‘Our cases are out of control’: Board of Health discusses COVID-19’s omicron surge

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 12, 2022

SALISBURY — With COVID-19 cases surging, the Board of Health during a virtual meeting on Tuesday night discussed ways the newest variant is impacting Rowan County and what protocols people should follow.

Health Director Alyssa Harris reported to the board Rowan County has a total of 31,681 COVID-19 cases and 503 deaths caused by the virus, which is an increase of 5,279 cases and 42 deaths from November.

“It’s sort of a scary time,” Harris said. “We were trying to avoid this large cascade of cases at once and unfortunately that’s what we’re seeing.”

The spike in COVID-19 cases is largely a result of omicron, the dominant variant that overtook delta in the U.S. in December. 

The county is currently seeing a positivity rate of 31%, which is on par with the state average. However, Harris said the statistic doesn’t show the whole picture because it does not factor in home tests. Those don’t have to be reported to the state or the Health Department. With those included, Harris said the positivity rate is probably closer to 50%.

“Our cases are out of control,” Harris said.

The variant is so prevalent across North Carolina that the state has instructed county health departments to no longer complete case investigations or contract tracing. That means people will not be contacted by the Health Department after testing positive. The state will now handle notifying people who are positive and provide follow-up guidance.

“That will, I feel like, relieve a pretty good burden of the case investigations and follow-up piece from local health departments,” said Nursing Director Meredith Littell.

Pointing to a silver lining, Harris said omicron appears to come with milder symptoms, especially for those who are vaccinated. She encouraged people experiencing mild symptoms to avoid the emergency room unless more serious symptoms emerge. Likewise, she said people seeking a COVID-19 test should avoid the emergency room as it deals with the surge in cases.

The Health Department is offering COVID-19 tests five days a week from 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. Novant Health Medical Center this week also opened a testing center on Mocksville Avenue that will be open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6-9 p.m.

Harris reported about 4,000 people in Rowan County have gotten vaccinated since November.

“People are still choosing each and every day to get vaccinated and we really appreciate that,” Harris said.

However, Harris said the county’s overall vaccination rate of 46% (with at least one dose) is still inadequate. Harris said about 75% of new cases are unvaccinated individuals.

Amy Wilson, Board of Health member and medical director at the Community Care Clinic, said omicron “doesn’t care if you’re vaccinated.” Wilson said she has stopped calling them “breakthrough cases” when a vaccinated person tests positive. The vaccine does seem to help prevent severe forms of illness, Wilson said.

Harris said she expects to see the omicron variant peak in Rowan County toward the end of this month.

Board members sworn in, chairs chosen

Carla Rose, Mike Fuller, Corrie Connolly, Melanie Denton Dombrowski and Tony Watlington recited the oath of office for serving on the Board of Health. The board unanimously selected Dari Caldwell and Amy Wilson to serve as chair and vice chair, respectively, for 2022.

Staffing shortages

Harris told board members that the Health Department has struggled to fill a number of vacancies in recent months. The department is currently looking to hire the equivalent of 8.6 full-time employees ranging from nurses to dental assistants.

“There are a lot of holes we’re looking very, very hard to fill,” Harris said.

With staff already stretched thin, Harris said COVID-19 positives have rendered some divisions within the department almost inoperable.

Board member Judy Klusman, who also serves on the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, said it may be time to approach commissioners about increasing pay rates and bonuses to help fill vacancies. A similar tactic was implemented to help shore up staffing deficiencies within the Environmental Health division last year.

Grant applications

The Board of Health approved allowing the Health Department to apply for several grants that could net several hundred thousand of dollars to help run the dental clinic and purchase a new mobile dental van. The board also gave the department permission to apply with the Centers for Disease Control for two public health associates that would work full-time on a temporary basis within the department. The department currently has one CDC health associate on staff, but that person is leaving in October. Harris said the two associates could help the department with mental health and communicable disease services.

Updates on studies

Harris said she expects to receive the results of a Health Department space study by the end of January. The space study was initiated by Rowan County to determine what the department’s current and future space needs will be. The study is being completed by the Charlotte firm ADW Architects.

Harris said the department has outgrown its currency facilities. The department is split between two facilities. Its headquarters are located on East Innes Street and the Environmental Health Division is downtown. The firm completed a walk through of the East Innes Street building in December and plans on walking through the downtown facility soon, Harris said.

Harris told the Board of Health she expects to present the results of the community health needs assessment in March. Conducted every three years, the assessment is a part of Novant Health Rowan Medical Center’s and Rowan County Public Health’s accreditation process. The assessment, conducted in the fall, will give local health leaders a clear image of the county’s health needs and how limited resources can be allocated to address them.

About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at ben.stansell@salisburypost.com.

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