CHARLOTTE – On January 12, Governor Roy Cooper appeared with North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen to address the spread of COVID-19 and update the public on North Carolina’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
Cooper opened the press conference by recognizing the seriousness of the situation in which North Carolina finds itself: “The truth is that this disease is spreading fast. We are in a dire situation,” said Cooper. January 9, the day on which Cooper was sworn in for a second term, was a record-breaking day with 11,581 new cases in North Carolina. 96 of NC’s 100 countries are in the orange or red zone for community spread, and hospitals across the state are stressed to capacity.
Cooper stressed the importance of continuing to stay the course with simple measures that have been scientifically proven to mitigate the spread of COVID-19: wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, avoiding gatherings with individuals with whom you do not live. Moreover, Cooper stressed the importance of leading by example. “Words matter,” said Cooper. “People listen to leaders and often follow their calls and imitate their actions.”
Cooper and Cohen also addressed the ongoing distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. Cooper admitted that vaccine supply is severely limited, but assured the public that “people are working day and night” to distribute all the vaccines the state was given as quickly as possible. This effort includes partnering with 14 health systems, local health departments, and community centers in 13 different counties to set up large-scale vaccination events, including additional Atrium Health sites in Charlotte and surrounding counties. Cohen expects these sites, which will add more than 45,000 vaccinations a week, to be up and running within the next week.
Of the 820,000 doses of vaccine allotted to NC thus far, the state has only managed to administer about one quarter, making it the 10th slowest state in the country per capita at administering doses of the vaccine. Cohen acknowledged some of the factors that have contributed to this slow rollout: inconsistencies from county to county, certain counties reserving doses of the vaccine out of fear that the federal government will fail to ship the requisite second doses, lack of a statewide system for scheduling appointments, bundling of vaccine doses by the manufacturers, and ever-changing federal guidance.
Despite these initial obstacles, the state’s vaccination rate continues to improve. At the time of the news briefing, over 275,000 doses of the vaccine had been administered across the state, and North Carolina saw a 113% increase in vaccines given over the week leading up to the press conference.
Meanwhile, in Mecklenburg County, the County Health Director issued an unexpected and sweeping directive on Tuesday asking businesses, schools, and individuals to revert to “fully virtual” operations wherever possible. Citing evidence that cases have gone from an average of 100 per day in September to 900 per day this month – and hospitalizations have gone up 543% percent in the same time span – Health Director Gibbie Harris called on all Mecklenburg County residents to stay home except for essential activities.
Unlike previous emergency orders or the governor’s current modified stay at home order, Harris’ directive does not carry the force of an executive order or mandate. Lasting through February 2, the directive calls for residents to utilize work and school from home options and avoid any nonessential travel. Harris urged Mecklenburg County residents to avoid gathering with any individuals with whom they do not live, asserting that any gathering of individuals, including in-person school and work, puts the entire community at risk right now.
While Harris recommended fully virtual school for the duration of the directive, it’s ultimately up to the school district to decide how they will proceed. The directive comes as CMS is on the brink of welcoming students back to campus after a month-long period of fully remote learning surrounding the holiday break. While elementary students returned to campus two days a week for about a month in the fall, middle and high school students have been fully remote for ten months now and have yet to set foot in a school building since COVID began spreading last March. What will happen next week remains to be seen. Based on the Health Department’s new directive, the Board of Education scheduled an emergency meeting for 10:30 am on Thursday.
Update as of Thursday, 1/14: CMS Board of Education voted to maintain full remote learning until at least February 12. The BOE plans to reevalute the situation at their scheduled Board Meeting on February 9.