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Coronavirus Live Updates: Week of Feb. 1

Spc. Larry Diaz assigned to Headquarters Company, 113th Sustainment Brigade, North Carolina National Guard (NCNG) prepares to inoculate NCNG members with COVID-19 vaccine at Joint Force Headquarters in Raleigh, Jan. 8, 2021. These inoculations will help t
Sgt. Joe Roudabush
North Carolina National Guard Public Affairs

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. 25.

Feb. 7, 2021

9:58 a.m. - Fans rushed to Franklin Street in Chapel Hill Saturday night to celebrate UNC's victory over Duke in basketball. The large crowd drew attention from university officials, who warned of the consequences of mass gatherings during a pandemic. 

“I know many Tar Heels enjoy rushing Franklin Street to celebrate a big win, but we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and COVID doesn’t take a break for the Duke game," UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said in a statement Saturday night. 

Guskiewicz said university officials will investigate the incident and work with local authorities to pursue consequences. - Elizabeth Baier, WUNC

Feb. 5, 2021

7 p.m. - State health officials say efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a dramatic drop in the number of flu-related deaths and illness. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says only four deaths from flu have been reported since the start of this year's season in September. North Carolina had 186 reported flu deaths in the 2019-2020 season. State Health Secretary Doctor Mandy Cohen said in a statement that COVID-related measures like mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent hand-washing have helped curb the spread of flu and other respiratory illnesses. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

6:50 p.m. - State prison officials say efforts to protect staff and inmates from COVID-19 are paying off. North Carolina Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee told reporters today the positivity rate for COVID testing across the correctional system is around 2.2%. Prisons Medical Director Dr. Les Campbell says an even more important metric is the system's low rate of hospitalizations and a mortality rate below 0.5%.

"That's the reason that we vaccinated the 65-and-older group because far and away the data shows that those are the most vulnerable to increase morbidity and mortality should they contract COVID," said Campbell.

In the three weeks since the prison system started offering voluntary COVID vaccinations for employees and inmates aged 65 and over, almost 4,000 staff and more than 1,500 inmates have been inoculated. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

6:40 p.m. - Wake County is turning the PNC Arena's parking lot into a mass vaccination site. The county announced today that the Raleigh sports venue's 8,000-space parking lot will serve as Wake's first appointment-only, drive-up site for COVID-19 vaccinations next Thursday, Feb. 11, and again on Saturday, Feb. 13.

The county also has indoor appointment-only vaccination sites set up at its Public Health Center and the Wake County Commons Building. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

2:50 p.m. - The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school board has voted for all students to return to in-person learning on a rotating schedule in April. The board voted unanimously last night for the hybrid return to classrooms. Most students in the district have been in remote learning since last March. - Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

2:40 p.m. - A study from Duke Health published this week found minimal spread of COVID-19 in YMCA child day camps last spring and summer. The study looked at 54 camps across the Triangle last year from March through August. With over 6,000 children and staffers, just 19 cases of COVID-19 were identified.

Lead study author and Duke professor Emily D'Agostino said she was surprised at how little transmission there was.

"It really showcases that in-person programming can occur safely by following the guidelines that the CDC recommends to mitigate COVID-19," said D'Agostino.

The camps strictly followed protocols for symptom screening, face coverings, frequent hand washing and sanitizing. And they kept campers in cohorts of no more than 10. Other studies have also shown minimal spread of the coronavirus in group settings involving children when safeguards are adhered to. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

2:30 p.m. - Gov. Roy Cooper has a fairly strong approval rating despite the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifty-two percent of North Carolina residents surveyed in the latest Elon University Poll say they approve of the Democratic governor's performance. Elon Poll Director Jason Husser says that includes significant support among unaffiliated voters.

"But that net approval among unaffiliateds is really where to look at, so 46% approved, 30% disapproved, so Cooper's getting a 16-point net approval rating among unaffiliateds and that's not easy in a state like North Carolina," said Husser.

Cooper recently called for public school districts to start moving towards resuming in-person classes if they haven't already — something members of the state legislature's Republican majority are also pushing for. The governor also wants lawmakers to use $695 million in state reserves for COVID-19 relief, including bonuses for public school teachers and staff. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

7:15 a.m. – UNC Health's COVID-19 vaccination clinics are going on the road to reach under-represented communities. The News & Observer reports UNC Health's first mobile clinic was held earlier this week at a predominantly Black church in Johnston County. The mobile clinics are meant to serve more Black and Latino seniors, who have so far been less likely to be vaccinated than white seniors. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

7:10 a.m. - The General Assembly is sending Governor Roy Cooper a coronavirus relief bill that would give about $1.6 billion for education. Some of the money will be used to help schools reopen. North Carolina state senators have passed a bill requiring school boards to allow all of the state's K-12 public school students the option to return to classrooms. That measure now heads to the state House of Representatives. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - North Carolina's top health official declined to say Thursday when the state will get to vaccinating teachers under 65 years old.  But Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said when the state does move to that priority group some might even have the COVID-19 vaccine come to them.

