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Coronavirus Live Updates: Week of March 15

Employees of the City of Greenville, NC received the COVID-19 vaccine at a mass vaccination event at Jaycee Park.
Aaron Hines
City of Greenville, via Flickr
All employees of the City of Greenville, NC were eligible to begin receiving the Janssen single-dose COVID-19 vaccine at the city's mass vaccination events at Jaycee Park beginning Friday, March 5, 2021.

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 March 8.

March 19, 2021

1:57 p.m. – UNC-Charlotte plans to return to "full operations" this fall. That means face-to-face classes and opening up dorms, dining halls and all campus buildings to regular capacity. UNC-Charlotte says these plans depend on students and staff getting vaccinated and remaining vigilant with pandemic precautions. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

9:53 a.m. - Cape Fear Valley Health in Fayetteville is opening up COVID-19 vaccine appointments to everyone starting next week. Anyone over the age of 16 will be able to schedule an appointment, regardless of what job or medical conditions you have. Administrators of the health care system say they're expanding eligibility sooner than expected because of their extensive logistics network, which allowed for the fast rollout of vaccine appointments. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

9:37 a.m. - Some CVS pharmacies in 12 cities across North Carolina are now offering COVID-19 vaccines. These cities include Durham, Fayetteville, Greensboro and Rocky Mount. The pharmacies are following the state's guidelines for who's eligible to receive a shot. Right now we are in Group 4 of the state's priority vaccination plan, which includes people with medical conditions that are at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19. – Celeste Gracis, WUNC

8:15 a.m. - Following in the footsteps of the IRS, the North Carolina Department of Revenue is extending the filing deadline for individual state income tax returns to May 17. However, North Carolina taxpayers will owe interest for payments received after April 15 unless there's a change in state law. – Amy Jeffries, WUNC

March 18, 2021

6:55 p.m. - The Durham VA has opened vaccine appointments to all enrolled veterans, regardless of age, health status or job description. The system provides care to nearly 60,000 veterans from central North Carolina to the Morehead City area. In a press release issued Wednesday, the health care system said it has 1,400 doses available. - Jay Price, WUNC

2:15 p.m. - Students in Warren County will soon be able to access high-speed internet through satellite technology. The county is joining a state-led pilot program to support students learning remotely. Hyde and Swain counties are already participating in the program. The initiative is being funded by federal coronavirus relief funds. – Celeste Gracia WUNC

9:15 a.m. - Wake Forest University is planning to hold in person commencement ceremonies this May for graduating students. As of now, the university plans to hold several small ceremonies outside to allow for more social distancing. Each graduate will be able to bring two guests. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

8:45 a.m. - College students who live in congregate settings like dorms or fraternity or sorority houses will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine starting April 7, regardless of their age, health condition or employment status. These students are included in Phase 4-B of the state's coronavirus vaccination plan, which also includes essential workers not yet vaccinated. Many colleges are starting to make students aware of their vaccine eligibility. – Celeste Gracia WUNC

7:30 a.m. - North Carolina is on track to make all adults eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine by May 1. Roughly 240,000 doses are now coming into the state each week. In addition, the federal government is sending vaccines directly to Walgreens and some CVS pharmacies, and to the FEMA-supported vaccination center in Greensboro. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - North Carolina's COVID-19 vaccine supply continues to improve.

“In terms of what is coming to us, we have seen that doubling since over the last eight weeks in the Pfizer, Moderna,” State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said. “And it is really the Johnson and Johnson supply that is really going to pick up in the month of April that I think allow us to further accelerate our efforts."

