CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A week after rolling out North Carolina’s county alert map to identify the state’s “viral hotspots,” Gov. Roy Cooper said 10 additional counties were in the red zone, which indicates a critical state of community spread.
On Nov. 16, Gov. Roy Cooper and Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen, with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, unveiled the new county alert system, which is designed to identify the counties with the highest metrics.
Monday, just days ahead of Thanksgiving, Cooper addressed a grim milestone in North Carolina of surpassing 5,000 virus-related deaths. “We are in danger,” Cooper said. “This is a pivotal moment in our fight with the coronavirus,” Cooper said regarding the state’s next steps.
The county alert system breaks counties down by color to represent viral spread:
- Red = critical
- Orange = substantial
- Yellow = significant
As of November 23, North Carolina had 20 counties in red and 42 counties in orange. The counties in red are double the amount that the state was seeing last week.
“This week you’ll see that 10 more counties have been designated as red, indicating critically high levels of community spread,” Cooper said. “This is deadly serious.”
Ahead of the holidays, Cooper tightened the state’s mask mandate with an executive order.
“Our statewide mask requirement has been in effect since June and it is still our best weapon in this fight,” Cooper said during a press conference. “Today’s executive order will further tighten that mandate, making it clear that everyone needs to wear a mask whenever you are with someone you don’t live with.”
The governor says this means residents should even be wearing masks at home when friends or family are visiting. “It means a mask at work, at the gym, at the store, at school.”
The order also “strengthens the role of businesses in ensuring masks are worn by everyone in the store - staff and customers - and that they are abiding by capacity limits so that people can stay distant and can stay safe, Cooper said. “Today’s executive order will further tighten the mandate,” Cooper said.
The order also modifies gathering limitations to ten people indoors, indoor bar closures, occupancy restrictions for retail stores, restaurants and other public businesses, extending these protections through December 11.
The news comes as N.C. continues to see rising hospitalizations due to the virus.
Two weeks earlier and just days ahead of being it set to expire, Gov. Cooper announced that the state will remain paused in Phase 3 until Dec. 4.
“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 last week.
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.”
Locally, Gaston, Catawba, Alexander and Avery counties are in the red, meaning their community spread is critical. Ashe, Lincoln, Cleveland, Cabarrus, Caldwell, 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.
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.
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.
Read the entire Phase 3 Executive Order below: