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Coronavirus Live Updates: Week of March 1

Tyson Foods team members receive COVID-19 vaccines from health officials at the Wilkesboro, N.C. facility on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. The team members are eligible for the vaccine under North Carolina's Phase 2 distribution.
Melissa Melvin
AP Images for Tyson Foods

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. 22.

March 5, 2021

7 p.m. - Fans have been scarce for most the college basketball season during the pandemic. But there will be fans in the stands tomorrow when the men's team's from UNC and Duke meet at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill to cap off the regular season. Neither team is being discussed as a contender for the Atlantic Coast Conference crown – much less the national championship. That's another anomaly. But UNC Coach Roy Williams says it won't dampen the rivalry.

"From my viewpoint, I don't know that it makes any difference at all between the two teams or the two coaches. It's still Duke vs. North Carolina, an ACC game at the end of the regular season," said Williams.

The Tar Heels won the match-up with the Blue Devils in February, sparking a crowded celebration on Franklin Street. Williams is telling fans to follow the rules this time, keep their masks on, and stay spaced out. – Amy Jeffries, WUNC
6:50 p.m. - North Carolina's COVID-19 trends are vastly improving. After a spike in cases and hospitalizations right after the winter holidays, all key metrics are on the decline. North Carolina's test positivity rate is 4.3% and only six counties are facing critical community spread of COVID-19. That's the lowest number of red counties since the state put its color-coded tracking system in place in November.  

Dr. Charlene Wong is Chief Health Policy Officer for COVID-19 at the state Department of Health and Human Services. She says vaccinations have helped, as shown by data from long-term care facilities. Residents at such facilities were among the first people eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations. To date, close to 1 million North Carolinians have been fully vaccinated against the illness. – Rusty Jacobs, WUNC 
6:40 p.m. - North Carolina Central University in Durham will be administering COVID-19 vaccinations on a first-come, first-served basis next week. The historically Black university has received a limited supply of Johnson & Johnson single-shot doses and will be operating a vaccine clinic next Tuesday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. People on campus and from the greater Durham community currently eligible for the vaccine may register. The state health and human services department website has more details on vaccine eligibility. – Rusty Jacobs, WUNC 

6:30 p.m. - Public school students in some of North Carolina’s most isolated areas could benefit from a new initiative offering high-speed internet through low-orbit satellites. Governor Roy Cooper's office announced the pilot program this week. It will target young people in Hyde and Swain counties who lack reliable broadband service, or have none at all. Students in the local school districts will be testing an internet service that uses satellites launched by Space-X. The governor's office says pandemic relief funds are being used to research how best to utilize satellite technology to improve rural healthcare and economic development. – Amy Jeffries, WUNC 

6:20 p.m. - North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen and the influential Black pastor Reverend William Barber both got vaccinated today. They each got a shot of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at the Wake County clinic at PNC Arena. An initial allocation of 80,000 doses of the most recently authorized vaccine has been arriving to the state this week. Barber said he wanted to get vaccinated publicly to encourage others to do the same. – Amy Jeffries, WUNC 

2:10 p.m. - The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education voted Thursday to offer in-person learning a month ahead of originally planned. The district will offer a hybrid learning model starting March 22. The board decided to provide in-person learning in addition to the remote option because of positive health trends in Orange County, including a COVID-19 test positivity rate of less than one percent. – Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

2 p.m. - At least 50,000 K-12 and early childcare educators in North Carolina have been vaccinated against COVID-19 so far. That's according to data State Health Director Dr. Betsey Tilson presented to the State Board of Education yesterday. Tilson said she believes it may be an undercount based on self-reported data, and it is difficult to determine vaccinations by school district. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC
12:03 p.m. - Scientists at Duke University have found two known variants of the coronavirus as part of their study of samples from campus and the Duke Health system. Researchers have been conducting gene sequencing from samples of the virus in swabs taken late last summer. They identified variants that are believed to have originated in California and New York.

Tom Denny is chief operating officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. He says scientists across the country are doing this work to determine if any variants are more contagious or resistant to vaccines that have emergency use authorization.

