Coronavirus Live Updates: Week of Jan. 18

Jan 19, 2021

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.
Credit 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 Jan. 11.

Jan. 22, 2021

6:40 p.m. - The number of North Carolina counties experiencing critical community spread of COVID-19 has risen. According to an alert from state health officials, 86 of the state's 100 counties are listed as red under North Carolina's three-tier coding system. That's the most serious designation -- with a positivity rate of greater than 10% and hospital systems experiencing high impact from COVID cases. Eighty-four counties were listed as red when the state issued its last alert on January 6. Thirteen counties are listed as orange, with substantial community spread, and only one county is listed as yellow, experiencing significant spread of the viral infection. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

6:30 p.m. - Wake County is collaborating with two municipalities to offer a week of drive-thru COVID-19 testing in areas seeing high rates of infection. The county is setting up testing sites at Jaycee Park and Sertoma Arts Center in Raleigh and at Lake Benson Park, in Garner. Testing at the sites starts Monday and runs through the following Saturday. Other details are available at the Wake County government website. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

6:20 p.m. - Chatham County is holding a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Agriculture and Conference Center in Pittsboro on Monday for certain healthcare workers and people aged 65 and older. Vaccinations are by appointment only due to the limited supply of vaccine. County staff have been reaching out by phone or email to residents in those priority groups. A call center has also been set up to schedule appointments. - Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

12:55 p.m. - COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state have declined slightly over the past week. On Friday, the state health department reported just over 3,500 hospitalizations. At the start of this month, the number was near 4,000, a record level for the state at the time. Health care professionals are cautiously optimistic that the downward trend of hospitalizations will continue, but warn that hospitals are still strained.

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Hilary Campbell is a research associate at Duke University. She's part of a team that's been monitoring hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic. She says this current trend is moving in the right direction, but there's still a long way to go. Hospitalizations could be leveling off now that the holidays have passed. Daily reports of new COVID-19 cases are down from record highs. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

11:49 a.m. - Officials in Chapel Hill and Carrboro might reopen public schools on a restricted basis this spring, but have delayed picking a date for such a return. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education met Thursday and will continue looking into implementing the Plan B hybrid option that mixes remote and in-person learning. The board will take up the matter at its meeting next month. – Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

11:34 a.m. - The Raleigh Durham International Airport saw 66% fewer passengers last year compared to 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 5 million passengers flew through RDU during 2020, compared to around 14 million in 2019. The last time the airport served so few passengers was in 1987. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

11:28 a.m. - NC Central is opting out of the FCS football season that was postponed until the spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a statement Thursday, university officials said they believe this decision is what's best for the health and safety of their student athletes. NC Central will still hold traditional spring practice to prepare for the fall season. The Eagles are part of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. At least two other teams in the conference of historically Black colleges have also opted out. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

11:14 a.m. - Many Tar Heel sports fans will have to follow their teams from a distance this spring. The UNC-Chapel Hill athletics department announced this week that the general public will not be allowed to attend events at university venues this spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic. State guidelines do allow athletes to invite two close family members to their competitions. – Rusty Jacobs, WUNC

10:43 a.m. - Games for the Carolina Hurricanes are postponed through at least tomorrow because some players are on the NHL COVID-19 list. Earlier this week, four players joined Canes captain Jordan Staal on the COVID-19 unavailable list. So far, three games have been delayed. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:48 a.m. - For the second year in a row, the North Carolina Pickle Festival in Mount Olive has been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. News outlets report event was scheduled for April. Organizers say the safety of the community is of paramount importance. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:35 a.m. - North Carolina prisons received their first shipment of a COVID-19 vaccine this week. The 1,300 doses mostly went to prison staff. The first group of inmates to receive a vaccine are those age 75 and up, but there are only about 200 incarcerated people eligible in that group. Inmates age 65 and up will begin to be vaccinated with the next shipment.

"You also have to remember, there are a significant number of health care staff, and custody officers involved in taking care of these COVID-affected individuals,” prisons medical director Dr. Les Cambell said. “So you would expect there to be a fairly high number of those that are at very high risk."

