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Coronavirus Live Updates: Week of Feb. 8

Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune on December 28, 2020 administered the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
via Flickr
Navy Medicine

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 Feb. 1.

Feb. 12, 2021

3:47 p.m. - Some pharmacies in North Carolina are starting to administer COVID-19 vaccines today. Walgreens and locally-owned pharmacies now have a limited supply of doses coming from the federal government. Walgreens locations are only getting about 100 doses each. The national chain is giving out vaccines by appointment only. Residents who are eligible to get the vaccine are also being encouraged to contact their locally-owned pharmacies. - Will Michaels, WUNC

2:43 p.m. - North Carolina Central University will discontinue baseball after the 2021 season. The historically Black university cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a factor and said ending the baseball program is an effort to improve the fiscal stability of the athletics department. The department has had to cut overall operation costs by 30 percent since last March. - Naomi Prioleau, WUNC

12:30 p.m. - Governor Roy Cooper signed an executive order this week that paves the way for dentists to help administer doses of the COVID-19 vaccines. The order directs the state health secretary to work with North Carolina's Dental and Medical Boards to design vaccine training for dentists. Dr. Zachary Brian is a dentist and the director of the North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative. He says dentists can quickly become qualified to get shots in arms.

“Given the fact that they are used to working with injectables, I think it definitely makes sense for them to join the ranks and help out,” Brian said. “What they will need, likely, is just understanding the ins and outs, the details of the two vaccines.”

Brian says there are about 5,500 practicing dentists in North Carolina. Some already work in public health settings where people are getting the vaccines, but are not yet allowed to administer them. – Will Michaels, WUNC

10:22 a.m. - The head of North Carolina's judicial system has extended COVID-19 restrictions in state courtrooms for another month. Chief Justice Paul Newby said today remote court proceedings in most cases and electronic document filing will now be required through at least March 14. The order also allows for extended filing deadlines among other measures. – Will Michaels, WUNC

10:06 a.m. - Durham Public Schools is now considering returning some students to classrooms, after it had said publicly the rest of this semester would be completed with all remote learning.  The district is revisiting its plans as the state Legislature appears likely to pass a bill that would require all districts to offer in-person instruction. At a school board work session Thursday, Durham Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said the General Assembly could force the district's hand.

“But this is what I would like to assure with the board as well as with our community -- we have been preparing to be able to bring our students in person. We are organized,” Mubenga said. “I know our transportation departments; they're working really hard."

Mubenga said the district is conducting a survey of parents next week to get an idea of how many students would return to classrooms. He encouraged people who could continue remotely to do so, as having fewer people in buildings would make it safer to conduct in-person learning, and provide teachers with more options for how they will teach. – Cole del Charco, WUNC

7:35 a.m. - The state health department has reported the first case of another coronavirus variant in North Carolina.  The variant first identified in South Africa was confirmed in a sample taken from an adult in the central part of the state.  Health officials did not provide any other details.  Cases of a new variant first identified in the U-K were reported in North Carolina last month. – Will Michaels, WUNC

7:25 a.m. - North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services says nearly 3% of people who have received first doses of the coronavirus vaccine in the state are not residents. Data from the department show more than 27,000 people living out of state have received first doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Residents of South Carolina have hopped across the border due to frustrations over their home state's appointment booking process. More than 1 million people have been vaccinated in North Carolina since the distribution efforts began. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

7:15 a.m. - COVID-19 hospitalizations have been steadily declining in North Carolina and across the country over the past few weeks. While that's encouraging, hospitals aren't breathing a sigh of relief just yet. Hospitals in the state that did reach maximum capacity in January now have more bed space to resume elective surgeries and close down emergency units that had been used to treat COVID patients.

A field hospital in western North Carolina closed down last week after it was no longer needed. Despite all this, staff is still stretched thin. The number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 is about what it was in November, before the holidays. Health experts say they're worried that if the new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus spread in North Carolina, hospitalizations could reach record highs again. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

Feb. 11, 2021

5:50 p.m. - North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services says nearly 3% of people who have received first doses of the coronavirus vaccine in the state are not residents. Data from the department show more than 27,000 people living out of state have received first doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Residents of South Carolina have hopped across the border due to frustrations over their home state's appointment booking process. More than 1 million people have been vaccinated in North Carolina since the distribution efforts began. - Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

5:20 p.m. - The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is receiving the largest federal grant in its history. The U.S. Treasury Department is awarding the tribe $18 million for pandemic relief. The funding can be used to help its tribal members pay rent, water and utilities. The grant will also be used to hire additional staff. The tribe has until the end of this year to distribute the funds. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

5:10 p.m. - The state House has approved a bill to require K-12 schools to reopen for at least partial in-person instruction. Parents who don't want to send their child back to the classroom would still be given the option of learning remotely. The Senate declined to send the legislation to Gov. Roy Cooper just yet after changes were made to let districts make accommodations for teachers needing to continue working from home. The bill could head to Cooper next week if leaders from both chambers come to an agreement. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC

5 p.m. - A UNC hospital in Lumberton is caring for a more typical number of patients now after reaching full capacity last month because of a surge of COVID-19 cases. UNC Health Southeastern is closing down temporary emergency units. The hospital never had to stop elective surgeries, although they did come close to it.