“So far, at least, the variants that we've identified don't escape any of the known vaccines or those that are currently EUA approved,” Denny said. “That's all good news from a public health perspective.”

Denny says his department will continue asymptomatic testing at Duke to gather more samples and determine how the virus is mutating. – Will Michaels, WUNC

8:54 a.m. - The state health department's County Alert System now shows six counties have critical community spread of the coronavirus. That's down from 27 counties that were in the most serious category in late February. – Will Michaels, WUNC

7:55 a.m. - Doctors Anthony Fauci and Kizzmekia Corbett will speak at UNC-Chapel Hill's spring commencement ceremony. Corbett is an alum of the UNC School of Medicine and helped develop the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. UNC says Fauci and Corbett will deliver virtual remarks, but commencement will include some live ceremonies with limited guests. – Will Michaels, WUNC

7:41 a.m. - The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is offering public schools the option to take part in rapid coronavirus testing. Dr. Aditi Mallick of the state health department told the Board of Education Thursday that the state is ready to expand a pilot program to all K-12 school districts and charter schools that request it.

Local administrators could choose to offer testing either to students, employees and families who have COVID-19 symptoms or exposure, or weekly surveillance testing of school employees. School districts can begin applying now to receive tests through at least the end of the school year. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

7:05 a.m. – UNC-Chapel Hill is telling its students to break with tradition and not rush Franklin Street if the Tar Heels men's basketball team defeats rival Duke this Saturday. In a video message to students, university representatives warn that gathering in crowds puts people at risk of catching COVID-19 and violates the university's community standards and local ordinances. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

March 4, 2021

5:45 p.m. - The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services updated its COVID-19 County Alert System today. The map now shows six red counties.  That's down from 27 red counties on the previous map from late February. And it's the fewest red counties in the state since the start of the County Alert System. Today’s update also lists 34 orange counties and 60 yellow counties. - Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

3:18 p.m. - The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has released updated guidelines for schools to reopen to in-person learning. Deputy Health Secretary Susan Gale Perry presented the guidelines to the State Board of Education today. "We wanted to make sure that our guidance was crystal clear on the expectation that all schools, K-thru-12, can and should be in in-person instruction at this time," Perry said.

The state Board of Education then passed a resolution saying K-12 schools should offer in-person instruction to the "fullest extent possible" under state guidelines no later than the end of March. Only two school districts did not already have plans to begin shifting away from remote learning before next month. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools had planned to shift in April, and their school board will discuss the issue tonight. - Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

1:21 p.m. - UNC Chapel Hill's class of 2021 will celebrate graduation with an in-person spring commencement. UNC announced today that infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and vaccine researcher Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett will give a virtual commencement address. The university will hold a series of in-person ceremonies over 3 days and graduates will be allowed to bring two guests. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

11:58 a.m.  - The grocery store chain LIDL has announced tighter COVID-19 precautions, including a strict mask mandate, due to the threat of coronavirus variants. The German-based chain has stores in Raleigh and Charlotte. In an open letter to customers, LIDL said it has enhanced its cleaning and air filtration and will require all customers over the age of 2 to wear a mask or face shield in its stores. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

11:23 a.m. - Fans are returning to the PNC Arena Thursday to cheer on the Carolina Hurricanes for the first time in almost a year. Several COVID-19 safety protocols are in place. The arena will be open at 15% capacity. All seats will be grouped in pods separated by at least six-feet. Masks are required for everyone. Gaiters or bandanas will not be allowed as face coverings. The Canes face the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday at 7 p.m. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