Until everyone can be vaccinated, wearing a mask, social distancing, and hand washing are still key. New COVID-19 cases in the state had been declining since mid-January, but Cohen says that downward trend appears to be plateauing. – Naomi Prioleau, WUNC

March 17, 2021

3:40 p.m. - In a sign of optimism, the Tanger Center has announced dates for a season of Broadway shows at its new theater in Greensboro starting in October with a run of the musical "Wicked." The first symphony performances are on the calendar for the end of August. The venue was originally scheduled for a grand opening last March, but that was derailed by the pandemic. The Tanger Center says it has installed a state-of-the-art air filtration system and will continue to follow state and local health guidelines. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC

3:30 p.m. - Durham Public Schools has announced instruction will be all remote tomorrow in anticipation of severe thunderstorms. Wake County has postponed all vaccination appointments scheduled for tomorrow until Friday because of the weather threat. A storm system that could bring damaging winds, tornadoes, and hail is expected to hit the Triangle and other areas along the U.S.-1 Corridor in the late afternoon or early evening [between 3 and 6 p.m.] before continuing east. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC

3:20 p.m. - Over a quarter of adults in North Carolina have gotten at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 16% are fully vaccinated. The state is getting about 240,000 doses a week and more is going directly to pharmacies and federally managed clinics. The governor and state health secretary say North Carolina should be able to meet President Joe Biden's May 1 deadline to make all adults eligible to get a shot.

As of today, any adult with a medical condition that puts them at risk for severe illness from the coronavirus can get vaccinated under the state's prioritization plan. Eligibility also opened up today to more people living in group settings including college dorms. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC

3:10 p.m. - Enrollment at community colleges fell this past year, nationally and in North Carolina. The COVID-19 pandemic cost some students their jobs, their childcare or their ability to take hands-on classes. Enrollment nationwide dropped by about 10% between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020 and by about 17% overall at North Carolina's Community College System, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

That current enrollment is against the usual trend during an economic recession. Typically when unemployment rises, so does the number of people heading to community colleges. Enrollment data show declines especially among Black and Latino men and in hands-on courses.

"We saw in hospitality, as you can imagine, was significantly impacted. Some of our classes that require in-class training such as our welding, some of the trades saw declines," said Thomas Stith, president of the North Carolina Community College System.

Cosmetology saw about a 17% decline in enrollment system-wide. Stith says he's anticipating stronger enrollment this fall. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

7:35 a.m. - More people in North Carolina are eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine starting Wednesday. People with medical conditions that put them at high risk for COVID-19 are now able to get vaccinated. People living in congregate settings like prisons and homeless shelters are also now eligible. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:25 a.m. - Duke University saw nearly as many new COVID-19 cases last week as it did during the entire fall semester. Top administrators blame fraternities for the surge amid reports of recruitment activities and off-campus parties. Students could face disciplinary actions. The campus will remain on lockdown through Sunday. In-person classes have been moved online and students have been told to stay in place. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:10 a.m. - Passengers are more likely to travel by air as COVID-19 vaccine distribution increases, according to an online survey of 500 travelers conducted by the Raleigh Durham International Airport Authority. That's encouraging news for RDU, which saw a significant drop in passengers last year due to the pandemic.

RDU Spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco says the airport is now launching an online, interactive map with information about local COVID-19 regulations in U-S states and other countries.

We find it very helpful for our travelers because it captures information from sources all over the world and displays it right there on our home page,” Hawco said. “So, we think it’s something that's going to be extremely helpful for travelers as they're looking for information about their destinations."

Nearly 5 million passengers flew through RDU in 2020. The last time the airport served so few passengers was in 1987. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

March 16, 2021

2:50 p.m. - North Carolina's rate of positive COVID-19 tests has risen above 6% for the first time in around two weeks. At 6.7%, it's the first time the state's positivity rate has surpassed 6% since March 1. For much of that time, the positivity rate has remained below the 5% threshold used by public health officials to gauge the need for restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

11:58 a.m. - A recent survey conducted by the Raleigh Durham International Airport shows that passengers are more likely to travel by air as COVID-19 vaccine distribution increases. The online survey collected answers from more than 500 RDU travelers during the first week of March. Of those respondents, nearly 80% said they believe being vaccinated against COVID-19 makes traveling by airline safer. RDU spokeswoman Stephanie Hawco says these survey results are encouraging.

“We believe that widespread distribution of the vaccine is really that last piece that we need to ignite the recovery of airports and airlines across the country,” Hawco said.

