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Coronavirus Live Updates: Week of Jan. 4

Gov. Roy Cooper watches while Tracy Toner gives a COVID-19 vaccination to Duke nurse Arianna Motsinger at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham on Monday, December 21, 2020.
Shawn Rocco
Duke Health

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 Dec. 28.

Jan. 8, 2021

6 p.m. - The state Health Department says residents of neighboring states can come into North Carolina to get a COVID-19 vaccine. And Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen says North Carolina residents do not need to get vaccinated in their home county. Demand has greatly outpaced supply as North Carolina has begun administering doses to hospital workers and people age 75 or older. As of today, state officials report that nearly 152,000 people have gotten their first dose, while more than 9,000 have also gotten their second dose. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC4 p.m. - State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen addressed the recent surge in cases at a briefing this afternoon.

"In the 10 months that we've been fighting this pandemic, this is the most worried that I've been for our state. We continue to set new records. We reported over 10,000 new cases yesterday, and again today," said Cohen.

Cohen said it is not only possible, but likely that the fast-spreading variant of the virus first detected in the United Kingdom is present here in North Carolina. She reiterated the message in the directive she issued earlier this week urging North Carolinians to stay home as much as possible and avoid gathering with people outside their household. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

3:50 p.m. - A group that represents nurses in North Carolina is asking for more help to reverse the rising trend of COVID-19 cases.  In a letter to Governor Roy Cooper, the North Carolina Nurses Association says it supports any executive orders that would strengthen current restrictions designed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The group's president and nurse practitioner Dennis Taylor says he's also appealing to people who don't wear a mask in public. 

"I don't know whether it is just they see it as a political statement, whether they just don't believe the virus is real, but those of us that work with it on the front lines certainly see people dying every day from this," said Taylor.

Taylor did not name a specific policy that the governor could change but he said Cooper should consider restrictions in other states that could be more effective. - Will Michaels, WUNC

3:40 p.m. - As more vaccines become available, the North Carolina National Guard is rolling out to help local health departments administer doses. State emergency managers are coordinating with the guard. Director of Emergency Management Mike Sprayberry spoke at a briefing today saying that the NC National Guard teams "will be reporting early next week to serve in Forsyth County and with Alemarle Regional health services."

Sprayberry said troops will be available to support other county health departments as needed. He added that the state has a supply of dry ice it can distribute to hospitals and health providers where vaccines could go bad because they can't be kept at ultra-cold temperatures.  The guard is also supporting food banks and rapid testing sites. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

3:30 p.m. - A field hospital in Western North Carolina is now open to provide relief to five local healthcare systems. Samaritan's Purse opened its 30-bed emergency field hospital in Lenoir yesterday. The Boone-based international relief organization says the field hospital is specialized as a respiratory care unit for COVID-19 patients. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

3:20 p.m. - The state Department of Public Safety is installing nearly 4,000 air purifiers in about 50 North Carolina state prisons in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. These purifiers work by making virus particles heavier and easier to filter. They were bought in December for $1.8 million dollars. Around 20% of the installation has been completed. Officials anticipate the project will be finished by early next month. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

2:40 p.m. - The state Board of Education is officially asking the federal government for a waiver so students don't have to take in-person end-of-course or proficiency tests during the pandemic. Some board members were hesitant to bypass the normal testing requirements because of the potential implications for measuring student achievement. But in the end, the board voted to ask the U.S. Department of Education to let districts off the hook. Tests will still be administered in person, but districts won't be required to have 95% participation. So if the waiver is approved, it could mean some, if not a lot, of students aren't tested for a while.

Many districts have brought students back to classrooms after going all remote in the spring, but even so, a significant number of the state's students are learning from home after opting for virtual learning instead. Some districts have already held tests in-person, while others have told students they can take an "incomplete" for a class until they feel safe to take the test. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

2:30 p.m. - Local health departments are quickly reaching the limit on how many COVID-19 vaccines they can administer each day. Some providers, including Duke Health, have started doing vaccinations by appointment for people who are 75 and older. Earlier this week, some county health departments said a high volume of calls crashed their phone systems, including in Wilson County, where Teresa Ellen is the local health director.

