RALEIGH — North Carolina surpassed 100,000 COVID-19 cases Monday, a somber milestone that comes roughly 140 days after the pandemic first struck.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported 101,046 confirmed cases of COVID-19 Monday, along with an updated death toll of 1,642 people.
North Carolina identified its first case of COVID-19 on March 3. Cases crossed 50,000 a month ago on June 20.
“One thing that is really important to know is that North Carolina is still really at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Julie Swann, an N.C. State professor and researcher who has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fewer than 10% of the population has been infected, meaning the other 90% is still susceptible, she said.
How many of those people get COVID-19 between now and a vaccine, which likely won’t be available for mass distribution until at least 2021, directly depends on whether people wear masks and socially distance.
“Everything for the future will depend on what people do,” she said.
Lisa Gralinski, an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who has studied coronaviruses since 2008, agrees this is just the beginning.
The United States was unprepared, and the virus started spreading before the country had the ability to test and identify patients, she wrote in an email. Now, a record number of new patients is diagnosed multiple days a week.
“We’re struggling to play catch up with our response at a time when school is out and people are able to spend a lot of time outside to help with social distancing,” Gralinski said. “This makes me really worried about what the coming winter will be like.”
Experts said while other countries who implemented robust testing and tracing very early in the spread of disease have been more successful in addressing COVID-19, North Carolina is in a much better position than states like Georgia, Florida and Texas that reopened sooner and resisted restrictions.
“A lot of European countries, New York and the New England states have been really successful in bringing down their case numbers so that they can more easily identify and contain any small new outbreaks,” Gralinski said. “I think the earlier mask mandates made a difference, along with the very slow reopening process. “
North Carolina had some natural advantages in terms of its response to the pandemic, such as it’s a relatively rural state not dependent on mass-transit systems.
Some counties and cities restricted social activities quickly, slowing the initial spread and giving hospitals time to adjust and prepare.
“Those benefits are still playing out,” said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke University.
Overall, Gralinski has been impressed by the regular briefings from Gov. Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen, North Carolina’s secretary of health, their transparency with the data and the overall respect for the science involved.
Still, Gralinski said, she wishes the state had spent more time in the first phase of the stay-at-home order.
On March 30, Cooper’s stay-at-home order went into effect.
On May 8, North Carolina moved to Phase One of its reopening, which allowed most retail businesses to open at limited capacity.
Phase Two opened on May 22 — the Friday before the Memorial Day holiday weekend — allowing larger gatherings, indoor dining at limited capacity and personal care facilities to open.
“I think where we have struggled is that we haven’t always followed our own guidelines about data,” Wolfe said.
National guidelines suggested that restrictions should be eased when testing is robust enough to minimize the spread among minimally symptomatic or asymptomatic cases, as well as when communities experienced sustained declines.
Testing has ramped up steadily across the state as the pandemic has spread. On Monday, state health officials reported 1.4 million COVID-19 tests had been performed, up more than 29,000 from Sunday. The rate of positive tests also declined Monday, falling to 7%.
But opening too soon, without the right messaging, may have led to the current increases, Wolfe said.
“I think if you go back to May and June, really when we, I think, took the missteps that perhaps led us (and other states) into the current position,” he said.
While cases are expected to increase with more testing, hospitalizations have also been rising steadily with multiple new records each week.
The number of those in the state hospitalized decreased by 29 people Monday to 1,086. Last Friday, the last time the hospitalizations peaked at 1,180, was up 12% from seven days before and 30% since July 1.
“Somehow we’re in a situation where we have a slow but steady rise in cases each week but aren’t seeing the explosive growth of states like Florida, Texas, etc.,” Gralinski said. “But with (about) 2,000 new cases being diagnosed each day it’s clear that there is a lot of virus spreading around our communities, and there is a real risk that a superspreading event happens and our cases start to go up dramatically.”
Wolfe hopes the current surges across the country makes people realize the seriousness of the pandemic.
“I am hopeful that people are seeing the cold, hard reality that summer is not going to make this melt away,” he said.
Wolfe hoped North Carolina would have more control on the spread by now.
“I would not have thought this was likely, nor would I have hoped for anything like this,” he said.
Since March, Swann said, she has known the pandemic would last for months and she has been surprised about the requirements that have gone in place.
“I did not anticipate the U.S. would be willing to do those things,” she said.
The next challenge, experts said, will be convincing younger generations to stay home.
Across the country, the average age for new cases has been dropping, which suggests young adults are spreading the disease probably through social interactions.
In North Carolina, people 25 to 49 now account for the highest number of coronavirus cases. Places like Raleigh and Orange County have started enacting rules to cut off when alcohol is served at restaurants to address this.
“And that is so hard to control, because at the end of the day, these are just behaviors and choices made by individuals,” Swann said.
GREENSBORO — You just knew something like this was coming.
Sure, we’ve had some warm days this summer, downright hot on a few occasions. But nothing like what will hit Greensboro for, gulp, the next two weeks. We’re talking about a string of 90-plus days where you’ll be able to fry an egg on your face.
That’s if you don’t spontaneously combust first.
Yes, summer in the South has finally surfaced in all its sweat-soaked splendor.
Through Thursday, temperatures will be just over 90 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
Next week, it gets worse. Temperatures will again be over 90 degrees. Every. Day.
