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Coronavirus Live Updates: Week of Jan. 25

Airman First Class Emily Riddles, assigned to 156th aeromedical evacuation squadron, North Carolina Air National Guard, prepares a COVID-19 vaccine shot at Central Prison, Raleigh, North Carolina, Jan. 21, 2021.
Sgt. Jamar Marcel Pugh
North Carolina Army National Guard photo

This post will be updated periodically with the latest information on how the coronavirus is affecting North Carolina. Scroll down for older updates. For a recap of last week's news, check out Coronavirus Live Updates: Week of Jan. 18.

Jan. 29, 2021

3:10 p.m. - Prison officials say positive COVID-19 tests are on the decline at state institutions and they are now using incentives to persuade prisoners to get inoculated against the disease. North Carolina Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee told reporters today the positivity rate among inmates tested for COVID-19 has declined for the fifth straight month. State prisons are currently vaccinating corrections officers and other workers along with inmates 65 and older. Ishee says eligible prisoners who get both doses of the vaccine can get five days taken off their sentences. Other inmates who get vaccinated can earn $5 credits at the prison canteen, a free phone call and additional visiting sessions.

"Their health impacts our staff and our staff families and really our communities," said Ishee.

Statewide, Ishee says 2,800 staff and more than 850 incarcerated people in the 65-and-over age group have been vaccinated. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC
3 p.m. - The amusement park Carowinds is opening for this year's season in May. The park in Charlotte never opened last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an announcement yesterday, Carowinds said it's implementing several new health guidelines, including requiring face masks for visitors and limiting the amount of people inside the park at once.  - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

2:50 p.m. - In women's college basketball, Guilford College will not play this season because of COVID-19 concerns. The Quakers had already postponed their first two games of the season because of a positive coronavirus test within the women's basketball program. The liberal arts college in Greensboro plays in NCAA Division Three as a member of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

2:40 p.m. - A mobile hospital from Atrium Health is freeing up space for more COVID-19 patients at its Pineville facility. This is the first time the Charlotte-based health system has deployed the mobile unit, called MED-1, to one of its own hospitals. MED-1 is facilitating care for less critical, non-COVID patients. Health care staff can do x-rays, medication refills and lab work inside the unit.

Kristy Haynes, the operations manager of MED-1, says patients won't notice a difference in care.

"The best part about this is that we serve as an extension of the emergency department. So all the services that you would get inside of the Pineville emergency department, you will get the same services inside of MED-1," said Haynes.

The unit has 14 acute care beds and a two-bed operating room. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

2:30 p.m. - North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation for total COVID-19 vaccinations administered, according recent to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.But a news release from the state Department of Health and Human Services says vaccine supply continues to be very low and that people signing up to be inoculated might experience wait times. People can use the Find My Vaccine Group online tool to find out if they're currently eligible for inoculation. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

8:40 a.m. - North Carolina Senate Republicans are drawing up legislation that would require all public school districts to offer in-person instruction of some kind to students. A key GOP legislator said on Thursday that a proposal would be unveiled in the coming days, and that any mandate would give parents the option of sticking with virtual-only learning. School districts have the option to offer in-person classes, but many have stuck with only offering virtual learning due to safety concerns. Worries are growing that some students who have been left out of classrooms are increasingly falling behind. Data suggest transmission rates are low within schools. – The Associated Press

7:34 a.m. - The Durham County Health Department is no longer scheduling COVID-19 vaccine appointments because of limited supply. No currently scheduled appointments will be canceled or postponed. In a statement released Thursday night, Durham County Health Director Rod Jenkins says the county has a baseline allocation of 600 first doses for the next three weeks. But county officials are uncertain when they'll receive their next allocation. Jenkins says the county hopes to re-open scheduling by the end of February. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:06 a.m. - Atrium Health has deployed a mobile hospital to one of its own facilities for the first time.  It's up and running at the Charlotte-based health system's Pineville campus. Alicia Campbell is a top administrator at Atrium Health Pineville. She says the mobile unit has freed up space for more COVID-19 patients inside the hospital.