Last year RDU saw 66% fewer passengers compared to 2019 because of the pandemic. In response, the airport has had to cut its budget by nearly half. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

10:49 a.m. - Over 200 students at Duke University tested positive for COVID-19 last week. This is the highest number of positive cases reported in a single week for the university since the start of the pandemic. It's also nearly as much as the total number of positive cases reported for the entire first semester. Undergraduate students are under a stay in place order until this Sunday. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:10 a.m. - Novant Health is loosening some visitor restrictions starting this week as coronavirus trends continue to fall statewide. Most non-COVID-19 patients will now be allowed two visitors. There are still strict visitation rules in place for COVID-19 patients. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - Wake County Public Schools will host graduation ceremonies for high school seniors this year. The ceremonies will take place at school stadiums with up to 30% venue capacity for guests. But high schools will not have a traditional prom. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

6:55 a.m. - The unemployment rate in North Carolina has fallen below 6%, according to the latest numbers from the state Commerce Department. Unemployment went down from 6.1% in December to 5.9% in January. That's still well above pre-pandemic levels, but much better since the peak last April and May when the state jobless rate was 13.5%. – Amy Jeffries, WUNC

6:50 a.m. - Federal health officials have relaxed visitation guidelines in long-term-care facilities. This came as welcome news in nursing homes around the state. Tight restrictions had been in place since September to prevent spreading Covid-19 into high-risk populations. But now, nearly 90% of long term care residents and staff have received at least one dose of vaccine.

Susan Kansagra is the Chief of the Chronic Disease and Injury Section of the North Carolina Public Health Division. Although rules have been relaxed, she says visitors need to stay vigilant in their safety protocols.

"Screen all visitors that come in to the facility for symptoms and signs of COVID. Also making sure that you're adhering to handwashing and wearing a mask,” Kansagra said.

Going forward, new residents will no longer be required to quarantine for two weeks. - Jason deBruyn, WUNC

March 15, 2021

5:05 p.m. - The federal government has relaxed visitation guidelines for long-term care facilities. While outdoor visitation is best when possible, indoor visitation is now allowed for all residents, regardless of vaccination status. This was welcome news to Dr. Susan Kansagra, chief of the Chronic Disease and Injury Section of the North Carolina Public Health Division.

"We know it's been a really long, hard year, both due to the impact of Covid-19 itself and to the impact of the policies that were in place due to Covid-19. So overall this is great news. We are glad to see numbers trend in the right direction, and we are glad that people can be reunited with their loved ones," said Kansagra.

The guidelines still suggest that unvaccinated residents not have indoor visits until they've been fully vaccinated. In North Carolina, nine out of 10 long-term care residents and staff have received at least one vaccination, and 70% have received both. – Jason deBruyn, WUNC

2:23 p.m. - The unemployment rate in North Carolina has fallen below 6%, according to the latest figures from the state Commerce Department. Unemployment ticked down from 6.1% recorded in December to 5.9% in January. That's still well above pre-pandemic levels, but much improved since the peak last April and May when the revised figures show the state jobless rate was 13.5%. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC

2:15 p.m. - North Carolina hospitals are reporting that they are caring for fewer than 1,000 COVID-19 patients in total. The number of hospitalizations statewide hasn't been below that mark since October. New cases are also on the decline, with the state adding about 1,300 to the tally today. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC

2:01 p.m. - The new East Carolina University chancellor starts work this week. Philip Rogers is ECU's 12th chancellor. He has most recently been a vice president at the American Council on Education, and previously served as the chief of staff to ECU's seventh Chancellor Steven Ballard. Rogers says he's preparing to help ECU transition through the COVID-19 pandemic this spring and to more normal operations for the fall semester. "My hope is that that environment will look a lot closer to what we experienced in Fall 2019 compared to what we saw in 2020," said Rogers, adding that one of his priorities will be helping manage the financial repercussions of the pandemic.