Jason Cox, the vice president and chief operating officer at the hospital, says the number of COVID patients has dropped by roughly half compared to January. 
"It's definitely easier. The staff is not stretched as thin. It's still very difficult for the staff. Caring for any COVID patient is a very labor intensive exercise," said Cox.
Cox says his main concerns now are that the coronavirus variants will cause hospitalizations to rise again, and that people will be reluctant to get vaccinated. Many other public health experts and providers share those worries. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC
4:50 p.m. - Wake County has opened its third mass COVID-19 vaccination site in a parking lot at PNC Arena in Raleigh. County officials say the drive-thru clinic has the capacity to vaccinate 2,000 people per week if supplies remain consistent. Wake County is prioritizing people who live in zip codes where vulnerable or historically marginalized groups make up more of the population. The county got more than 6,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccines this week. That's up from less than 1,000 two weeks ago. Durham County had planned to open a mega vaccination site this month, but the local health director says that's on pause because the county is only getting 600 doses per week. - Will Michaels, WUNC

8:15 a.m. - Students in Guilford County no longer need to maintain a two point oh GPA to play sports. The Guilford County Board of Education changed that requirement earlier this week because of the pandemic's effect on academic progress. The change only applies for this semester. A preliminary review of eligibility rosters showed that a significant number of student athletes could be ruled ineligible by the G-P-A requirement, based on grades from the fall semester. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:50 a.m. - North Carolina will move to Group 3 of its COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan on February 24th.  Governor Roy Cooper says Group 3 will start with child care workers, teachers and school staff.  Other frontline essential workers will be eligible two weeks later. – Will Michaels, WUNC

7:35 a.m. - The two UNC hospitals in Johnston County are resuming non-emergency, in-patient surgeries this week. Last month, the hospital in Clayton reached capacity and the Smithfield facility came close with a surge of COVID-19 patients. The hospitals then paused surgeries. Now they have more bed space, but their ICU’s are still stretched.

Johnston Health CEO Tom Williams says before the pandemic, the two hospitals combined typically had around five ICU patients on any particular day. As of Wednesday, the ICU’s were caring for almost 20 patients.

“A regular, medical surgical patient may be on a ratio of, you know, one nurse to five patients or even one nurse to six patients, but with some of these COVID patients and their higher level of acuity, then the nursing ratio may be one to one or one to two,” Williams said.

Meanwhile, reserved nurses were brought in to vaccinate those working on the floor. As a result, Williams estimates about three quarters of the hospitals' workforce have been inoculated. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:15 a.m. - Wake County Schools is limiting spectators at sports events to immediate family of the home team at each game.  The district says limits on attendance will remain at 100 people for outdoor events and 25 for indoor events through the end of the school year.  All student athletes will also be required to wear face coverings. – Will Michaels, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - The State Commerce Department has now distributed nearly $10 billion in unemployment benefits since the COVID-19 pandemic hit North Carolina. Nearly a million people have received payments since last March. North Carolina's unemployment rate reached nearly 13% last spring. It has since dropped to 6.2%. – Will Michaels, WUNC

Feb. 10, 2021

5:10 p.m. - North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday afternoon that educators and support staff will be eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine starting Feb. 24 as part of a staggered rollout of the state's next phase of distribution.

The Democratic governor estimated that about 240,000 people would become eligible for the vaccinations in two weeks. The group includes child care workers, pre-K to 12th grade principals and teachers at public, private and charter schools and support staff, such as janitors, bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
“Moving to the next phase is good news. The challenge continues to be the very limited supply of the vaccine,” Cooper said.