“The decision was made to place it here at Pineville because it can really support not only the Charlotte community, but also those that seek treatment in the south Charlotte area coming from South Carolina,” Campbell said.

The Pineville facility is on the border and regularly sees patients from both states. The mobile hospital is taking care of less critical, non-COVID patients. Health care staff can do lab work, medication refills and imaging inside the unit. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

Jan. 28, 2021

8:02 p.m. - The number of deaths from COVID-19 in North Carolina has now surpassed 9,000. The state is reporting fewer people are in the hospital with the illness. And the daily count of new cases has dropped by nearly half since it peaked above 10,000 earlier this month. But the rate of tests coming back positive is at about 8% today, and all but one county is experiencing substantial or critical spread of the cornavirus. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC

4:15 p.m. - The Guilford County Health Department has announced a confirmed positive case of a COVID-19 variant. The CDC has confirmed a local case of the B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the United Kingdom. This variant is more easily transmitted and can spread quickly. The health department told the Greensboro News & Record that it is closely monitoring the case and conducting contact tracing. - Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

3:55 p.m. - There's a growing frustration among local health care officials that the system set up to track who has received the COVID-19 vaccines in North Carolina is slowing the rollout in some places. Dr. West Paul, the chief clinical director of New Hanover Regional Medical Center, says some volunteers can handle the data entry. But he says for others it's taking eight minutes or more per patient.

"That is the most cumbersome point right now, is the entering of the data," he said. 

Some county health directors told the North Carolina Watchdog Reporting Network that they got a smaller allocation of vaccine from the state than they could have handled because of lag times in the vaccine management system. The state is spending $7 million on the system through May and officials say they know there are some bugs to work out. The state opted for its own software over a system offered by the CDC so officials in North Carolina could tailor it without having to wait on the federal government.  -Jason deBruyn, WUNC

7:15 a.m. - Research from UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University suggests that schools can return to in-person learning with proper precautions. Researchers tracked more than 90,000 students and staff at 11 districts across the state, and found only about 30 cases of COVID-19 transmission at schools. Duke researcher Dr. Danny Benjamin says schools must be strict about everyone washing their hands, wearing a mask and staying at least six feet apart from others.

"If they aren't willing to do that and if they're not willing to execute on this and they don't take those measures and they're not consistent with this, then they shouldn't open,” Benjamin said.

He also says schools need to execute detailed plans for every part of the school day, down to what students are doing every 15 minutes. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - The state health department says North Carolina will get a bigger allocation of COVID-19 vaccines as the Biden Administration tries to speed up distribution. Starting next week, the state will get 140,000 weekly doses. But that's only slightly higher than the 120,000 this week. And local health departments got little to none of that as doses were diverted to mass vaccination clinics. State health secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen says those doses should still only go to health care workers and anyone who is 65 or older.

"What we have heard from our providers so far is that there is still a lot of demand from that group, so we don't anticipate moving forward quite yet,” Cohen said.

A few small counties have started vaccinating teachers, who are part of the next group, but most have been overwhelmed with demand from older adults. - Will Michaels, WUNC

Jan. 27, 2021

3:30 p.m. - The City of Greensboro has been awarded nearly $9 million in federal aid to help residents pay rent. The money can also be used to pay utilities and other related housing expenses. The Greensboro City Council will vote to accept the funds during its meeting next Tuesday. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

3:20 p.m. - North Carolina is getting a federal grant to begin implementing a new national suicide prevention hotline number. The state health department's Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services has been awarded $129,000 dollars to set up the new three-digit dialing code for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 9-8-8 will become the lifeline's new number starting in July 2022. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

3:10 p.m. - Research from Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill shows a low risk of contracting COVID-19 in schools as long as appropriate precautions are consistently made. These precautions include washing your hands, wearing a mask and staying at least six feet apart from others.

