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Coronavirus live updates: Here's what to know in North Carolina on June 23

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 6/24/2020 By Bailey Aldridge and Simone Jasper, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

We're keeping track of the most up-to-date news about the coronavirus in North Carolina. Check back for updates.

Cases top 54,000

At least 54,453 people in North Carolina have tested positive for the coronavirus and 1,251 have died, according to state health officials.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday reported an additional 848 cases of the virus, up from 804 reported the day before.

Health officials estimate that 36,921 people have recovered from coronavirus in North Carolina.

Hospitalizations reach another record

At least 915 coronavirus patients were in North Carolina hospitals on Tuesday, the highest single-day total ever reported in the state.

Tuesday's total broke the previous record of 883 hospitalizations, which was set on Saturday.

Hospitalizations then dropped to 845 on Sunday and 870 on Monday, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

About 91% of hospitals reported data to the state Tuesday, compared to 73% on Monday.

Less than one-fourth of hospital beds and intensive care unit beds were available as of Tuesday.

Fauci warns of increased spread

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease expert on the White House coronavirus task force, told lawmakers Tuesday that there's a risk of "insidious increase in community spread" in North Carolina that could be hard to control unless state and local leaders take action.

Fauci was asked about the spread of cases in the state by North Carolina Democratic Rep. G. K. Butterfield while testifying before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

He said the numbers can't be explained by increased testing because an increase in the percentage of positive tests indicates there are additional infections.

"When you have those kinds of increases, you must implement on the ground as effectively as possible the manpower, the system, the tests to do identification, isolation and contact tracing to try and blunt that surge of cases," he said. "Hopefully that will be successful in the blunting of those cases, because if not, then you have the danger of having a gradual, insidious increase in community spread, which will be much more difficult to contain as the community spread amplifies itself."

Counties emerging as hot spots

Duplin, Bladen and Sampson counties in eastern North Carolina have been marked as coronavirus hot spots by data compiled over the past two weeks by The New York Times.

The counties all fell near the bottom of the Times' list of 100 U.S. counties with the highest number of recent cases per resident, behind counties in Alabama, Georgia and Texas.

All three counties are relatively rural, but all play a role in the pork industry.

Coronavirus outbreaks have been reported at 28 meat processing plants in 21 counties in North Carolina, including Duplin, Bladen and Sampson, according to state health officials. Some have also has nursing home outbreaks.

Cases growing faster in the Triangle

Coronavirus cases are growing at a higher rate in the Triangle area than in other parts of North Carolina.

The rapid spread of the virus has made the area a focus of attention among the state's three major urban areas -- the Triangle, Charlotte and Triad areas.

Cases in five Triangle counties have been growing at a higher rate since the start of Phase Two.

On May 22, Wake, Orange, Durham, Chatham and Johnston counties had a combined 3,701 cases of the virus --17.1% of the state's 21,618 cases reported at the time. But on Tuesday, the five-county total had grown to 9,964 or 18.2% of the state's 54,453 cases.

Charlotte mayor asks for mask mandate

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles asked Gov. Roy Cooper to issue a statewide face mask mandate as Mecklenburg County's case count surpassed 9,000 on Tuesday.

"I support this for all of our citizens because it provides additional meaningful steps to help combat the spread of COVID-19," Lyles wrote on Twitter.

Last week, the governor said such a requirement in North Carolina is "absolutely in discussion." Lyles said Monday she was waiting to see if Cooper would issue the requirement before Charlotte and county leaders continue discussing a local requirement.

Other areas in North Carolina, including Raleigh, have already mandated the use of masks.

Ace Speedway ruling possible

A judge on Wednesday is expected to decide whether an Alamance County speedway can hold races during the coronavirus pandemic.

Superior Court Judge D. Thomas Lambeth Jr. on June 11 ordered Ace Speedway to close. The decision came after the racetrack held events that drew thousands of fans, despite the state's ban on outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people.

Lambeth "ruled in favor of a temporary restraining order" that stands until Wednesday, when he is expected to make his next decision, The News & Observer reported.

With the future of the venue on the horizon, U.S. Rep. Mark Walker introduced a House resolution that calls for declaring Ace Speedway and other racetracks essential businesses.

"Ace Speedway and the North Carolina racing industry provide our state with vital, essential sources of job opportunities and economic growth in a time when our national unemployment has ballooned to 13.3 percent," he said in a news release.

Numbers moving in wrong direction

Gov. Roy Cooper has said he will announce this week if the state can continue easing coronavirus restrictions. But key metrics aren't where health officials want them to be.

Hospitalizations, positive cases and the percent of positive tests -- all of which health officials are taking into consideration as they determine the next steps -- have been on the rise recently.

"Key metrics are moving in the wrong direction," Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state's top health official, said Monday afternoon.

While health officials want to see hospitalizations level or decline, they've been spiking in North Carolina. Since the start of Phase Two on May 22, daily hospitalizations have reached a new high 16 times, and more than 735 hospitalizations have been reported every day since June 7.

Lab-confirmed cases aren't leveling either. More than 1,000 daily cases have been reported 13 days in June as of Monday, nine of which had more than 1,300 new cases.

The percentage of positive tests also has health officials concerned. Prior to Phase Two, the percentage hovered around 7% or less. Since May 27, it's been above 7% every day and reached 10% on Saturday and Sunday before dipping to 9% Monday. Cohen said she wants that number to be closer to 5%.

Cohen said officials are trying to balance "competing interests" when making decisions, such as the state's economy, protecting public health and not overwhelming the health care system.

Outbreak at prison

A North Carolina prison east of Charlotte reported a coronavirus outbreak revealed by mass testing.

At least 60 inmates at Albemarle Correctional Institution have been infected with COVID-19 -- one of the largest outbreaks in the state prison system, officials said Monday.

Prison officials say they're working to test all of the medium custody facility's roughly 750 inmates. So far, about 217 inmates have been tested. None of the inmates who have tested positive are showing symptoms, John Bull, a prison spokesperson, told The Charlotte Observer.

"We will be separating the negatives from the positives and working on a plan to manage the outbreak," Bull said.

Last week, the N.C. Department of Public Safety said it was starting to test all 31,000 inmates in the state prison system after a North Carolina judge ordered prisons to come up with a plan for testing all inmates.

UNC Health eases restrictions

On Monday, UNC Health eased some visitor restrictions at its hospitals in the Triangle area.

Patients will be allowed one visitor, who must go through screening, in most inpatient areas, UNC Health says. Visitors must also wear face masks.

Exceptions will be made for end-of-life situations, minors and patients who need family support.

Visitor restrictions were implemented in March. UNC Health says it will continue to adapt them as the situation evolves.


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