"It has created some issues for us, but our information technology department is working very hard to increase our ability to receive those calls and we are in the process of getting an online scheduling option also," said Ellen.
Wilson County has filled all its appointments, and is asking people to wait until next week to call. In Alamance County, the local health department has had to temporarily suspend its vaccine clinic in Burlington two days in a row on Wednesday and Thursday because it met capacity before or shortly after it opened. New guidance from the state health department suggests freeing up staff members in other positions to help with data entry or fielding requests from the public. - Will Michaels, WUNC

7:41 a.m. - Durham Public Schools will remain in remote learning for the rest of this school year. In a special called meeting last night, members of the school board of education voted unanimously to remain in Plan C based on the latest COVID-19 data. District leaders say they will keep improving online learning. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:25 a.m. - Wake County Schools are resuming middle school sports, but students will only be able to play against others at their own school. In a school board meeting earlier this week, district leaders announced the new plan, which allows for practice and intramural play. The Raleigh News and Observer reports this comes after Wake had suspended sports in the fall semester with plans to bring them back in the spring. – Cole del Charco, WUNC

7:14 a.m. - A UNC hospital in Lumberton is asking the community to seek outpatient resources before coming to the facility. UNC Health Southeastern says they've reached maximum capacity. The hospital is caring for about 245 total patients, including around 50 COVID-19 patients. All of the acute care beds the hospital has are full.

Jason Cox is the vice president and chief operating officer at the hospital. He says patients with emergencies will still be seen according to the severity of injuries.

"So, we definitely want people experiencing a medical emergency to come to the hospital,” Cox said. “We're here for that. We're available, and that's what we stand ready to do."

Cox says non-essential surgeries are currently ongoing, but officials are evaluating that every day. If or when the hospital needs more staff and resources, Cox says they can stop elective surgeries and close primary care clinics. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

Jan. 7, 2021

6:50 p.m. - The state has begun issuing additional federal unemployment benefits authorized by Congress at the end of December as part of the latest pandemic relief package. People who are eligible are getting extra $300 checks for last week. The state has also started paying out benefits under the extensions of the previous pandemic assistance programs that expired the day after Christmas. The Department of Commerce says there won't be a lapse for those who hadn't yet exhausted their benefits. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

6:40 p.m. - UNC Chapel Hill has announced it will delay the start of in-person classes for all undergraduate students by three weeks for the spring semester. Only a limited number of classes had been planned to start in-person on January 19. Those classes will begin remotely until at least February 8.

Students living on campus will now be allowed a longer window to move into dorms, and they will be required to get tested for COVID-19 before moving in.

UNC Pembroke also announced today it will be delaying its start to in-person classes by two weeks. - Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

6:30 p.m. - The state Department of Public Safety says prison health care workers have started getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The agency says there are also 165 people incarcerated in North Carolina prisons who are eligible to get the shot in the current phase of the state's vaccine rollout, which includes people 75 and older. They will be getting the vaccine in the next few weeks. The rest of the more than 30-thousand inmates in state prisons can get inoculated in the next phase, but it's not clear when that will start.

Dr. Les Campbell, medical director for the prison system, said today that there will be a regional distribution plan when the department gets enough vaccine doses.

"From there, we will send out strike teams that have already been designated. We've identified which prisons have offenders who qualify for all the different groups. We know who they are. And then we're ready to execute," said Campbell.

The state commissioner of prisons said he's considering incentives for inmates to get the vaccine, like more visiting privileges. - Will Michaels, WUNC

11:43 a.m. - The State Department of Health and Human Services is reporting another record high number of COVID-19 hospitalizations for the sixth straight day. Almost 4,000 people across North Carolina are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus, as of Thursday morning.

The state is also reporting the highest number of new daily confirmed COVID-19 cases; nearly 10,400. Over the past week, there's been an average of 7,600 new daily reported cases. Gov. Roy Cooper wrote in a Tweet on Thursday, "These numbers paint a dark picture — COVID-19 is spreading rapidly across our state. We're at a critical point in our fight against this virus and all need to take responsibility for our own actions." – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:39 a.m. - North Carolina's new chief justice says he's asked Gov. Roy Cooper to consider getting COVID-19 vaccines more quickly to local court officials. Speaking at an online installation ceremony yesterday, Chief Justice Paul Newby said it’s a state constitutional requirement to have courts open. 

Under the current schedule from the state Department of Health and Human Services, essential workers in the legal field who aren't at least 65 or who have high-risk medical conditions could have to wait for some time before having vaccine access. A governor's spokesperson says the request has been received and is under consideration by health officials. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:22 a.m. - The State Department of Health and Human Services reports that 84 of North Carolina counties are now showing critical community spread of COVID-19. These 84 counties are classified as red zones. 12 counties are orange zones, or showing substantial community spread. Only four counties are yellow zones, showing significant spread. In the state's last update to this classification just over two weeks ago, 65 counties were red, 27 orange and eight yellow. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

Jan. 6, 2021

5:50 p.m. - Governor Roy Cooper is extending the state's 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew for another three weeks as the COVID-19 outbreak worsens. The governor says people should only be going out to work, for groceries, or for seeking medical care. State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen is backing that up with her own directive urging people to stay at home.