On Monday through Wednesday, forecasters say the high will be — you ready for this? — 95 degrees. Thursday, well, it’ll only be 94.
We should just move to Tatooine.
A heat advisory put into effect across the Piedmont until 9 p.m. Monday marked the start of a “dangerously hot” week in Greensboro and neighboring cities, the National Weather Service in Raleigh said.
Forecasters expect heat index values of 100 to 109 and high humidity to last most of the week, with afternoon showers and thunderstorms forecast to accompany the heat each day.
The weather service predicted an afternoon heat index of 103 for Greensboro on Monday and today. As the week progresses, the afternoon heat indexes are expected to lower slightly, with NWS forecasting a 98 degree heat index Friday.
About 3:30 p.m. Monday, a heat advisory was issued for noon to 9 p.m. tonight.
The heat advisories warned that expected conditions have the potential to cause heat-related illness, like heat strokes or heat exhaustion.
The Professional Firefighters of Greensboro, the labor organization that represents the firefighters in Greensboro, urged people to watch for signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke in a post to social media Monday.
Heat exhaustion, the less extreme of the two heat illnesses, is characterized by:
People experiencing heat exhaustion symptoms are urged to get to a cooler, air-conditioned place, drink water and take a cool shower or use a cold compress.
Symptoms of a heat stroke include:
The city of Greensboro posted several heat-related warnings to social media Monday as well, including to “look before you lock,” a reminder for people to check the backseat of their vehicle before exiting to ensure they aren’t leaving a child in a hot car.
The city added to never leave pets in a hot car, pointing out that animals can die of a heatstroke in just 15 minutes and that a cracked window does not help.
In an effort to help seniors in Guilford County beat the summer heat, Senior Resources of Guilford, in partnership with Duke Energy Foundation, is providing free fans to disabled adults and people older than 60 through their annual Operation Fan: Heat Relief Program.
Richard Smith, integrated services director at Senior Resources of Guilford, said they’ve given away about 200 fans so far this year.
Smith said the need for fans is greater this year with people staying home amid the COVID-19 pandemic and not being able to safely go to air-conditioned public places like senior centers and libraries.
“The greatest obstacle we have had is that it also limits our ability to distribute,” Smith said in an email Monday.
With Senior Resources of Guilford offices closed two to three days a week since mid-March and many seniors afraid to leave their homes to pick up fans, getting the fans to the elderly and disabled population in Guilford County has proven challenging, Smith said.
Smith said they have tried to supplement their efforts by having volunteers who aren’t as vulnerable to COVID-19 deliver the fans and by hosting community events, but there are still at least 150 fans left to be given away this summer.
To apply for a free fan, Smith said people can call their SeniorLine at 336-333-6981 to see if they qualify and to get information on when their offices are open.
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GREENSBORO — Signing up for one of Guilford County Schools’ new virtual academies means families will be guaranteed online learning all school year if they want it, Chief Academic Officer Whitney Oakley said Monday.
As of late Monday morning, between 2,000 and 3,000 students had registered for the virtual schools since registration opened on July 14. At this point, enrollment in the new virtual academies is a small fraction of the district’s total expected enrollment of between 71,000 and 73,000 students.
The deadline to register for the new virtual academies is Aug. 1. Though the district may be able to extend that deadline, Oakley said, interested families are asked to sign up now so the district can plan for staffing.
The new virtual schools are free and open to any students who live inside the district’s attendance boundaries. There is no longer a limit on enrollment for either academy. The district eliminated its enrollment caps once it saw the community’s support for the option, Oakley said.
The academies are hoping to attract students and families willing to commit to online learning longterm. If a family signs up for the virtual academies and changes its mind prior to the start of school on Aug. 17, that’s OK, Oakley said. Once the school year starts, families are asked to stick with the academies through at least the end of the first semester. They would not have the option to transfer back to regular schools mid-grading period.
Students enrolled in magnet programs can sign up for virtual academies without losing their spots and can return the next semester or school year.
Students in grades K-5 can enroll in the Guilford eLearning Virtual Academy, which will have a school office at Hunter Elementary in Greensboro.
Students in sixth through eighth grades can enroll in Guilford eLearning University Prep, which will have an office at Jackson Middle School in Greensboro.
High School students can sign up for the eLearning University Prep program, while remaining assigned to their home high school.
“Our high school students are not changing schools when they register,” Oakley said.
AP classes will be available for high school students in the virtual academy program, she said. Many high school courses already are offered online, she said.
School board members are expected to vote July 28 on a plan for the district for the 2020-21 school year. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, district leaders are weighing a range of options, most including some mix of online and in-person instruction. Even students not enrolled in the virtual academies should expect some online learning this year.
It’s also possible that school leaders could choose not to reopen any schools and keep everyone on online learning all year long.
Oakley said there are likely to be some differences in what students in the virtual academy get for their learning, versus what other students might get if regular classes are taught remotely for part or all of the school year.
Remote learning for students in the typical schools, she said, would “look a little more like the traditional school program as we know it,” following the regular school day schedule.
The virtual academies, designed for virtual learning from the start, may use different online tools, Oakley said. They may also offer a little more flexibility for students.
Information on the district’s website suggests that the virtual academies would include some live instruction from teachers and some independent study.