10:38 a.m. - The State Department of Health and Human Services says many long term care facilities and nursing homes meet safety criteria to resume indoor visitation. New COVID-19 cases in these facilities have declined quickly over the last several weeks. DHHS attributes this decline to vaccinations and decreasing community transmission. More than 200,000 coronavirus vaccines have been administered to long-term care staff and residents throughout the state. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:20 a.m. - For the second year in a row, the “Got to Be NC Festival” has been canceled because of the pandemic. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler says staff is busy preparing for the State Fair this fall. The festival highlights North Carolina’s agriculture and agribusiness industry. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:15 a.m. - The State Department of Health and Human Services is calling on all K-12 public schools to offer some form of in person learning. The updated re-opening guidance requires all students ages 5 and up to wear masks. Middle and high schools have to follow stricter safety guidelines than elementary schools. For example, older students must stay 6-feet apart while younger students can be inside classrooms with less physical separation. Schools must offer remote learning options for students that are at high risk of becoming severely sick if they're exposed to COVID-19. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - A new poll from High Point University shows consumer confidence in North Carolina remains low a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. High Point University gauges’ consumer confidence twice a year by asking people five questions about their economic well-being, and how they think the country is doing.

Only a quarter of respondents to the survey conducted last month said they were better off now than they were this time last year. And less than a third say they think they will be better off next year. Meanwhile, one-in-four respondents also reported food insecurity in the past year. Overall, High Point's Consumer Sentiment Index has been falling steadily for more than two years, but it dipped sharply in the spring of 2020, and is now the lowest it's been since 2013. - Will Michaels, WUNC

6:55 a.m. - Just over a year into the pandemic, more than 11,000 people in North Carolina have died from COVID-19. The state has recorded more than 800,000 coronavirus infections since announcing the first one last March. UNC’s Dr. Alexa Mieses Malchuk says she's celebrating how far we've come in addressing the pandemic.

“But at the same time, this is not the time to celebrate too much and start relaxing all of the measures that have gotten us thus far,” Malchuk said. “As- you know in the year to come, the things that we need to focus on is how to make sure that everyone - not just in the state but within the nation - are vaccinated”

INC doctors also said at their pandemic anniversary briefing that it's important to keep monitoring the coronavirus variants that are spreading across the country. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

March 3, 2021

4 p.m. - What was supposed to be the final game of the regular season for the NC State men's basketball team has been canceled. Members of the Virginia Tech program who were scheduled to come to Raleigh on Saturday are in COVID protocol. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC

3:50 p.m. - Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina saw a $234 million decline in net income last year because of the pandemic. The decline mainly came from COVID-19 related claims and premium reductions. Medical claims and expenses rose by $200 million compared to 2019. Membership also grew by more than 1%. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

3:40 p.m. - State health officials say they are trying to address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in under-served areas by connecting with community groups. The state health department's Office of Rural Health is holding workshops today about distributing vaccine information to people in historically marginalized groups who are less likely to have trust in the healthcare system. Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi is a family medicine doctor at Duke. She says she's recently been working more often in community settings rather than hospitals.

"It takes time, and it takes effort, and it takes being there to answer the questions, not to dictate, but to answer the questions. This issue of mistrust happens from always coming in from like, 'I am the doctor and I know.' No. I want you to tell me what you know about your community," said Martinez-Bianchi.

About 18% of North Carolinians who have gotten at least one dose are Black or Hispanic.  That number is higher than it was in February, but those groups make up 31% of the state's population. - Will Michaels, WUNC

3:20 p.m. - Gov. Roy Cooper received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine this afternoon in Raleigh.  The 63-year-old Democrat thanked frontline health care workers and encouraged others who are eligible to get inoculated.

"I feel great. This a shot of hope for everybody that gets a vaccine it is a sign of hope that we are going to turn the corner," said Cooper.

Today marks the first day of everyone in Group 3 on the state's vaccine priority list can get vaccinated. That includes elected officials and other frontline essential workers such as grocery store clerks, police officers and postal carriers.

The state health department expanded eligibility after getting an influx of doses of the newly authorized Johnson and Johnson vaccine. - Will Michaels, WUNC

12:14 p.m. - Wednesday marks one year since state health officials announced that the first case of COVID-19 had been identified in North Carolina. Since then, the state has recorded more than 800,000 cases and more than 11,000 people in the state have died. The UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill has treated about 1,700 COVID-19 patients since last March. The UNC Health system has administered close to 200,000 COVID-19 vaccines statewide.