Dr. Danny Benjamin of the Duke University School of  Medicine helped research the findings. He says it's also extremely important that school districts implement strict, detailed plans for every single part of the school day including: "how to get on and off the bus, how many people should be on the bus, how to walk through car lines, how to go through the bus line into school, how to move through the hallways, how to report to home room."

Eleven school districts across North Carolina that are offering in-person learning participated in the study. Researchers tracked only about 30 COVID-19 cases acquired through transmission at schools. There were no reports of student to teacher transmissions. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

8:57 a.m. - The State Health Department is readjusting the way it distributes COVID-19 vaccines after local health departments got few to no new shipments this week. North Carolina's rollout started slowly, so the state had been sending a bigger share of its weekly allocation to large-scale clinics to vaccinate people more quickly. But now, 84,000 of North Carolina's 120,000 weekly doses will go to each county based on population. State health secretary Dr.Mandy Cohen says the rest will go toward correcting the recent inequities in distribution.

“There are some counties who have gotten less doses than others, so we want to use that reserve - that extra 36,000 - to rebalance after we've done that push to get rid of that backlog,” Cohen said.

Cohen says providers have now administered 95% of the doses they had on hand.  She says their shipments will be consistent for the next three weeks. – Will Michaels, WUNC

7:33 a.m. - North Carolina has overpaid nearly $70 million in jobless benefits since the start of COVID-19 pandemic. The money went to people who are unqualified to receive them or who have committed fraud. The state's unemployment program director Pryor Gibson told state lawmakers yesterday that more than $20 million in overpayments has been recovered. In 2019, the division reported nearly $7 million in overpayments. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:21 a.m. - The Winston-Salem Forsyth County School district is half-way through installing high-tech air filtration systems in its schools. The Bipolar Ionization system is the first in a public school setting in the state.

The district has wanted to improve the quality of air in classrooms for years.  When the opportunity for federal money from pandemic relief became a possibility, Assistant Superintendent of Operations Darrell Walker jumped at the chance. He says cleaner air will make teachers and students more likely to get to class.

“Hopefully you know eliminate some absenteeism, not just around COVID and the flu season, but really around the allergy season in the spring,” Walker said.

The technology behind the system produces positive and negative ions that inactivate viruses and then filter clean air back into the room. The district hopes federal funds will cover 40% of the $2 million cost. – Cole del Charco, WUNC

Jan. 26, 2021

6:20 p.m. - The state health department is promising to send a larger share of its COVID-19 vaccine supply to local health providers.

The announcement comes after county health departments and hospital systems started this week with little replenishment or no new shipments at all. The state had been focusing its allocations on a handful of large-scale vaccination clinics to get shots in arms more quickly. But health secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said today local health providers would get consistent shipments for the next three weeks, with some additional doses going back to areas that have recently had shortages.

"We do that allocation by population across county, then use some of the state reserve supply to do that rebalancing that we may need to do either for geographic equity or for racial and ethnic equity," said Cohen.

Cohen said the share of doses being administered to historically marginalized groups should meet or exceed local population estimates to help correct recent inequities in distribution. - Cole del Charco, WUNC
3 p.m. - North Carolina's State Parks were visited by more people in 2020 than in any year before. The 19.8 million visitors was 400,000 more than the previous record, set in 2017. Park staff say more people visited at least in part because it's safer to be outdoors amid the pandemic. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

12:47 p.m.  -  For the third week in a row, the Orange County Health Department has not received any first dose allotment of COVID-19 vaccines from the NCDHHS, according to a news release from the county. The county exhausted all of its first doses of the vaccine by Jan. 24, according to county Health Director Quintana Stewart.

“Until the vaccine supply is significantly increased it will be weeks or perhaps months until we can complete vaccinations for Phases One and Two,” Stewart said in a statement.