Prison workers who come in direct contact with COVID-positive offenders, even if they aren't doctors or nurses, may already get the vaccine. – Jason deBruyne and Celeste Gracia, WUNC

Jan. 21, 2021

7:05 p.m. - State inmates age 75 or older who want a COVID-19 vaccine should get their first dose by the end of this week, according to prison system officials. But only about 200 incarcerated people are in that 75-plus age group. Most of the prison system's initial allotment of 1,300 vaccine doses is going to staff. Any prison worker who comes in direct contact with infected inmates can get vaccinated. More than 8,000 state inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began. Almost all of the 55 facilities in the system have been affected. - Amy Jeffries, WUNC

6:50 p.m. - Local transit agencies across North Carolina will receive coronavirus relief funding to transport individuals to COVID-19 vaccination sites. The North Carolina Departments of Transit and Health and Human Services announced today that $2.5 million will be distributed to local transit systems. The funds can be used to offset the costs of rides to and from vaccine sites. - Liz Schlemmer, WUNC

3:10 p.m. - North Carolina health providers are getting the COVID-19 vaccines out more quickly. The latest numbers show North Carolina has administered nearly 600,000 total doses or about half of what the state has received. That's up from less than a third last week. At a press briefing this afternoon, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said the state is encouraging local providers to continue speeding up the process.

"You should assume about what you're getting now is what you're gonna get in the future assuming that you are able to continue to get out that vaccine in a timely manner," said Cohen, about the amount of vaccine doses distibuted to local partners. "We are asking our partners to run out of first-dose vaccines before their next shipment comes."

Local health departments and hospitals get weekly shipments approved by the federal government. The state holds others back so they're available for the two doses needed to complete inoculations. Cohen said there have been limited reports of some doses being wasted after being out of refrigeration for too long, but did not confirm how many. – Will Michaels, WUNC

3 p.m. - Some teachers in Johnston County say they want the chance to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before students return for in-person learning. The district plans to bring many students back to their classrooms on February first.  But the Johnston County Association of Educators says in addition to vaccinations, it also wants better COVID-19 tracking in the district and a guarantee of physical distancing when students return.

Four Oaks Middle School teacher April Lee said in-person learning should not resume while the number of new COVID-19 cases remains high.

“I long to be back in a classroom with my kids. I want so badly for this to be over, but it's not,” Lee said. “And when we return to face-to-face instruction, we all deserve a safe environment to teach our kids.”

The chair of the Johnston County school board was not available for comment. A statement from the district says it follows guidance from the state health department, and implements steps to ensure its students' health and safety. – Will Michaels, WUNC

8:05 a.m. - Harris Teeter will distribute COVID-19 vaccines when its available to pharmacies. In an announcement Wednesday, the Matthews-based grocery chain said it will distribute the vaccines in a phased approached to eligible individuals by appointment only. Right now only stores in South Carolina can start scheduling appointments. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:50 a.m. - North Carolina has revised its protocols for healthcare providers if they have to ration care.  Medical resources in the state must now be allocated based on a patients' chances of surviving until they are discharged from the hospital, rather than on their perceived chances of long term survival.

Larkin Taylor-Parker is a staff attorney at the advocacy organization Disability Rights NC, which pushed for the changes. She says there will now be less room for stereotypes to come into play when decisions are made about who will get treatment.

“Doctors have professional experience and training influencing their gut feelings,” Taylor-Parker said. “But those gut feelings are, even when educated, subject to a lot of influenced by implicit bias in all of us.”

The revised protocols also mandate that medical workers provide effective communication to all patients with limited understanding of English. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:35 a.m. - The State Department of Health and Human Services is ramping up its outreach efforts to educate people about the COVID-19 vaccines. The state health department held a Zoom meeting with the public Wednesday to answer frequently asked questions. Deputy Secretary for Human Services Tara Myers says one of the most common questions is about when North Carolina will advance to vaccinating the next priority group.

“We are hoping to be able to move as quickly as possible, but all of that is just really dependent on the allocation that North Carolina gets from the federal government,” Myers said.

The state receives only a few days' notice from the federal government about its weekly allotment of vaccines. According to the CDC, North Carolina has gotten more than a million doses and has administered about 40% of them. Myers said distribution is complicated because the state gets weekly deliveries, and has to make sure each patient has a second dose three or four weeks after they get their first. – Will Michaels, WUNC

Jan. 20, 2021

6:50 p.m. - The UNC System's six historically minority-serving schools have received mobile freezers capable of storing the COVID-19 vaccine. They are the first of more than 60 freezers that will eventually go to the 15 research institutions in the public university system.  The UNC system says they will be able to hold a total of nearly 2 million vials of vaccine to distribute to local health providers. – Will Michaels, WUNC

6:40 p.m. - The Raleigh City Council has voted to expand its free parking program for people who work downtown. The city initially issued permits to local businesses for 100 spaces in order to help them stay open during the pandemic. The council agreed to expand that to 400 spaces, and validate the permits through April. Businesses have to have fewer than 50 workers to qualify. – Will Michaels, WUNC

4 p.m. - State health officials are trying to improve the public's understanding about the safety, effectiveness and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines. In a meeting today, Deputy Secretary for Human Services Tara Myers said one of the most common questions from patients is why they have to get two doses instead of just one.

