As the official start to summer approaches, the heat and humidity are moving into North Carolina. But unfortunately another surge in COVID-19 cases is spreading around the state too.
Two dozen counties in North Carolina are now in the “red zone” for community coronavirus transmission, according to the latest map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There’s good news and bad news in these latest COVID numbers, said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist with UNC Health.
“We’ve seen this slow but steady uptick in the number of cases. And of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of people are getting diagnosed at home with a home test,” Wohl said. But either way, case numbers are going up.
“The good news is, hospitalization rates and deaths still remain relatively low, especially when you put that in context of all these cases and how much COVID is being spread right now,” he said.
“The virus is everywhere, it’s spreading pretty remarkably. Most of us do know somebody, we’re one degree of separation from someone, who's been diagnosed with COVID in the past few weeks,” Wohl said. “We know there’s a lot of transmission going on right now.”
The CDC map shows 24 counties listed as having a high rate of community spread. More than half of the state is now listed in the yellow or red zones on the map.
The CDC uses a combination of metrics to rank the risk for counties, including case numbers, the number of people being admitted to the hospital with the virus and the number of people in hospital beds with COVID-19.
Two months ago, most of North Carolina was in the CDC’s green zone, but that began to change in recent weeks as the virus again started to spread.
“This is largely reflecting more cases,” Wohl said. “That’s the number one thing that’s tripping us over from green to yellow to red.”
People are still ending up in the hospital, and people are still dying from COVID-19, but not as much as during earlier surges.
“We know there’s a lot of transmission going on right now,” Wohl said. “We’re not seeing people getting really, really, really sick to the extent you’d expect given the case numbers.”
People are much more protected from the virus now, either from getting vaccinated, from getting infected or a combination of the two.
The omicron wave that made so many people sick over the winter is probably helping people avoid infection or not get the worst symptoms in this latest wave, Wohl said.
The latest data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services shows hospitalizations continuing to tick up. As of last week, 833 people were in the hospital with COVID-19, up from 735 the week before.
Since the pandemic began, 25,094 in North Carolina have died from the virus, according to DHHS data.
COVID-19 variants continue to evolve. But the vaccines continue to help protect people from the virus, Wohl said.
“The vaccines, they still protect us from infection, just not as well as the original,” he said. “They do protect us from getting really sick.”
“When you think about that the Moderna, the Pfizer and the J&J vaccine were all developed to protect us from an ancestral original strain of COVID-19 that is now extinct, like the dinosaurs, it’s gone,” Wohl said.
The original virus from 2020 isn’t around anymore, but the vaccines still help with all the iterations that have come since.
“They still have staying power all the way through omicron,” Wohl said.
Kids over 6 years old are eligible for boosters and vaccines for younger children are expected to get approval this week.
Many parents of young children have been waiting for vaccines to be approved for kids 5 and younger, but Wohl said federal regulators waited to get the research that shows they’re safe and effective.
He said the Moderna two-shot series will probably be more popular for small children than Pfizer’s three-shot vaccine.
“Kids are a reservoir who infect adults,” Wohl said. “So many of us have been infected by our kids of all ages.”
He said anyone who is eligible for a booster should go ahead and get the shot.
“I’d get boosted now, I’m protected through the summer,” Wohl said. “Right now we have a surge, right now is the time to be protected.”
The North Carolina CDC map shows high community spread along much of the coast, where many in the state flock during the summers.
“I really am not in the mood to catch COVID-19,” Wohl said. “I’m not embracing the virus yet like a lot of people are.”
He said he still wears a mask when indoors around other people.
Wohl said he does plan to fly for an outdoor wedding this summer, but his family will be double-masking in the airport and on the plane.
As Wohl and other public health officials have said over the past year of the pandemic, it will be up to each person and each family to gauge their own risk level. And the risk level can change based on whether people are driving or flying, going camping, renting a beach house or staying at a busy hotel.