CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - As families prepare to finalize their holiday plans, North Carolina health leaders are urging people to do their part to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper and Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen, with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, unveiled a new county alert system, which is designed to identify the counties with the highest metrics.
“We are introducing a county alert system to identify North Carolina counties with the highest levels of community spread and to offer specific recommendations for how working together with us can bring down their numbers,” Cooper said.
The new data shows which COVID-19 numbers remain way too high.
“I am concerned about where we are as a state,” Cohen said. “The COVID-19 county alert system that we are introducing is a tool to help us slow the spread of the virus.”
The color-coordinated map shows that red and orange are the biggest concerns.
Locally, Gaston, Alexander and Avery counties are in the red, meaning their community spread is critical. Ashe, Cabarrus, Caldwell, Catawba, Iredell and Rowan counties are in orange, meaning their community spread is substantial.
“(Gaston) county continues to work with its partners in the business community to encourage compliance with mask-wearing and capacity restrictions for the safety of all residents,” a Gaston County spokesperson said. “Additionally, the county health department has worked closely with our local schools and congregate care facilities to provide support and guidance.”
Yellow means that the transmission spread of the coronavirus is still significant.
“All North Carolina counties are experiencing high levels of community spread, but the virus is impacting some counties harder than others,” Cohen said.
The county alert system is designed to give individuals, businesses, community organizations and public officials a tool to understand how their county is faring from the virus and how to take actions on slowing the spread.
The metrics are based on the case rate, which includes the number of new cases in 14 days per 100,000 people, the percent positive rate, and the hospital impact.
“We wanted to identify counties, and it is at the county level where the metrics have been taken,” Cooper said. “We wanted to identify the counties that were having the worst problems, the viral hotspots.”
Cooper, and state health officials urge people to wear face coverings and be socially distant from others.
Other state guidelines include limiting mixing between households, minimize people in your social circle, reduce public activities to essential activities and avoid settings where people congregate.
Cooper said that while the metrics are increasing in North Carolina, but they are much worse in other states.
“This new county alert system shows our state’s viral hotspot,” Cooper said. The entire state is experiencing wide-spread transmission. Right now, North Carolina’s metrics are increasing, not surging, but a surge can happen quickly. If officials, business, community and faith leaders and people who live in these orange and red counties can work with us to take effective action to slow their numbers, we can protect our hospital system and save lives."
With two COVID-19 vaccines showing promise, Cooper is asking North Carolinians to stay vigilant and wary of spreading the virus.
Cooper said there is hope on the horizon.
“North Carolinians have more reason to be hopeful than ever,” he said. "Hope must drive our efforts to bridge the gap and slow the spread of the virus until vaccines help us snuff it out. “Now isn’t the time to give up and let more people get sick and die. Now is the time to recommit to taking this virus seriously, and that means making our holiday plans smaller and safer.”
The governor did say on Tuesday that if the metrics continue to trend the wrong way, the state and local officials may be forced to cut back some of its restrictions.
"If our metrics keep moving in the wrong direction, the state could impose additional orders, either at the local or statewide level, Cooper said. “As numbers worsen, we need North Carolinians to treat this virus like the deadly threat that this still is.”
You can learn more about the county alert system here.
“This new tool will help us monitor how COVID-19 is progressing differently in counties across the state,” said Mecklenburg County Public Health Deputy Director Raynard Washington said. “We will continue to monitor our trends locally and regionally to help inform our response efforts.”
As of Monday, more than 38,600 people tested positive in Mecklenburg County.
Last week, Cooper paused Phase 3 of North Carolina’s reopening process which was set to expire on Friday. Phase 3 has now been extended until Dec. 4.
Cohen says the state’s trajectory of cases is up.
On Tuesday, health officials reported nearly 3,300 new COVID-19 cases, and a record-high 1,501 hospitalizations.
Through 17 days in November, there have been three record-high days with new cases. There have also been four days with more than 3,000 additional coronavirus cases.
To date, North Carolina has reported 317,495 COVID-19 cases since March, along with 4,852 deaths.
Cooper and health officials are concerned the spread could get worse as families and people congregate in large gatherings to celebrate the holidays.
Cooper announced that social, community and family gatherings must be reduced from 25 to 10 people.
“This reduction in the indoor gathering limit aims to slow the spread and bring down out numbers,” Cooper said. “It also brings a serious message to our families, friends and neighbors across the state. Success in slowing the spread will help our businesses.”
Cooper said that as the weather gets cooler, that will force more people inside, which will bring for more gatherings indoors.
According to health officials, indoor locations are where the virus can easily spread.
“Science shows that the transmission of this virus is much greater indoors,” Cooper said. “The more gathered indoors the easier this virus can spread. We saw increasing spread from social gatherings in October.”