“There are going to be different ways in which folks are going to operationalize this in their counties and with their vaccine partners,” Cohen said. “We are hearing about some that are going to go to school sites and do vaccinations there. Others will invite them to existing vaccine site administration. So I think it will be a mix."

Vaccinations are under way now for front-line medical and nursing home workers, and anyone age 65 or older. Teachers are in the next group in line in the state's current plan, along with others classified as “front-line essential" workers. – Amy Jeffries, WUNC

Feb. 4, 2021

3:40 p.m. - There is less red on North Carolina's COVID-19 outbreak map. In an update today, the state health department says the number of counties experiencing critical levels of viral spread and strain on local hospitals has dropped from 86 two weeks ago to 61 now. Another 33 counties are labeled orange because the spread remains substantial. Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen says it's the first time since the initial map was released in November that it's shown the statewide trends moving in a positive direction.

"But there is still a lot of work ahead of us. 94% of North Carolinian counties still remain red or orange with critical or substantial COVID spread," said Cohen.

The state recorded another 5,500 new COVID-19 cases today and more than 2,600 people are in the hospitalwith the illness. The number of deaths in North Carolina since the pandemic began is approaching 10,000. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC

12:55 p.m. - A state lawmaker from Mecklenburg county has sent a letter calling on the governor to move people with Down syndrome up on the priority list for COVID-19 vaccines. According to multiple news outlets, Representative John Bradford is refusing to get his shot before people with Down syndrome. Such individuals were originally expected to be vaccinated in the second phase of the state's rollout. But they were bumped to Group 4 along with others younger than 64 who have conditions that put them at higher risk of complications from COVID. State lawmakers are currently in Group 3. – Amy Jeffries, WUNC

9:40 a.m. - A North Carolina state senator has tested positive for COVID-19. Democrat Natasha Rath Marcus announced she was sick this week on Facebook. On her post, she wrote that she's taken all the recommended precautions and she doesn't know how she caught the illness. She says her symptoms include a cough and bad headache. Marcus represents the state's 41st Senate district Northwest of Charlotte. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:10 a.m. - North Carolina state senators unanimously approved a bill Wednesday to distribute federal COVID-19 relief money. If approved by the House and signed by Governor Roy Cooper, the measure will help schools reopen, provide rent relief and assist local health officials in distributing COVID-19 vaccines. The bill also supports direct payments of $335 to more parents. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - Duke University experts say the emergence of new more contagious strains of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 shouldn't be a big concern for schools reopening for in-person instruction in North Carolina. Though cases of the UK variant have been identified in Guilford and Mecklenburg counties, the prevalence of these new strains in most of the United States remains low.

Infectious disease specialist and medical professor Dr. Becky Smith says schools are figuring out how to prevent transmission with basic strategies like physical distancing and health screening protocols.

"So spacing desks, having cohorts of kids. Some are doing screen testing programs,” Smith said. “So I think with attention to detail and infection prevention measures, you can safely reopen business of schools, etc."

Smith says doubling up with a surgical mask underneath a cloth mask could also be a good idea while the vaccine rollout is still ramping up. – Amy Jeffries, WUNC

Feb. 3, 2021

5:30 p.m. - A third of the inmates at a state prison in Wake County are infected with the coronavirus. The Department of Public Safety's dashboard shows more than 100 cases among inmates at Wake Correctional Center. The News and Observer is reporting that 11 staff members are off work because they tested positive. It's the first outbreak at the facility. Despite mitigation efforts in the prison system such as mass testing and limits on visitation and work release — and court orders to enforce those measures — outbreaks have continued to flare up. Currently, 500 state inmates have active cases, with a test positivity rate under 2%. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC

1:20 p.m. - A field hospital set up in western North Carolina is closing today. The hospital was deployed to Lenoir early last month to support local health care systems that were dealing with a surge of COVID-19 patients. Cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19 have since subsided statewide. The help came from Boone-based Samaritan's Purse, an international Christian relief organization. Edward Graham, the grandson of Billy Graham, is a top administrator of the non-profit. He says local health providers now feel confident about handling the situation by themselves. 

"So I think now they see hope and they see the light that the wave is going down and this community feels they can wrestle with it with their organic staff and team," Graham said. "And they're doing a great job here."
The last two patients receiving care at the field hospital will be discharged today. The 30-bed unit has treated almost 80 patients since January. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC
10:31 a.m. - In men's college basketball, App State is temporarily pausing all team activities because of COVID-19 issues. Four people associated with the team have tested positive for the coronavirus, including three student athletes. All those who tested positive are in isolation, and contract tracing is underway. App State was scheduled to play at Georgia State this weekend. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:36 a.m. - Wake County students will return in person learning on February 15th. The county board of education approved the plan at their meeting last night. Pre-K through third grade students and special needs students will receive daily in-person instruction. Students in grades 4th through 12th will learn in 3 week rotations. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:21 a.m. - Walgreens will soon offer COVID-19 vaccinations in North Carolina. Select stories will begin vaccinations next Friday, Feb. 12, to eligible individuals based on state and local guidelines. There's only a limited amount of vaccines available. Appointments must be made online. Walk-ins will not be accepted. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:15 a.m. - The National Park Service is implementing a mask requirement for all employees and visitors effective immediately. This mandate includes sites along the Outer Banks, like the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Masks are required inside all park buildings, and outside on park lands when social distancing can not be maintained. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

