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COVID-19 cases are rising again in North Carolina. Will this wave be as bad as the last?

The Charlotte Observer logo The Charlotte Observer 5/19/2022 Richard Stradling, Josh Shaffer, The Charlotte Observer

After a springtime lull, the number of people infected with COVID-19 is on the upswing again in North Carolina, as is the number of people hospitalized with the disease.

But it’s far from clear whether the state is in for another wave of cases like those that washed over the state this winter or late last summer.

More than 23,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported statewide in the week ending May 14, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. That’s up from about 3,000 cases a week in mid-March, though still far below the peak in January, a month when more than 700,000 people tested positive.

The surge in cases is not a surprise, says Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at UNC Health in Chapel Hill. The virus evolves to become more transmissible, so an uptick is inevitable as people get back to normal activities without wearing masks.

“And we just have to, as a society, decide what we’re willing to tolerate,” Wohl said. “Right now people are very clearly voting with their masks, that they are willing to tolerate the current numbers of cases and that they’re willing to tolerate the hospitalizations and deaths that are occurring.”

So far, hospitalizations and deaths remain low compared to previous stages of the pandemic. DHHS reported 12 deaths due to COVID-19 last week, near the lowest point since the pandemic began more than two years ago.

Hospitalizations, which tend to follow trends in cases, have begun to rise, though not as dramatically. On average, 471 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 per day the week ending May 14, up from as little as 351 a day in late April, according to DHHS.

The 14 hospitals across the UNC Health system had 94 COVID patients Thursday morning, up from a low of about 30 in mid-April, said spokesman Alan Wolf. Only five of the current patients require intensive care. Statewide, about 10% of COVID patients were in ICUs last week, down from 15% to 20% most of the winter.

“That’s a good sign,” Wolf said. “We’re not seeing as many people who are deathly ill.”

The trend is similar at the three hospitals in the Duke Health system, said Dr. Lisa Pickett, chief medical officer at Duke University Hospital in Durham. Pickett said COVID-19 patients now are less ill on average than those in previous surges.

“They tend to be a little bit less likely to be on ventilators and in the intensive care unit,” she said. “And they tend to have a little bit shorter stay.”

Duke reached a milestone this week: For the first time in more than two years it has no severely ill COVID-19 patients receiving ECMO or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, which provides oxygen directly to the blood because the virus has so damaged their lungs that even mechanical ventilation isn’t enough.

“We celebrated this morning,” Pickett said. “I just never thought the day would come.”

Better treatments may be preventing or reducing hospitals stays, Wohl said. Another factor, he said, is that so many people have been vaccinated against the virus or have been infected or both.

There have been more than 2.7 million cases of the disease reported in North Carolina since the pandemic’s beginning, and about 58% of adults are fully vaccinated and have received at least one booster shot, according to DHHS.

“It may be that we’re better protected, that there are so many people who’ve been vaccinated and on top of that so many people that have been infected, that there is some community immunity that we’re benefiting from,” he said. “If we didn’t have vaccination and the previous waves conspiring together to protect us we would be in a very, very bad situation right now.”

Wake County leading the surge in cases

The risk of contracting COVID-19 remains low in every North Carolina county, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, except for two: Wake, with more than a million residents, and Hyde on the coast, with about 5,000.

Wake leads the state in rate of new cases, at 811 per 100,000 residents in the past two weeks, with Hyde just behind, according to DHHS. That compares to about 330 cases per 100,000 residents statewide. The CDC classifies the risk of contracting the virus in those two counties as “medium.”

In Wake’s case, the heightened risk comes from being the most populous county in the state, as well as having an international airport and businesses while travel is increasing, said spokeswoman Stacy Beard.

But while cases per capita is up in Wake, new hospital admissions and inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients are staying well-below 10%, which Beard called good news.

Illnesses aren’t severe at this point, she said, and the health care system is not being strained.

”Everyone needs to realize,” she said in an email, “we’re going to have waves of COVID-19, and our dashboard shows that while it’s currently increasing, it’s not as steep as in the past.”

Vaccines and boosters remain the best protection, and the county offers free same-day appointments at five locations. Wake is also still testing, and free masks are still available at many pharmacies. Free COVID home tests are also still available.

A pandemic of sniffles or emergency rooms?

Even if the majority of cases are relatively mild, the increase in COVID-19 cases is affecting the health care system in other ways. At Duke, the number of medical staff out after testing positive for the coronavirus has grown from about 20 earlier this spring to 150 now, Pickett said.

“And that really impacts our ability to staff all of our beds,” she said.

Wohl said the number of people admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 will continue to go up, though it’s not clear how much. He said people shouldn’t try to outguess the virus or put off getting a vaccine booster shot to protect themselves.

“If this turns out to be a pandemic of sniffles, that most people just get mildly ill and they go back to work in a few days, then I think we can continue to go on with our lives,” he said. “But if this continues to be a consequential virus where people get long COVID, where people end up in hospital emergency rooms and ICUs, we’re just gonna go through cycles of this. And that’s not what any of us want.”

©2022 The Charlotte Observer. Visit charlotteobserver.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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