On New Year’s Day, North Carolina hit a record high of 19,620 new cases of the coronavirus reported in one day, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Over the holidays, as the state’s case numbers continued to rise, at-home COVID-19 tests sold out around the state. At one testing site in Durham on New Year’s Eve, a line of dozens of cars snaked around a Food Lion parking lot waiting for drive-through coronavirus tests.

Case numbers in North Carolina increased dramatically after the first case of the highly transmissible omicron variant was found in the state Dec. 10. States around the country are seeing record case numbers as the world begins its third year dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

What You Need To Know

  • Coronavirus cases in North Carolina hit almost 20,000 on Jan. 1, the third day in a row the number hit new record highs in North Carolina

  • Public health officials worry the new omicron variant is fueling case spikes around the country

  • There have been long lines at testing centers and shortages of take-home COVID tests around North Carolina

  • Mecklenburg EMS said they are so short staffed that they've asked FEMA to send more ambulance teams to help

“We are definitely in the middle of a very severe surge and uptick in cases,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, according to the Associated Press. “The acceleration of cases that we’ve seen is really unprecedented, gone well beyond anything we’ve seen before.”

The daily case numbers in North Carolina dropped back down to a little less than 13,000 Monday, but case numbers are typically lower on Mondays, especially after a holiday weekend.

The previous one-day high was about 11,500 cases reported in January 2021. Another record, with more than 12,000 cases in February, included a backlog of samples.

As of Monday, the percent of positive tests is more than 27%, meaning the virus is spreading rapidly around the state. DHHS has said throughout the pandemic that it wants that number to be less than 5%.

The number of people hospitalized with the virus is also going up around the United States and in North Carolina. As of Monday, state public health data shows 2,722 people in hospitals with COVID-19.

Researchers say the one bit of good news is that omicron may not be as deadly as earlier variants of the virus.

Public health officials have been warning about a new winter spike since the start of the holiday season. Travel over the holidays and gatherings with friends and family can fuel the spread of the virus, they said, and that was even before the new omicron variant showed up in the United States.

For North Carolina, it’s not clear just how much of the spike in new cases is coming from omicron.

“Most cases of COVID-19 infections do not undergo genomic sequencing, which is the only way to determine what variant someone has,” DHHS spokeswoman Catie Armstrong said Monday. For the cases that are sequenced, it takes one to four weeks to get the results back, she said.

Schools have delayed reopening in some parts of the country seeing big spikes in case numbers, including districts in Michigan and Connecticut, according to the AP. School districts in North Carolina planned to reopen as usual, though some delayed or canceled in-person classes because of the weather Monday.

Hospital systems and first responders are also struggling with the virus.

Jonathan Studnek, deputy director for MEDIC, the Mecklenburg County EMS agency, said Monday that the agency has 33 staff members out because of COVID-19. The agency was already suffering from staffing shortages because of problems hiring during the pandemic.

“We know that COVID is spreading rapidly in our community, and it is impacting MEDIC the same as other members of our community,” he told reporters Monday.

He said paramedics are seeing a spike in COVID patients. Before Christmas, he said, ambulances were taking four to five coronavirus patients to the hospital each day. Now that number is up to 25 or 30, he said.

“That is fueling a rise in our daily transport volume,” he said.

Mecklenburg EMS has asked FEMA to send ambulance teams to help the county respond to 911 calls. FEMA sent ambulance teams to the area over the fall to help with staffing shortages.

Studnek said the county asked FEMA for 25 ambulances and 50 staff members to help alleviate the burden on Mecklenburg EMS.

“Our hospital turnaround times ... the time it takes from when we arrive at the hospital until we’re clear and available to go to our next post or our next call, has been extended over the last two to three weeks to the highest point, frankly, that we’ve seen during the pandemic,” he said.

Those long waits at hospitals are because of the number of patients hospitals are having to deal with, he said.

For calls that don’t involve critical emergencies, Mecklenburg EMS said it’s extending wait times to up to 90 minutes so it can free up more ambulances, Studnek said. Ambulances will still respond quickly for calls involving medical emergencies like heart attacks, he said.