Other groups the state considers “frontline essential workers” will start becoming eligible on March 10, though public health officials are still evaluating whether it will prioritize certain subgroups within that population. That group includes manufacturing workers, grocery store clerks, college and university instructors and support staff, farmers, restaurant workers, mail carriers, court workers, elected officials, homeless shelter staff, public health workers, social workers, firefighters, EMS personnel, police officers, public transit workers and several others. - Associated Press

10:57 a.m. - North Carolina A&T is now distributing COVID-19 vaccines to its employees and students who are 65 years and older, and to employees and students who are healthcare workers. Appointments for this week have already filled up. The university plans to host more vaccine clinics in the coming weeks. Appointments can be made online. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

10:46 a.m. - Governor Roy Cooper has signed a COVID-19 relief bill into law. The measure dedicates around $1.6 billion to helping schools re-open. It also offers another chance for more parents to get a direct payment of $335 to offset remote learning costs. Additionally, the bill provides rent relief and will assist local health officials in distributing coronavirus vaccines. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

9:26 a.m. - Hospitals in North Carolina are still trying to get employees vaccinated against the coronavirus. The Raleigh News & Observer reported Tuesday that the state does not yet know what portion of nearly half a million eligible health care workers have been inoculated. That’s according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Hospital leaders are encouraging employees to get vaccinated. And they say they’re pleased with the results so far. That’s even though as many as one in four eligible workers remain unvaccinated. For instance, WakeMed estimates that 70% of nearly 18,000 employees and independent health care workers have received their initial dose. – The Associated Press

7:50 a.m. - Two more county school districts are making plans to return students to in person learning. Students in Pre-K through 5th grade in Johnston County will return to the classroom four days a week starting March 1. All other grade levels will remain in Plan B. In Guilford County, middle and high school students will start returning over the next few weeks in a phased approach. All elementary students have had the option of in person learning since January. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:35 a.m. - UNC scientists are testing an oral drug that is proving to be extremely effective preventing and treating COVID-19, according to a recent study published in a scientific journal. Researchers are still performing clinical trials to evaluate the drug's safety. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

Feb. 9, 2021

7:40 p.m. - Deaths from COVID-19 in North Carolina have been mounting for nearly a year. As cases and  hospitalizations spiked after the holidays, deaths accelerated. At a briefing on the outbreak yesterday Governor Roy Cooper took note of a milestone: more than 10,000 dead from the coronavirus in the state. 

"It's a stark reminder of how dangerous this virus can be. Our prayers are with those who've lost loved ones to this cruel disease. Our numbers, though, remain stable, which is good, and we're encouraged to see a continued decline in our hospitalizations, and percentage of positive COVID-19 tests. Still, we must keep our guard up," said Cooper.
The state recorded more than 2,700 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday. More than 2,300 people are hospitalized with the illness. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

7:30 p.m. - A leading biopharmaceutical company plans to bring 275 jobs to the research Triangle. Gilead Sciences says it will invest up to $5 million on a new business services center in Wake County. The state approved an incentive package that could be worth almost $10 million to the company over 12 years. The company makes the anti-viral treatment for COVID-19, Remdesivir. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

10:26 p.m. - A recent poll from Elon University finds a growing number of North Carolina adults are in favor of getting a COVID-19 vaccine. About 45% of adults surveyed say they will take a vaccine once it's available to them. That's up from about 41% in December, and 33% in October. 12% of respondents said they have already received their vaccination. 20% said they will not take a vaccine, while the other 24% said they are still unsure. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:15 a.m. - Matthews-based Harris Teeter will give $100 to employees who receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The Raleigh News and Observer reports other grocery stores - including Trader Joe's and Aldi - are offering similar incentives for workers to get vaccinated. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - Officials from the town of Chapel Hill and Orange County are calling on students who rushed Franklin Street to quarantine and get tested regularly until the threat of COVID-19 transmission has passed. Town leaders are meeting with UNC-Chapel Hill officials Wednesday to discuss stronger measures for preventing violations of local and state ordinances by UNC students going forward. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

Feb. 8, 2021

7:10 p.m. - UNC Health is now running a mobile COVID-19 vaccination clinic in an effort to immunize more people of color. The mobile unit vaccinated 250 people last week in Selma, where it partnered with a historically black church. Program manager Eleanor Wertman says the clinic is designed to reach people in more rural areas who might also be hesitant to get the vaccine.

"Our goal at the mobile unit is to have that messaging come from a trusted partner, have the location be somewhere that is familiar to the community, doesn't require you to pay to park, and having our scheduling team contact folks that community partners refer to us so that people don't have to stay on the line forever," said Wertman.

Wertman says the mobile unit has vaccinated a disproportionately higher number of Black people. That could help correct racial disparities in who's been getting inoculated. Nearly 80% of North Carolinians who have received at least one dose are white, according to the latest state health department data. White people make up only about 68% of the state's population. - Will Michaels, WUNC
7 p.m. - The student conduct office at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has received more than 300 referrals for alleged violations of pandemic rules since Saturday night. After the Tar Heels basketball team beat rival Duke Blue Devils in Durham, fans celebrated on Franklin Street in apparent violation of campus community standards that require masks and social distancing.