The lack of first dose allotment will not affect or delay the second vaccines for residents who have already received their first shot. – Mitchell Northam, WUNC

12:06 p.m. - An emergency field hospital in Western North Carolina has treated over 70 COVID-19 patients over the past few weeks. Boone-based Samaritan's Purse - an international Christian relief organization - opened the 30-bed field hospital in Lenoir to relieve strain on local health care systems. The hospital is specialized as a respiratory care unit.

Laura Easton is the President and Chief Executive Officer of UNC Health Caldwell. Speaking to the UNC Health Care Board of Directors on Tuesday, she said having the field hospital on their grounds has made it easier to care for patients.

“From a staff perspective, the staff have felt an extraordinary sigh of relief and really have got a little extra hope and step in their step to get through this extraordinary time,” Easton said.

Easton expects the field hospital will remain in use for a couple more weeks. Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been declining over the past 10 days. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

11:12 a.m. - The Durham County Public Health Department has created a COVID-19 vaccine waitlist. If the health department has extra doses at the end of a day, officials will call you to see if you're available to get vaccinated. An online form asks for your name, contact information and how long it would take for you to arrive at the Public Health building in downtown Durham. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

11:05 a.m. - Duke University is reporting its first COVID-19 cluster of the spring semester. The cluster was identified in a group of students living off-campus. It's unclear exactly how many students tested positive. Last week the university administered around 30,000 coronavirus tests. Of those, about 80 total students, faculty and staff tested positive. That's a positivity rate of less than 1%. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

10:15 a.m. - The agency that oversees the Appalachian Trail is telling hikers to postpone plans to hike the entire distance this year because of COVID-19. The Asheville Citizen Times reports The Appalachian Trail Conservancy made the suggestion because they believe the pandemic makes long-distance hikes unsafe. Hikers usually gather in large groups to rest and restock supplies. They also typically stay at small shelters along the trail. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:55 a.m. - The Carolina Hurricanes have returned to practice after a temporary shutdown caused by COVID-19 issues. The team is practicing in separate groups with no more than six players on the ice at a time. Six players from the Canes remain on the NHL COVID-19 protocol list, including team captain Jordan Staal. The Canes hope to have Staal return to play in time for their next scheduled game on Thursday against Tampa Bay. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:35 a.m. - Guilford College in Greensboro will continue online only learning through at least next Friday. During a testing clinic last week, 32 students, faculty and staff tested positive for COVID-19. The small liberal arts college says that's an 11% positivity rate. The college is also implementing other safety measures, including only providing meals to go in dining halls and requiring faculty and staff to work remotely as much as possible. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:20 a.m. - North Carolina officials are turning their focus to distribute more COVID-19 vaccines to mass clinics. It's an effort to increase the vaccine's slow rollout. But it's leading to frustration for some hospital systems, including UNC-Chapel Hill and Cone Health, that have had their anticipated vaccine allocations reduced or eliminated, resulting in thousands of appointments postponed or canceled. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - Local health providers are seeing a significant drop in their COVID-19 vaccine allocations this week. The state health department is sending more of its weekly supply from the federal government to mass vaccination sites like the drive-through clinic at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan says the inconsistent shipments are causing confusion at local health departments.

“Our plea is really that we just want a reliable, steady amount of vaccines that our residents will be able to count on, so that when they make a reservation for a vaccine, that they'll be able to depend on it,” Vaughan said.

Triad-based Cone Health says it had to reschedule more than 10,000 appointments this week. UNC Health says it got less than half the number of doses it expected, and will schedule fewer appointments. The North Carolina Hospital Association sent a letter to Governor Roy Cooper that calls for more consistency. The state health department says it will release new guidance on Tuesday. – Will Michaels, WUNC

Jan. 25, 2021

4:40 p.m. - Health providers across the state say they're receiving significantly fewer doses of the COVID-19 vaccines this week than they expected. The state health department is sending more of its weekly allocation from the federal government to mass vaccination sites to speed up the process. But that means other providers are getting less.