The governor said the reduction of indoor gatherings does not affect churches or religious activities, nor does it impact schools.
Other exemptions include weddings, funerals, First Amendment activities, work meetings, gyms, restaurants, spas, museums, theaters, hotels, airports, bus, train, libraries and malls.
On Oct. 21, North Carolina “paused” Phase 3 for three weeks for the first time.
With the growing trends, health leaders felt the need to extend it again.
Phase 3 is being extended “because several of our trends are moving in the wrong direction,” Cooper said. “These numbers are not where we want them to be.”
“As frustrating and as painful as it is, we must keep fighting a little while longer,” Cooper said. "We don’t want to let the last eight months of sacrifice go to waste by ignoring safety measures during family gatherings.
Cooper said that during Phase 3, the at-risk population is “still safer at home.” He urged anyone over 65 - and those with health risks - to take “responsibility in your choices.”
The following measures were to be followed under Phase 3:
- Face coverings are still mandatory for everybody over the age of 5.
- Large outdoor venues with seating greater than 10,000 may operate with 7% occupancy for spectators with other safety protocols.
- Smaller outdoor entertainment venues may operate outdoors at 30% of outdoor capacity or 100 guests, whichever is less.
- Movie theaters and conference centers may open indoor spaces to 30% of capacity, or 100 seated guests, whichever is less.
- Bars may operate outdoors only at 30% of outdoor capacity, or 100 guests, whichever is less.
- Outdoor amusement parks may open at 30% occupancy.
- The limits on mass gatherings will remain at 10 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.
- The 11 p.m. curfew on alcohol sales for in-person consumption in locations such as restaurants and outdoor bars will be extended.
Cooper said, “Until we have a vaccine or a reliable cure, precautions like the 3 W’s are with us for a while. Our children can go back to school and our economy can fully rebuild when we’re safe, and people have confidence that they can stay healthy. Every careful step we make forward, and every time we wear a mask and keep our distance, we are helping to keep this disease at bay, and building a stronger North Carolina.”
Read the entire Phase 3 Executive Order below:
On Tuesday, Dr. Cohen provided an update on North Carolina’s data and trends.
Trajectory in COVID-Like Illness (CLI) Surveillance Over 14 Days
- North Carolina’s syndromic surveillance trend for COVID-like illness is decreasing but still elevated.
Trajectory of Confirmed Cases Over 14 Days
- ·North Carolina’s trajectory of cases is increasing.
Trajectory in Percent of Tests Returning Positive Over 14 Days
- North Carolina’s trajectory in percent of tests returning positive is level but above 5 percent.
Trajectory in Hospitalizations Over 14 Days
- North Carolina’s trajectory of hospitalizations is level but high.
In addition to these metrics, the state continues building capacity to adequately respond to an increase in virus spread in testing, tracing and prevention.
- Testing capacity is high
- The state is continuing to hire contact tracers to bolster the efforts of local health departments.
- There have been almost 350,000 downloads of the exposure notification app, SlowCOVIDNC.
Personal Protective Equipment
North Carolina’s personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies are stable.
Several businesses were anxious for Phase 3, hoping they’ll finally be able to open their doors nearly seven months after they first closed. The list of closed businesses include movie theaters, event venues, theaters, concert venues and bars.
Bar owners expected to be able to open inside during Phase 3. Many of them don’t have enough patio spaces to reopen.
Some bar owners called out Governor Cooper for a double standard in his policy making.
Venues like Bank of America stadium, which has a capacity of more than 75,000, were included in the event venues permitted to open at the reduced capacity. Large entertainment venues are those that can seat over 10,000.
“We are excited to welcome some fans back to Bank of America Stadium beginning Oct. 4,” the Carolina Panthers said in a statement. “We have worked for months to develop and implement a responsible and comprehensive plan for the return of fans and we are confident that it will ensure that the game day experience is enjoyable and as safe as possible.”
Panthers officials say they will continue to follow guidelines provided by the CDC and local and state government, as well as the National Football League.
“With more things open and people moving around more, we need everyone to stay vigilant about wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart, and washing their hands often,” said Secretary Mandy Cohen. “Our progress is fragile and will take our continued hard to work to protect it.”
On September 4 at 5 p.m., the state moved into Phase 2.5. The phase expired at 5 p.m. on October 2. The phase allowed gyms and several other establishments to reopen, while loosening restrictions at places that were already operating. Gov. Roy Cooper cited stable coronavirus numbers as the reason the state moved into Phase 2.5.
Cooper announced that beginning on October 5, North Carolina elementary schools were able to open under “Plan A,” which allows all students and staff to return to school.
Schools are also still allowed the option of completely virtual learning, as laid out in N.C.'s “Plan C.”