with COVID-19, and to get tested.
North Carolina coronavirus data trends up
The start of the holiday season has ushered in higher daily case counts, ballooning positivity rates, and record-setting coronavirus hospitalizations. With each fall and winter holiday, health officials have braced for higher spikes in the numbers, and so far, their fears have come to fruition.
Wednesday saw yet another COVID-19 patient count record for North Carolina, with 3,893 people getting treatment in the hospital. Since Thanksgiving, the number of coronavirus patients has grown by roughly 2,000.
North Carolina coronavirus hospitalizations
While beds and resources remain, hospitals have had to make adjustments to account for the surge.
"During the pandemic, we've expanded our bed capacity by approximately 60%," said Dr. David Priest, of Novant Health. "While, today, we have the necessary beds, the staffing, the protective equipment to care for all those who need it, we need the help of our communities to ensure that continues to be the case."
However, some hospitals in other regions could be closer to the breaking point. Thursday, an emergency field hospital for coronavirus patients is set to open in Lenoir to help ease the burden for five hospital systems in the Western North Carolina area.
Even as the ceiling continues to rise on the metrics, health officials fear the end is not yet in sight.
Based on what is known about the incubation period of the virus, experts believe the case spikes now are only the early ones tied to Christmas.
The Carolinas are slow to give out the vaccine
Despite a jumpstart Monday to begin giving the coronavirus vaccine to select members of the public (those over the age of 75), both North Carolina and South Carolina lag behind other states in the rate at which they are administering the COVID-19 vaccine.
North Carolina ranks 44th for the number of vaccines administered per capita, and South Carolina ranks 43rd, according to CDC data.
WCNC Charlotte Defender Alex Shabad spoke one-on-one with North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen to ask what's been doing done to speed up the rollout in the Tarheel State.
Secretary Cohen said a lot of the vaccine response depends on the actual medical provider. She says some have moved quickly, others have not.
Now, Secretary Cohen wants to support those who need it.
“I think everyone shares that sense of urgency,” Cohen said.
Cohen told WCNC Charlotte her goal initially was to quickly get COVID-19 vaccines to all 100 counties in the state. However, she says there’s been a wide variety in how health departments and hospitals have responded.
“Some partners are fantastic and got that vaccine into arms really quickly and others need more support and didn't do it as quickly,” Cohen said.
“We want to be seeing a higher rate of vaccination and I know folks are working towards that,” said Secretary Cohen.
“We are working at maximal speed,” said Dr. Raynard Washington, Mecklenburg County Deputy Health Director.
Dr. Washington says one of the main challenges is not getting enough lead time about the incoming shipments, so they can properly plan vaccine clinics.
“You can imagine trying outreach to several thousand individuals in the county, and get them all to set up their appointments, and get them in and through with a day's notice, is a bit of a challenge,” Washington said.
Vaccine appointments in Mecklenburg County are booked up through January.
Coronavirus holiday surge
Healthcare providers are bracing for the rest of the Christmas surge and any cases that could also come from New Year's Eve gatherings and the last of the holiday travel.
"We believe January is going to be a rough month across the region for our healthcare providers," Dr. Priest said. "Our opinion on that has not changed."
Mecklenburg County's Public Health Director Gibbie Harris agrees, noting that, despite health officials' warnings, there were still many holiday gatherings and lots of travel also took place.
"We anticipate seeing more cases," Harris said. "I'd like to think that's not going to be the case, but we're expecting to see a continuous increase for, at least, the next couple of weeks."