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UPDATED: Another week of grim statistics show worsening state of virus in Rowan County

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — It was a week plagued by a list of grim milestones reached in both Rowan County and North Carolina: record single-day increases in COVID-19 cases, multiple deaths reported locally and a steadily increasing positivity rate that health officials call a “critical” level of spread.

A total of seven deaths occurred in the county this week, including two reported Friday at the Meadows of Rockwell Retirement Center, which first reported an outbreak on Nov. 3.

Autumn Care also reported its ninth death on Friday after reporting another death earlier this week. The other three deaths reported this week were among community members not associated with a local congregate care facility — a number that has steadily increased in recent weeks. Deaths outside of these facilities amount to 54 of the 138 total deaths since March, with an average age of 80 among all deaths.

In addition to Autumn Care and the Meadows of Rockwell, the latest state data show active outbreaks among seven other local congregate care facilities, including the Citadel, Compass Assisted, Trinity Oaks Health and Rehab, Trinity Oaks Assisted Living, the Laurels, Accordius Health and the Piedmont Correctional Institute. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety updates its case numbers daily, and currently reports 28 active cases at the Piedmont Correctional Institute.

Trinity Oaks Assisted Living became the site of an outbreak this week after reporting two positive cases among employees. Also this week, the state declared over a second outbreak that emerged at the N.C. State Veterans Home. Outbreaks are declared over once 28 consecutive days have passed since the onset of symptoms in the last symptomatic person or since the last positive test, whichever is later.

For more than two weeks now, the county has reported 50 or more single-day increases, with Thursday marking a record high of 126 cases. This week, county health officials reported an average of 86 cases. And there hasn’t been fewer than 10 positive cases reported in a single day since October.

As of Saturday, the county reports 6,112 positive cases, with 18.7%% of cases currently active and 4,833 recoveries. The average age of cases remains at 44.1, with the plurality of cases among those aged 18-35.

The number of Rowan Countians being hospitalized for COVID-19 is now at 15 after reaching 26 earlier this week. Of the 313 total COVID-19 local hospitalizations throughout the pandemic, the average age among them is 64.

Those statistics currently put Rowan County 17th in the state for most cases per 10,000 residents, and fifth in the state for most reported deaths.

After more than 73,000 tests conducted in Rowan County, 8.12% have returned positive — a number also in the middle of a worsening trend. That percentage is used to gauge the level of community spread.

“We are at critical levels right now,” Rowan County Public Health Director Nina Oliver told the Post on Thursday. “There is significant community spread. This is probably the worst I’ve seen it.”

Oliver added that the community has yet to see the full impact of Thanksgiving, but testing records this week are beginning to paint that picture. This week alone, the county reports at least 885 tests, with Monday marking a record high of 305 tests conducted in a single day, according to Amy Smith, the county’s health education specialist and wellness coordinator. Those figures only account for testing conducted by the local health department, however.

It’s more important now than ever that locals continue to socially distance, wash and/or sanitize their hands and wear a mask at all times when they’re around others who aren’t their household family members, Oliver said.

Mayor Karen Alexander also expressed concern for the spread, telling the Post on Friday that the numbers are in line with the spike that was projected following the Thanksgiving holiday.

Alexander said she urges everyone to continue practicing the three Ws of washing hands, wearing a mask and waiting 6 feet apart from others, while avoiding the three Cs — crowded places, close-contact settings and confined spaces with poor ventilation.

Additionally, for the first time since the pandemic, the CDC officially recommended Americans wear a mask indoors at all times when not in their households. Health experts have warned about the spike in cases among the winter season, particularly as people gather for the holidays.

“Be creative about the way you decide to celebrate,” Alexander said. “There are so many new ways we can engage with each other.”

Alexander added that the “circle is closing” as cases spike — that it’s more likely COVID-19 has affected a friend or family member.

“The only way that we can move forward is to be as careful as possible,” Alexander said.

The state also reached record high single-day increase in cases this week when it reported 6,018 new cases on Saturday and 5,637 new cases on Thursday. There have now been 388,552 cases since March after 5.52 million completed tests across the state. Saturday’s daily positivity rate was 10.7%, while the overall rate is 7%.

A total of 2,171 North Carolinians are being hospitalized across the state, and 5,516 people have died.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said on Saturday that the state of the virus is “very worrisome” as current numbers show more viral spread across the state.

“In less than a week, we went from exceeding 5,000 new cases reported in one day to exceeding 6,000,” she said in a statement. “We are seeing our highest rates of tests that come back positive despite the fact we are doing a lot of testing. This indicates we have even more viral spread across our state right now. We have record numbers of hospitalizations and people in the ICU.”

Cohen added that she’s asking all North Carolinians to “take personal responsibility for their actions” to slow the spread by wearing a mask when around people outside of the household.

“We are looking at what further actions we can take as a state to protect North Carolinians and save lives,” Cohen said.

A weekly report on the surveillance of COVID-19 across the state shows that during the week ending Nov. 28, emergency department visits increased, along with the number of people admitted to hospitals and those admitted to the ICU.

However, the percent of people who visited the emergency department that had to stay in the hospital decreased.

Currently, the state reports 1,027 of the 2,498 ventilators and 1,986 ICU beds currently in use.

Of the 210 patients newly admitted to the hospital, 22% are among Black North Carolinians, 65% are among white North Carolinians, 9% are among Hispanic North Carolinians and 1% are among American Indian/Alaskan Native residents. More than 40% of those hospitalizations are among those aged 70-80 or older.

The Triad Region, where Rowan County is located, still comprises the plurality of hospitalizations across the state. As of Friday, 581 patients are being hospitalized in the Triad region, which also includes Iredell, Davie and Davidson counties.

On Friday, state officials announced that the state health department is launching a pilot program to deploy COVID-19 rapid testing in K-12 public schools in an effort to quickly identify students and staff who many have the virus and help slow the spread.

Eligible education agencies include public school districts, charter school networks or individual charter schools currently offering any in-person instruction via Plan A or Plan B. Selected pilot sites will receive federally funded rapid antigen tests to be used for students and staff with COVID-19 symptoms or who are close contacts of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

“Having rapid tests available in our schools in another important tool to both slow the spread of the virus and keep our children in the classroom. With increased community spread, these tests add to the other safety protocols in place at K-12 schools to protect our students, teachers and staff,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

To apply for the program, local education agencies must submit a readiness checklist for each participating school to their local health department. The checklist confirms that a school can meet the program’s requirements, including obtaining parental/guardian consent prior to testing, maintaining adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, having trained personnel to administer tests or partnering with a local health provider and reporting test results to state and local public health agencies. Following review of the readiness checklists, the local health department then submits the application to NCDHHS on behalf of the local education agency.

Pilot applications are due Tuesday. The state health department will select pilot sites based on the pool of eligible applicants, and will deliver the rapid tests to pilot sites at no cost to the sites as soon as Dec. 14.

The CDC reported 219,187 new cases of COVID-19 across the U.S. on Friday, which totals 14.04 million cases since January. And in total, 275,386 American lives have now been claimed by the virus.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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