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Amy Johnson says each referral would be reviewed. Consequences could range from a simple warning, to removal from university housing or disenrollment. - Jason deBruyn, WUNC

6:50 p.m. - The head of Durham-based life sciences company EmitBio says it has a plan to ramp up production of a new medical device to treat mild to moderate cases of COVID-19. Clinical studies show that EmitBio's device eliminates almost all of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID in four days. The Food and Drug Administration is considering emergency approval.

If granted, Executive Chairman Neal Hunter says production could scale up quickly. He drew a comparison to how many cell phones are produced in a year.

"Our device does not have near the electronic component complexity of a smartphone," Hunter said.

EmitBio's device directs precise wavelengths of visible light to the back of the throat to eliminate pathogens and stimulate the body’s natural defenses. Studies have shown the treatment is effective against other coronaviruses as well. Hunter says he hopes to ultimately see the device in homes across the country to alleviate many respiratory infections. - Jason deBruyn, WUNC

12:53 p.m.  - An inmate at the Rutherford Correctional Center in Spindale has died after testing positive for COVID-19. The inmate was a man in his late-60s who had underlying health conditions. He tested positive for the coronavirus in mid-January. He was hospitalized a few days later, and died yesterday. More than 40 state inmates have now died of COVID-19. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

12:38 p.m. - COVID-19 hospitalizations across North Carolina are continuing a downward trend. In the most recent state alert map, more than two dozen counties have moved out of the red zone, indicating that the impact on local hospitals from the spread of coronavirus has decreased. On Monday, the State Department of Health and Human Services reported about 2,300 hospitalizations. Levels are roughly where they were in mid-December, before the post-holiday spike.

Duke University research associate Hilary Campbell has been monitoring hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic. She says she remains encouraged by the decline, but says North Carolina is not yet in the clear.

“So the level of hospitalizations we have right now is still not a good thing,” Campbell said. “This is still a really high hospitalization level. This is way above where we were in the summer which was concerning."

Hospitals in the Triad and Charlotte-Mecklenburg areas are under the most strain. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

9:25 a.m. - Mass vaccination events, like the one being held at PNC Arena in Raleigh later this week, speed distribution. But they also come with a significant flaw. Deputy Health Secretary Benjamin Money says the mass vaccination sites aren't helping with the state's mission of equitable distribution.

“You've got to go; you've got to have a car to get there,” Money said. “And guess what, you got to have gas in that car.”

Money says transport needs plus the process of navigating a website or even waiting on a phone line can lead to inequity. And that shows. Of the North Carolinians who have received their first dose of the vaccine, 81% are white, and 98% are non-Hispanic.

In a recent virtual chat with State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen, Reverend William Barber challenged the state to line up churches as vaccination sites to help balance those inequities. Money says the state is encouraging local health departments and providers to partner with community organizations like churches.

Wake-Med and the Wake County Health Department joined with 16 churches and a community center for vaccination events this weekend targeting Black and Latino seniors. 500 people got shots at historically African American Saint Matthew Baptist church. The first two people to be vaccinated there Saturday morning were Pastor Ronald Avery and his wife Addie Avery. Organizers say they had to turn at least 100 people away who just showed up, hoping to get a last-minute appointment. – Laura Pellicer, WUNC

7:25 a.m. - COVID-19 metrics in North Carolina are continuing to decline. On Sunday, the State Department of Health and Human Services reported about 2,400 COVID-19 hospitalizations. That's the lowest amount of hospitalizations in several weeks. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:15 a.m. – UNC-Chapel Hill is allowing faculty to delay in-person learning until Feb. 17 following a large celebration on Franklin Street Saturday night. Hundreds of UNC students and fans flooded the area after the Tar Heels beat Duke 91-87. There was no social distancing and many did not wear masks. The university says it has received hundreds of student conduct complaints connected to the event. UNC will evaluate those leads and students could face disciplinary action. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:10 a.m. - FEMA will give approximately $2 million to UNC Health for COVID-19 vaccine costs. The expedited federal funding can be used in several ways, including hiring more medical staff and leasing facilities to store and administer vaccines. FEMA previously committed almost $27 million to UNC Health for COVID-19 emergency costs. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - Some North Carolina universities are monitoring a rise in COVID-19 cases on their campuses. Duke was one of the few North Carolina universities to have entry testing and robust surveillance testing last fall, so they have a better comparison for their spring case counts. Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld says testing is even more widely available on campus now, but the increase in positive tests is still significant compared to last fall.

“We are seeing greater prevalence in our community through our surveillance testing,” Schoenfeld said. “So that we're probably at about double right now on a weekly basis.”

The university is finding about 30 to 40 positive cases a week now. If cases increase rapidly, the university might restrict movement on campus. Wake Forest University also saw a rise in cases last week and administrators warned that a greater surge could lead to a campus lockdown. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

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

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