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Cooper: Vaccination is 'strongest protection' to fight COVID as omicron drives record case numbers

North Carolina health officials reported a new single-day case record on Jan. 1, with nearly 20,000 infections being detected statewide.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With COVID-19 case numbers hitting new records and hospitalizations on the rise, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and state health leaders urged everyone to get vaccinated and boosted, if eligible, as soon as possible. 

State health officials reported a new single-day record for infections on New Year's Day. On Monday, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) announced 12,989 new cases. This came after a new single-day record was reported for Jan. 1, with nearly 20,000 infections being reported. Tuesday's report saw 10,276 new cases with 3,008 people hospitalized statewide. Nearly 30% of tests came back positive. 

"I know many of you are weary and frustrated," Cooper said. "I know it was difficult for people who wanted to do the right thing over the holidays and to make difficult decisions with family and friends." 

Cooper said he understands it's scary to see so many people testing positive for the virus but explained that the omicron variant appears to be less severe for people who are fully vaccinated and boosted. 

"We have the benefit of so much more information, science and data than we did at the start of the pandemic," Cooper said. "Getting more people vaccinated and boosted is the key. I and my family have, and that's the strongest protection we have to fight this virus and live normal lives." 

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"This virus and its variants are going to be with us a while, but we're getting better and better at dealing and living with it, so we'll keep doing that," Cooper said. 

More than 87% of people in North Carolina ICUs are unvaccinated, according to NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley. 

Kinsley also told North Carolinians to not go to the emergency room for a COVID-19 test. Instead, the state is asking people to use the NCDHHS website to find testing locations near them. Cooper said that White House officials told him Tuesday that two new forms of rapid tests were approved by the FDA, and federal officials hope to get millions of tests sent to North Carolina quickly.

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"The fast-spreading omicron variant is another reminder that viruses change and our understanding of them grows," Kinsley said. "Last week, the CDC updated its guidance for those with a COVID-19 positive test or exposure. The department has outlined our guidance to that standard and updated the StrongSchools Toolkit for that standard."

With new positive COVID-19 cases rising in the state, so are the hospitalizations. Data from NCDHHS shows hospitalizations topping 3,008 on Tuesday. Hospitalizations have gone up by at least 100 patients six of the last seven days, according to analysis from WCNC Charlotte's Vanessa Ruffes.

"We don't want to downplay, while there's some good science that omicron is less severe, what we're seeing is over 87% of people hospitalized, in ICUs in particular, are unvaccinated," Kinsley said. "People who do not have immunity still have severe risk. Thinking about how quickly this is moving, there is still a serious risk for those individuals and the hospital system."

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The surge currently driving cases is bigger than last winter, with the two-week daily case average approaching 10,000. 

Over the past two weeks, nearly 17% of tests have come back positive, including a staggering 27% on Jan. 1. 

Cooper's update Tuesday came as testing sites across the Charlotte area have been inundated with long lines as thousands of people try to find tests. StarMed Healthcare, one of the largest test providers, has closed multiple locations and been forced to turn people away due to the overwhelming demand for tests this week. 

"Right now all the sites are busy. I don’t know when this wave is going to start to slow down but our positivity rate is well over 20%, at this site I think it's 25% and it’s just a sign of the times," CEO Michael Estramonte said.

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Several of StarMed's Charlotte sites are at schools. They also double as vaccination clinics, with doctors urging parents to get their children vaccinated if eligible. 

"You have a lot more infection control with vaccination. Also, we are protecting our teachers, some of them are high-risk patient populations so even for them, vaccinating our kids is very important. So it's good for everybody," Dr. Vrushali Patwardhan, a pediatrician with Novant Health, said.

Click here for a list of StarMed COVID-19 test sites in Charlotte

The state revised its safe schools' toolkit, getting in line with the CDC's latest isolation guidance. Any student who tests positive but doesn't have any symptoms can return to class after five days, with five more days of strict masking.

WCNC Charlotte is part of seven major media companies and other local institutions reporting on and engaging the community around the problems and solutions as they relate to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a project of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, which is supported by the Local Media Project, an initiative launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems. See all of our reporting at charlottejournalism.org.

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