At a briefing Wednesday, UNC Health CEO Dr. Wesley Burks reflected on the pandemic anniversary.

But through all of this work, we are different, both collectively and personally,” Burks said. “And I think that we're different in ways that may take a few years to better understand."

UNC doctors warned that even after the pandemic, there may be long lasting mental health effects, especially on children. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

9:13 a.m. - Governor Roy Cooper is receiving his COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday. Cooper is now eligible for his shot after the state expanded eligibility to all people in Group 3 of North Carolina's COVID-19 vaccine prioritization list. This includes elected officials. Wednesday marks a year since the first case of the coronavirus was identified in North Carolina. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:10 a.m. - All essential frontline workers in Group 3 of North Carolina's COVID-19 vaccine priority list are now eligible to receive a shot starting today. State officials expanded eligibility a week earlier than expected because of increased supply of doses. North Carolinians under 65 with high-risk medical conditions will become eligible for vaccination on March 24. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - Durham Public Schools is sticking with March 15 to start bringing students back in person. The school board voted 4-to-3 against delaying the return even after the bill that pushed them to offer in-person learning was vetoed. Durham was one of a handful of districts statewide that hadn't made plans until recently to return to classrooms this semester. Board Chair Bettina Umstead cast the deciding vote.

“I continue to circle in my head, what is best for our students? I think what is best for our students is having the opportunity to come in person if they need that, I think it means also having a clear plan for safety and what that looks like,” Umstead said.

District staff assured board members they'll be able to maintain six feet of social distancing for however many students do show up. That'll start with elementary students, then next month, middle and high schoolers in a three-week rotation. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

March 2, 2021

6:10 p.m. - The state's largest school district is now allowing as much as 30% capacity for spectators at high school athletic events. Wake County Public Schools announced its plans to expand how many people can be at games after the governor eased some coronavirus restrictions. Wake Schools will cap the number of people allowed at indoor facilities at 250 – even if that is less than 30% capacity – because of the increased risk of viral spread indoors. – Cole del Charco, WUNC

4:30 p.m. - The state health department says all frontline essential workers will be eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine, starting tomorrow. The move will allow first responders, grocery store employees and other people who have to work in-person to get their shots – everyone in Group 3 of the state's prioritization plan. It's not clear exactly how many people that is. In a briefing this afternoon, Governor Cooper said state officials decided to expand eligibility a week ahead of schedule because North Carolina is getting a shipment of the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and larger shipments of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

"With all of that together, I think the department feels pretty confident that we'll be able to stick to these dates for being able to open even more groups for vaccines," said Cooper.

Cooper said the state health department plans to move to Group 4 on March 24th. Starting with people who have medical conditions that may put them at higher risk of COVID-19 complications. – Will Michaels, WUNC

10:53 a.m. - North Carolina legislators are working on how to distribute more money from the federal government's most recent coronavirus relief package. House Republicans have unveiled legislation that would direct more than $1.7 billion to go toward colleges and universities, food relief and COVID-19 testing and tracing. Legislation passed last month distributed more than $2 billion in federal relief for public education, vaccine distribution and rental assistance. – Celeste Gracia

8:58 a.m. - People who are unemployed in North Carolina will be required to prove they’re searching for work in order to keep their jobless benefits. The Raleigh News & Observer reports that Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order to that effect on Monday. But people who are currently on unemployment will not be affected. The governor’s order will impact only “new claimants who apply for unemployment benefits on or after March 14, 2021.” The work search requirement is typically required of everyone on unemployment. Cooper had waived that requirement a year ago when the coronavirus began. – The Associated Press

7:15 a.m. - The state senate failed last night to override Governor Roy Cooper's veto of legislation that would have required all North Carolina School districts to offer in-person learning. The bill originally had backing from about a dozen Democrats in the House and Senate.