"One dose really has not been shown during the clinical trials to be strong enough to protect, so that's why it's just so important that we follow the requirement of two doses because the two doses were used in the clinical trials," said Myers.

Patients have to wait three to four weeks to get their second doses depending on whether they get the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. The CDC says both are 95% effective in preventing COVID-19. Myers also said it will take a while to move through the state's distribution plan. The department gets only a few days notice about how many doses it's getting in weekly shipments approved by the federal government. – Will Michaels, WUNC

1:37 p.m. - The National Hockey League is suspending two more Carolina Hurricanes games as five players remain on the COVID-19 absence list. The 'Canes were scheduled to play the Nashville Predators yesterday and the Florida Panthers twice this week. All these games have been postponed, and the NHL is working to revise the team's schedule. – Will Michaels, WUNC

1:20 p.m. - A child in Mecklenburg County has died from complications related to COVID-19. This is the second death of a child from the illness in North Carolina since the start of the pandemic. The county has not provided any additional information about the case. In June, a second-grader from Durham died from COVID-19. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

1:07 p.m. - The Wake County health department says it was able to put 30,000 people on its wait-list to receive the COVID-19 vaccine despite early issues with its website and phone lines. The flood of requests overwhelmed the county's online and phone systems yesterday.  The county says it's added hundreds of phone lines.  There are about 133,000 older adults in Wake County who are eligible to get the vaccine in Group 2 of the state's distribution plan. – Will Michaels, WUNC

12:54 p.m. - Almost 50 students at Duke University tested positive for COVID-19 last week. Duke tested over 18,000 students. The total positivity rate was less than one percent. The university says more than half the students who tested positive have returned to the Duke campus from other parts of the country. Those who tested positive are now in isolation. Students are required to test negative before they can begin classes and on campus activities. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

12:28 p.m. - The state prison system is starting to vaccinate staff and inmates against COVID-19. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety announced Wednesday it's received about 1,000 doses of Moderna's coronavirus vaccine. An additional 300 doses are expected to arrive later this week. For now, vaccinations will only be available for certain groups, including staff who work in COVID positive housing units and staff and inmates 75 or older. Vaccination is currently voluntary. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

Jan. 19, 2021

6:50 p.m. - The Durham Rescue Mission has announced plans for a new homeless shelter downtown that could house about 60 more people. The organization's two existing shelters and addiction recovery program currently serve 400. In a news conference today, Durham Rescue Mission CEO Ernie Mills indicated COVID-19 is exacerbating the need. He said a confluence of factors from the pandemic -- like job loss and isolation -- can lead to homelessness. 

"And another part of the perfect storm that's coming together, I believe, is the depression and the mental problems out there. And because of that, we've seen that alcohol sales have just skyrocketed," said Mills.

Alcohol sales have increased statewide during the pandemic. Mills said that could trigger addictions that also contribute to homelessness. Mills, who cofounded the Durham Rescue Mission, announced he plans to step down as CEO next year and take a different role with the Christian non-profit going forward. - Cole del Charco, WUNC 

6:40 p.m. - State health officials are trying to quickly increase capacity at large-scale COVID-19 vaccination clinics to speed up distribution. As of last Friday, the CDC says the federal government has sent about a million doses of the vaccines to North Carolina. The state had administered fewer than a third of them. Governor Roy Cooper visited a vaccination clinic today in Chapel Hill, where UNC Health is giving shots to 850 people a day. Cooper said he wants local providers to administer every first dose they've been given by the middle of next week. 

"Our goal is to make sure that we distribute all the vaccine that's been allotted to us by the federal government, and to be able to look at them and say, 'We want a lot more,'" said Cooper.

State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said her department would prioritize this week's vaccine shipments for places that can scale up their operations, and use them more quickly. - Will Michaels, WUNC 

1:36 p.m. -  Two North Carolina state lawmakers have tested positive for COVID-19. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Bill Rabon of Brunswick County announced Tuesday the results of a coronavirus test he took on Monday after experiencing mild cold-like symptoms. State Rep. Brian Turner of Buncombe County announced Monday he had tested positive. Turner says his symptoms are like a bad cold. Rabon attended last week's opening day of the General Assembly session and wore a face mask on the Senate floor. Turner didn't attend. The legislature resumes its two-year session Jan. 27. – The Associated Press

1:15 p.m.  – Tuesday evening, local governments and entities will join a nationwide memorial in honor of lives lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. The North Carolina Executive Mansion and several buildings in downtown Raleigh will be illuminated. The town of Morrisville plans to leave the lights on all night inside several town buildings. Carrboro Town Hall will be lit all evening and churches there have been encouraged to toll their bells. Duke University will have a candlelight tribute and ring its historic carillon bells 40 times — one for every 10,000 American deaths caused by the pandemic. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

1:03 p.m. - At Durham's City Council meeting Tuesday night, city leaders are set to honor the state's top public health official. Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen will be given a key to the city during the virtual ceremony, for her service during the COVID-19 pandemic. – Cole del Charco, WUNC

12:52 p.m. - Several North Carolina hospitals dealing with a crush of COVID-19 patients are delaying certain surgeries to increase the number of beds available for more patients with urgent needs.