Rogers is also looking beyond fall. He says he hopes to gain lessons from last year's switch to remote classes to help ECU bolster its reputation as a leader in online learning and to focus on students' mental health and engagement. - Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

11:11 a.m. - Business owners in Virginia Beach and North Carolina’s Outer Banks are looking forward to a tourist season that is expected to rebound from the losses suffered during the pandemic last year. The Virginian-Pilot reported Friday that hoteliers are on a hiring blitz and preparing for more tourists as more people get vaccinated. Vacation homes are also a large part of the tourist economy. They were a big draw on the Outer Banks last year because of natural social distance that they provide. They are expected to have the same popularity this year. And many homes are already booked for the peak summer months. – The Associated Press

9:13 a.m. - A housing boom during the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed North Carolina prices up to their highest growth rate in nearly 30 years. The Raleigh News & Observer reports prices of single-family homes had a year-over-year growth rate of more than 11% in the final quarter of 2020. The housing price jump is driven in part by high demand and low supply in the Triangle. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

7:10 a.m. - Positive COVID-19 tests are continuing to fall in North Carolina as more people become eligible for vaccinations. The state health department reported 892 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday. The Raleigh News & Observer reports counties in the Triangle saw their fifth straight week of lower percentages of COVID-19 tests returning positive. Orange County added no new cases. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

7:05 a.m. - North Carolina Chief Justice Paul Newby has issued an order extending emergency directives in courtrooms an additional 30 days in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new order extends prevention measures, including the requirement to wear face masks in court facilities, until mid-January. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

6:55 a.m. - Duke University has issued a week-long stay-in-place order to its undergraduate students until Sunday. In a campus-wide message, university officials said the decision was in response to a steady rise in COVID-19 cases among undergraduate students. The cases were tied to off-campus fraternity recruitment events. Those who are found responsible for hosting the events will be held accountable through the student conduct process. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

6:50 a.m. - The advocacy group Siembra NC is going door-to-door to Latino neighborhoods to share information about COVID-19 vaccinations. The group recently conducted a survey of 800 Latinos in 13 North Carolina counties and found that 70% of respondents did not know how to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Laura Garduno Garcia is a community organizer who led the door-knocking effort. She says Siembra NC has worked to dispel misinformation that has made some people hesitant to get a vaccine.

“We think that if we continue having conversations, showing people that many of us are receiving it and there are in fact no adverse reactions and that we can know contemplate seeing each other without a face mask, I think it gives people some more to think about,” Garcia said.

The group has plans to canvass neighborhoods in four counties to reach up to 6,000 people. Hispanic people are under-represented among those who have received vaccines in North Carolina so far. – Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

6:45 a.m. - It's been one year since Governor Roy Cooper instructed all K-12 public schools to move to online learning. All school districts will now offer in-person learning to students.

Few pandemic-related changes had as significant an impact as the state's 1.5 million public-school students moving to remote learning. It affected students, teachers, administrators, and – of course – parents. Like Stephanie Baker, from Durham.

“I tell people all the time, I don't think God intended for me to parent this many hours a day,” Baker said. “I don't think that was part of the plan."

Baker laughs, but she's also made the choice to keep her family in remote learning for the remainder of this year. In many larger districts, like Durham, the number of parents making that choice hovers around 50%. That will allow schools to create the space for other parents who will send students back to classrooms, for the first time in 12 months. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

6:40 a.m. - A new school reopening bill signed into law by Governor Roy Cooper last week has many school districts across the state hustling to readjust their plans.

The law makes two major changes. First, it requires elementary schools to open with full-time in-person classes. It also allows middle and high schools to open to full-time in-person classes, which previously only younger grades were allowed to do. Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras says her district already meets the new requirements. But she says it would be hard for other schools to quickly rewrite their safety protocols.

“Now to say to them, you know, you don't have to do that anymore. Some of the protocols, in terms of social distancing, it really undermines the work we're trying to do in the district,” Contreras said.

All North Carolina public schools must adhere to the new requirements within three weeks after the bill was signed into law last Thursday. – Liz Schlemmer, 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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