But what looked to be a veto-proof margin didn't hold Monday night. Cooper vetoed the measure last week because he said it would threaten public health, especially in middle and high schools. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

March 1, 2021

4:35 p.m. - A Hillsborough Street Snoopy's – for decades a hot dog staple in Raleigh – closed for good over the weekend. The owners announced the move on Facebook, saying the Covid-19 pandemic brought about changes to them and the businesses around them. They said the property was sold to a developer, and employees will move to other Snoopy's locations. – Jason deBruyn, WUNC

4:30 p.m. - North Carolina is getting more than 80,000 doses this week of the newly authorized COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. The state health department says it expects to start getting shipments Wednesday, but would not yet say how it intends to allocate the doses to local health providers. Rachel Roper, a virologist at East Carolina University's medical school, says the new vaccine is safe, and should help the state inoculate people more quickly. 

"The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested differently from the other two vaccines that have been approved. It was also tested in South Africa and South America, so it already has some safety data against the variants that were circulating in those countries at the time," said Roper.

North Carolina has also been getting about 150,000 doses per week from Pfizer and Moderna. The influx of doses comes a week after teachers became eligible to get the vaccines and a week before the state plans to open up eligibility to more frontline essential workers. – Will Michaels, WUNC
4:20 p.m. - Legislative Republicans say they're ready to try to override Governor Cooper's school reopening veto. Lawmakers want to force K-12 districts to offer in-person learning to all students in about two weeks. Cooper said that threatens public health, particularly to middle and high school students. The Senate is prepared to hold an override vote this evening. The House would also have to override the veto for it to carry. – Jason deBruyn, WUNC

1:04 p.m. - State Senate Leader Phil Berger says the senate will vote Monday evening to over-ride Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of a bill that would require all public school districts to offer in person learning.

Cooper vetoed the bill last Friday. Berger says the over-ride vote could succeed if at least three Democratic state senators vote along with Republicans. The House would also have to vote for the over-ride. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

10:37 a.m. - COVID-19 restrictions caused a decrease in crime rates at Fort Bragg last year. The Fayetteville Observer reports the soldier crime rate in 2020 was 27% less than in 2019 because of restrictions that required people to stay at home. Fort Bragg's crime rate was almost 50 percent lower compared to other army installations. Soldiers accounted for about half of the crimes. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

10:26 a.m. - North Carolina expects to receive more than 80,000 doses of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this week. State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen says the doses should start arriving this Wednesday. A third vaccine will help speed up vaccinations. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:10 a.m. - North Carolina is planning to receive up to 60-thousand doses of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this week. News outlets report Wake County could receive its allocation of 5,200 doses as early as Monday. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - Advocates are waiting to hear whether federal regulators will investigate if North Carolina's workplace safety office is meeting its obligations to protect workers from COVID-19. Several civil rights organizations filed a federal complaint with OSHA earlier this month against the state Department of Labor.

They accuse the department of not requiring employers to have COVID-19 safety protocols in place, like providing PPE or daily health screenings. They also accuse the department of not properly investigating workers’ complaints. Senior Attorney Carol Brooke with the North Carolina Justice Center helped draft the federal complaint.

“Our hope is that that the US Department of Labor will instruct the North Carolina Department of Labor to make some changes in how they're responding to OSHA complaints, and what they're doing with respect to rules.” Burnett said.

The state labor department rejected a rule making petition workers advocates filed in October. That is under judicial review by Wake County Superior Court. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

6:55 a.m. - The federally supported COVID-19 vaccination center set to open in Guilford County later this month will be capable of administering roughly 21,000 doses a week. Guilford County Board of Commissioners Chair Skip Alston was among the local officials who petitioned Governor Roy Cooper to host the center in Greensboro. He says that reaching marginalized communities with a high risk of COVID-19 exposure was among the considerations in selecting the location.

“And that’s something that the governor had a concern about,” Alston told WFDD. “There’s a concern about that also at a national level. And they feel that by being here in Guilford County and then centrally located like it is we’ll be able to attract those people who have not been able to get access to the vaccine."

It will operate at the Four Seasons Town Centre in Greensboro daily for eight weeks. The center will also act as a hub for mobile clinics and satellite stations scattered throughout the region. – Amy Jeffries, 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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