The process to decide which surgeries to delay is meticulous. WakeMed Health has a multidisciplinary task force of surgeons, nurses, and administrators making those calls. WakeMed’s chief medical officer Dr. Chris DeRienzo says on a daily basis, the group has to answer several questions to determine whether to hold off on scheduled surgeries.

“How many inpatient beds can we make for folks who need surgery? And then say how many folks who need surgery will need an inpatient bed?” DeRienzo said. “Does this person with this particular procedure have to be done today? Or can their clinical outcomes still be met if we schedule it to a day where we anticipate having a lighter inpatient census?"

DeRienzo says over the past six weeks, WakeMed has postponed a significant number of procedures that require inpatient bed space. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

10:39 a.m. - For the second year in a row, a Saint Patrick's parade on the Outer Banks has been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kelly's Annual Saint Patrick's parade in Nags Head has been celebrated for the past 30 years. Last year's parade was scheduled for March 15, and was canceled just two days before the event. This year, organizers say they are postponing the parade again because of rising COVID-19 trends. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

10:26 a.m. - A state lawmaker in North Carolina has announced that he’s tested positive for the coronavirus. The Raleigh News & Observer reports that state Rep. Brian Turner made the announcement on Monday. Turner is a Democrat who represents House District 116 in Buncombe County. He posted on Facebook that he was in-contact people who might’ve been exposed. Turner said he was not at the N.C. State Legislative Building for the first day of the legislative session last Wednesday. He said he plans to return to the General Assembly on Jan. 27 if his symptoms improve. Turner said there was no specific event to which he can link his exposure. – The Associated Press

10:02 a.m. - A website that allows seniors to join a waitlist for getting the coronavirus vaccine has crashed in North Carolina’s Wake County. Wake County spokeswoman Stacy Beard told WRAL on Tuesday that hundreds of thousands of people visited the website within seconds of each other. She said the sheer volume is immense. County officials had created the waitlist system so people wouldn’t have to wait in lines to get a vaccine. The website is designed to allow Wake County residents who are 65 years old and older to join a waitlist. After signing up online or by phone, they will get a call when a vaccine appointment is available. – The Associated Press

8:10 a.m. - Almost 7,000 students, faculty and staff at UNC-Chapel Hill have received COVID-19 tests over the past week. Students living on campus are required to get tested before moving in. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:50 a.m. - The North Carolina Executive Mansion will be illuminated Tuesday evening in remembrance of the lives lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city of Raleigh will also be participating in the memorial by illuminating several downtown buildings in amber, the designated COVID-19 memorial color. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

7:35 a.m. - Wake and Durham Counties are moving into Group Two of the state's new COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan Tuesday. The two local health departments are starting to administer the vaccines to anyone 65 and older. The state's previous plan was to inoculate those who are 75 and older. Wake County pharmacy director Jason Wittes says that significantly expands eligibility in his county.

“We are still utilizing the same exact tool that we've developed for the 75-plus,” Wittes said. “It just means that our population grew from a targeted population of 75-plus of around 53,000 people in Wake County to around 133,000 people.”

Wittes says the state is only allocating about 1,000 doses to Wake County each week. The Wake County health department will start taking appointment requests by phone and online this morning. They will be put on a wait-list based on their vulnerability and the neighborhood rate of coronavirus spread.  But Wittes anticipates that his department will administer the first vaccinations in Group Two on Tuesday. – Will Michaels, WUNC

7:15 a.m. - Cone Health projects its hospitals will be full in a week if current COVID-19 trends continue. Earlier data had estimated the hospitals would reach capacity this week. The hospitals will have to create expanded patient bed space and postpone some procedures, including hip or knee replacements.

Dr. Bruce Swords is the Chief Physician Executive of Cone Health. He says he's worried about continually increasing delayed care because of an overwhelming number of COVID-19 patients.

“My concern is that regular emergent care will be delayed,” Swords said. “So, people who are in car accidents or having a heart attack or a stroke, that that care could be delayed or somehow different than what we're currently able to do."

Cone Health – along with several other health care systems – is trying to increase its staffing numbers by contracting with nursing agencies, retraining current staff, and calling back recently retired nurses. – Celeste Gracia, WUNC

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

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