Feb. 2, 2021

5:30 p.m. - A state senate committee has advanced a Republican proposal to mandate that school districts make in-person learning an option for all students for the rest of this school year. Meanwhile, the governor joined top education officials today to say it's time for students to be back in classrooms. Cooper said at a state briefing this afternoon that 90 of the state's 115 districts are currently providing instruction to at least some students in the classroom. He said it's time for all districts to do so.  

Governor Roy Cooper said it'll be up to local school boards, but that he strongly recommended that districts make the move.

"Students should still have the option of remote learning this school year, if that's best for them. And teachers who are at risk should be providing that remote instruction. But students who are ready to return to the classrooms should have that chance," said Cooper.

Cooper cited a study of North Carolina schools that have reopened that concludes schools can hold in-person classes safely if they follow COVID-19 precautions. But some districts have cited lack of space and personnel to operate within the guidelines. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

12:47 p.m. - The state Department of Health and Human Services is starting a new live stream talk series to provide updates and answer questions about the state's COVID-19 vaccination plan. Each talk will be hosted by a state health official and will feature other health experts and community leaders. Today at 5:30 p.m., State Health Secretary Mandy Cohen will host the first chat with Rev. William Barber. The event will be available to watch on social media. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - The organization representing the state's public school educators has released its annual list of legislative priorities and called for swift action on COVID-19 concerns. The North Carolina Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly called for educators statewide to have immediate access to COVID-19 vaccines.

"We know that what we are requesting here is not insignificant," Walker Kelly said. "It will require additional funding. But if we are to reach our mutual goal of reopening our schools safely, that is what is necessary."

Walker Kelly also asked for strict implementation of CDC protocols in schools, and for educators to have a seat at the table in reopening plans. Beyond those concerns, NCAE released an agenda to reform educator pay, increase funding for counselors and support staff, and to end state-funded vouchers for private school students. - Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

Feb. 1, 2021

2:10 p.m. - COVID-19 metrics continued to trend slightly downward over the weekend, a sign that the holiday spike has ebbed. However, more than 2,700 North Carolinians remain hospitalized with the illness. And the state is still reporting more than 5,500 new cases per day on average for the past week — that's similar to levels from early December. - Jason deBruyn, WUNC

10:51 a.m. - North Carolina State Parks saw record-breaking visitation last year. The Asheville Citizen-Times reports almost 20 million people visited the state's 41 parks and recreation areas in 2020. That's over 1 million more visitors than in 2019. That's also 400-thousand more visitors than any other year on record. North Carolina Parks staff say the public is visiting more because it's a safe activity to do during the pandemic. But increased crowds have led to more litter and damage to natural resources. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:36 a.m. - On Sunday, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported almost 2,800  COVID-19 hospitalizations - the lowest amount in over a month. Key COVID-19 metrics continue to decrease from record highs set last month. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:31 a.m. - A report from the U.S. Office of Inspector General finds that a federal prison in Granville County did not comply with some of the government's COVID-19 safety guidance. The inspector general's report says it was difficult for the Butner prison to implement and enforce effective social distancing measures in 3 of its 5 facilities because of the open layout of housing units. There was also a lack of space for quarantine. Meanwhile, staff may have increased the risk of cross contamination when they did not wear new masks while moving between units of COVID-19-positive inmates and units of COVID-19 negative inmates. The report says staff should have limited their movements more. Federal prison officials dispute some of these findings. Since the pandemic began, over 1,200 inmates at Butner have tested positive for COVID-19 and almost 30 have died. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:23 a.m. - State health officials have devised a new strategy to make COVID-19 vaccine distribution across North Carolina more equitable. State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen says in the first few weeks since vaccine became available, North Carolina has worked hard to get it to all 100 counties. Now, a new two-part system will divide one batch of doses equally among all counties based on population. Cohen says a second batch of vaccine will be set aside for counties with larger populations of older people and historically marginalized communities.

"So we are over-allocating vaccine for those counties that serve more people who are over 65 and more people who are African-American or Hispanic," she said.

The federal government has promised North Carolina a delivery of 140,000 doses per week for the next three weeks. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

7:15 a.m. - FEMA is designating over $100 million to North Carolina for COVID-19 vaccination costs. The expedited federal funding can cover costs including equipment and supplies needed for storing, handling, and distributing vaccines, and personal protective equipment for staff and patients. - Celeste Gracia, 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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