"If you're over 65 are at high risk for developing serious illness use delivery services or alternative pickup methods for food and retail. Second, do not gather with people that you do not live with. Do not go to another person's home indoors and do not have others over to your home indoors," said Cohen.

The announcements come as the state says all but four counties have substantial or critical viral spread and hospitals are under strain. More than 7,000 people have now died from COVID-19 in North Carolina since March. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

12:58 p.m. - With many of the state's students learning from home, UNC-TV started a project in March to reach students without internet access with televised lessons. Working with the state education department, the Friday Institute at N.C. State and other education groups, they're making strides to reach students in a variety of formats.

Angie Mullinix leads innovation at the Department of Public Instruction says more federal pandemic relief money will allow them to expand to more platforms. Mullinix says 24 teachers have been recruited to design and film lessons that will be available as many students continue with remote learning. – Cole del Charco, WUNC

12:29 p.m. - The State Department of Health and Human Services is reporting almost 3,900 COVID-19 hospitalizations across North Carolina, the fifth consecutive day of record high hospitalizations. Over the past seven days, an average of 15.3% of coronavirus tests have come back positive. More than 7,000 people in North Carolina have died from COVID-19 since last March. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

8:35 a.m. – N.C. State’s women’s basketball team has postponed its next two games – Thursday at Virginia Tech and Sunday at Wake Forest – due to a positive COVID-19 test within the Wolfpack program. N.C. State is 10-0 this season and ranks third in the Associated Press poll. Pitt and Syracuse are the two other ACC teams that are also on a pause due to COVID protocols. – Mitchell Northam, WUNC

7:02 a.m. - State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen says some counties are reporting problems with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. Cohen says these issues include staffing shortages, trouble with logging data, and logistical hurdles. At least 10 counties have indicated they will start vaccinating anyone 75 or older starting this week. The CDC says North Carolina ranks 39th in the country in how quickly it's inoculating people. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

Jan. 5, 2021

6:20 p.m. - North Carolina ranks 39th in the country for how quickly health providers are administering doses of the COVID-19 vaccines. The state health secretary says some county health departments have been able to inoculate people more quickly than others. Gaston County, near Charlotte, plans to move to the next phase of vaccinations this Friday. County Spokesman Adam Gaub says the local health director has been working with Gaston County emergency management to get weekly shipments where they need to be.

"He's likened it to building an airplane while you're flying it. I mean, this is a monumental undertaking of trying to do mass vaccinations and at the same time we're working on the educational side of it because there are tons of people who have some concerns about the vaccine," said Gaub.

The latest numbers from the CDC show a little more than 120,000 North Carolinians have gotten at least one shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. The state health department issued more guidance to counties today about how to speed up the process. - Will Michaels, WUNC

5:10 p.m. - North Carolinians who receive Food and Nutrition Services will see a temporary increase in their benefits until July. The state Department of Health and Human Services announced today that the increase is part of the federal Emergency Coronavirus Relief Act. The maximum benefit amount for households will increase by 15% until June 30th. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

5 p.m. - Health departments in at least ten counties have said they are moving into the next phase of vaccinations, which includes anyone 75 and older. But some larger counties, like Wake, say they still need to vaccinate more health care workers. State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said the state is distributing new guidance to counties and providers today about how to best speed up the process. - Will Michaels, WUNC

4:50 p.m. - Families and students in Wake County Schools could learn more about reopening plans for the upcoming semester at the school board meeting tonight. All students in Wake County are learning remotely through January fifteenth following holiday vacation, but it's unclear whether students, including those in elementary school, will return for daily in-person instruction soon. Some board members have expressed concern over any plan that brings students back for daily instruction with the intensity of the current COVID-19 outbreak and without the ability to provide surveillance testing.

The board is scheduled to vote on temporary pay incentives for substitute teachers. That could address the significant staffing shortage that led the district to decide to return to remote learning after students were in the classroom for part of the fall semester. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

2 p.m. - Cone Health is projecting its hospitals will be full by January 21 if current COVID-19 trends continue. Cone Health has approximately 920 staffed hospital beds across its system in Greensboro and Burlington. As of last night, the facilities were caring for 225 COVID-19 patients and over 600 regular patients.