A Wake County spokeswoman says the health department there asked for 3,000 to 4,000 doses, but will get less than a thousand. UNC Health says its entire system is getting 10,000, which is less than half of what it anticipated. Both providers are scheduling fewer appointments this week for eligible patients, which include anyone 65 and older. Others, like Cone Health, had to cancel thousands of appointments.

The North Carolina Hospital Association sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper today, calling for a more efficient and consistent rollout. The state health department says it will give more guidance about vaccine distribution tomorrow. - Will Michaels, WUNC

1:05 p.m. - COVID-19 hospitalizations across North Carolina continue to slowly decline. On Monday, the State Department of Health and Human Services reported hospitalizations have fallen below 3,300, the lowest number in about a month. Over the past week, the state has reported an average of 6,100 new COVID-19 cases a day. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

12:20 p.m. – UNC Health is receiving fewer COVID-19 vaccine doses from the state for this week than originally expected. The health system is only receiving 10,000 new doses, less than half of what was anticipated. UNC Health is not canceling or postponing any appointments. Instead, fewer appointments will be scheduled because of the reduced allocation. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

9:05 a.m. - State health officials are reporting the first discovery in North Carolina of a more contagious coronavirus variant that was first detected in the United Kingdom in December. In a press release on Saturday, officials said the variant was identified in a sample from an adult in Mecklenburg County. No other details about the person were released. This more contagious strain of the virus has been found in at least 21 other states. The COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be effective against it. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

8:50 a.m. - In women's college basketball, N.C. State All-American center Elissa Cunane is in COVID-19 protocol. Cunane missed Sunday's game against Virginia Tech, and will likely be out for the next game also. The Wolfpack beat Virginia Tech 89-87 on Sunday. It was the first game the team played since Jan. 3. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

8:30 a.m. - Over 100 undergraduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill are not allowed back on campus after testing positive for COVID-19. The students were tested through the university's mass testing program. UNC began the semester virtually last week. Meanwhile, N.C. State University has reported almost 600 cases of COVID-19 among students and employees since the beginning of this year. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

8:20 a.m. - On Sunday, the State Department of Health and Human Services reported the fourth consecutive day of over 100 COVID-19 deaths in North Carolina. But, over the past week, coronavirus hospitalizations statewide have decreased. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:40 a.m. - Some local health departments are concerned about getting enough COVID-19 vaccines to keep up with a state mandate to accelerate vaccinations. The state health department has said it wants providers to use all of their weekly supply of first doses, with the assumption that they will get the same amount the next week. But in a recent briefing on Zoom, Durham County health director Rod Jenkins said he was not sure his department would keep getting consistent shipments.

“I will say that I have grave concerns about running out of vaccine, and it does appear that that is going to be something that probably might happen,” Jenkins said.

The state health department has only a few days' notice from the federal government about how many doses will be in its weekly allotment.  Jenkins said the Durham County health department gave injections to more than 700 people in one day last week, but did not say how many doses the county is getting each week. – Will Michaels, WUNC

7:20 a.m. - State lawmakers will convene Wednesday to start work on their long session. A top priority will be allocating federal COVID relief funds

In December, Congress passed a $900 billion relief package. With a new presidential administration in place, State Senate Leader Phil Berger said recently the General Assembly will soon get federal guidance on how North Carolina can spend its share of that money.

"I'm hopeful that what we will see is something similar to what we saw in the spring of last year with the CARES Act money where we were able to develop a bill that was a consensus bill,” Berger said.

State lawmakers will also begin hammering out a two-year budget plan and aim to get it in place by the end of June. Berger said lawmakers would then come back in late summer or fall to take up redistricting after 2020 census numbers come in. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

This post is compiled and edited by Elizabeth Baier, Mitchell Northam and Laura Pellicer.

Previous weekly updates:

Stories, features and more by WUNC News Staff. Also, features and commentary not by any one reporter.
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