Richard Pro, the chief data and analytics officer at Cone Health, says his team has been forecasting bed capacity since the pandemic began and he has high confidence in this current prediction. When the hospitals reach capacity, patients will have to wait longer for care. Cone Health will also no longer be able to accept patients from other health care systems. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

1:50 p.m. - Governor Roy Cooper is mobilizing the North Carolina National Guard to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines across the state. In a statement on Twitter, Cooper said the Guard will provide support to local health providers as the pace of vaccinations increases.

In some counties, vaccine availability is now opening up to people 75 or older. Some health care systems are also starting to give health care workers the second dose of the vaccine. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

1:40 p.m. - The state Department of Health and Human Services is reporting 3,781 COVID hospitalizations across North Carolina, the fourth consecutive day of record high hospitalizations. Over the past seven days, an average of 14.6% of COVID-19 tests have come back positive. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:28 a.m. - Vidant Health is prohibiting visitors at the Roanoke-Chowan and Outer Banks hospitals because of rising COVID-19 cases. There are only a few exceptions. Families may visit end of life patients in person and women in labor may have one visitor stay with them. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:20 a.m. - Harnett County students are resuming in-person learning on January 19th. The county board of education voted in favor of this move last night. Elementary students will receive in-person learning four days a week. Students in middle and high school will operate on an A-B schedule. Wednesday will be a remote learning day for all students. Families can still choose to stay in remote learning. This decision comes as COVID-19 cases are quickly increasing. The state Department of Health and Human Services classifies Harnett County as a red county for COVID-19, meaning there's critical community spread in the area. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:10 a.m. - Two inmates at a prison in Alexander County died from COVID-19 complications last week. The inmates at Alexander Correctional Institution were men in their 50s and 70s. Both had underlying health conditions. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

Jan. 4, 2021

4:30 p.m. - This week, for the first time, certain members of the general public will be able to get COVID-19 vaccinations in some parts of the state. A handful of counties have moved into what’s called Phase 1B and will begin vaccinating anyone age of 75 or older this week. Davidson County filled 1100 appointment slots for its first clinics Thursday and Friday in just a couple of hours this morning. Other counties will follow, though some still have to work through backlogs of front-line healthcare workers and the staff and residents of long-term care facilities, who were first in line. - Jay Price, WUNC

4:20 p.m. - A new report from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services shows that flu deaths are down almost 90% compared to this point in last year's flu season. Only one person has died from the flu as of mid-December, compared with nine at the same time during the previous flu season. Dr. Erica Wilson, who tracks vaccine-preventable diseases for the state, says the same protocol used to prevent spreading COVID-19 works for the flu.

"So wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart, washing your hands, also work for other respiratory viruses," said Wilson.

Wilson says state surveys show that flu cases are also down. Flu season is typically at its worst in North Carolina in January and February. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

4:10 p.m. - A Burlington man has been arrested and charged for holding a New Year's Eve party that broke pandemic restrictions. Multiple news outlets report that Jacob Alfred Kurtis Bethea was charged with violating the Governor's executive orders limiting mass gatherings with an event he threw with 100 people inside a tent near Hillsborough. Under the restrictions, outdoor gatherings are limited to 50 people, indoor gatherings to 10. - Cole del Charco, WUNC

4 p.m. - A 30-bed emergency field hospital is being set up and staffed in Lenoir to deal with an overflow of COVID-19 patients in the region. Boone-based Samaritan's Purse expects the tent hospital will be ready to accept patients in the next few days. It won't have an ICU for the sickest patients who need a ventilator, but Samaritan's Purse Communications Director Melissa Strickland says it will be a backstop for five hospitals in Western North Carolina. 

"Their healthcare workers have been working day and night to fight this disease. They're exhausted, they're stressed, and yet they're continuing to heroically fight. And our goal is to come alongside of them to provide some capacity to take some of the strain off," said Strickland.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 statewide are at all time highs. Samaritan's Purse set up field hospitals in Italy and New York earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC

1:22 p.m. - The state Department of Health and Human Services is reporting another new high of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Over 3,600 people across North Carolina are in the hospital with the coronavirus. DHHS also reported over 5,100 new COVID-19 cases today. That's down from the record high of more than 9,500 cases reported on Friday. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:43 a.m. - The state Department of Health and Human Services reported almost 3,600 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Sunday, a new record high. On Sunday, over 6,400 new coronavirus cases were also reported. - Celeste Gracia, WUNC
7:20 a.m. - In women's college basketball, North Carolina's game against Louisville has been postponed because of a positive COVID-19 test within the Tar Heels program. The game was scheduled for tomorrow night, and had already been postponed from mid-December because of coronavirus issues in the Louisville program. - Celeste Gracia, 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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