By Catharin Shepard •
Staff writer •
Hoke County remains in the critical zone for coronavirus infections this week, along with 19 other counties statewide, as state leaders urged residents, governments and businesses to follow safety guidelines.
“I have a stark warning for North Carolinians today: we are in danger,” Gov. Roy Cooper said Monday in a live-streamed press conference. “This is a pivotal moment in our fight against the coronavirus. Our actions now will determine the fate of many.”
Cooper this week tightened mask requirements as he and Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), raised alarms about worsening coronavirus trends in the state.
Cooper’s latest executive order extended the Phase 3 capacity limits and safety requirements through December 11. Only 10 people maximum can attend an indoor gathering, and only 50 people maximum can attend an outdoor gathering. Now, people are required to wear a mask whenever they are with someone who is not from the same household – including while exercising in a gym, and in any indoor space even when maintaining six feet of distance from others.
The executive order also requires large retail businesses of more than 15,000 square feet to station an employee near the entrance to ensure people who enter the business are complying with mask requirements and occupancy limits.
“We need communities and local governments all over the state, particularly in red and orange counties, to work with us to enforce the strong safety rules we already have in place,” Cooper said Monday.
The tighter restrictions came down as officials announced ten more counties across the state have been added to the red “critical” zone on the County Alert System. Hoke County was one of the first 10 counties designated a “critical” county last week when state officials unveiled the alert system. Now 20 counties total across the state, including neighboring Robeson County, are in the red.
Hoke’s metrics worsened from last week to this week on the County Alert System. Last week Hoke had third-highest 14-day percent of positive COVID-19 tests of any county in North Carolina, at 13.6 percent positive. This week, that number is up to 14.2 percent, keeping Hoke in third place behind Columbus and Alexander counties. The county’s 14-day case rate also went up to 374.8 cases of coronavirus per 100,000 people. Fortunately, the county’s hospitals are so far seeing low impact from the surge of cases, unlike in some areas of the state such as Guilford County and Gaston County.
Hoke County has seen more than 1,885 known positive cases of coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. More than 370 of those cases are from the last 14 days, according to the NCDHHS.
So far, 30 people with permanent Hoke County addresses have died after testing positive for COVID-19. Most of the rest of the cases Hoke has seen, have since recovered from the illness, according to health officials.
The number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 across the state have increased to new highs, with over 1,500 people in hospitals as of Monday with the virus, Cohen said. Other metrics such as COVID-like cases in emergency rooms, the number of new cases and positive tests as a percentage of all tests are also either going up, or showing a slight increase.
Things for North Carolina are on “very shaky ground” at the moment, Cohen said.
“The coming weeks will be a true test of our resolve to keep people from getting sick, to save lives, and make sure you have hospital care whether it’s for a heart attack, a car accident, or COVID care if you need it,” she said.
Cohen encouraged people to continue to wear a mask, wash their hands and wait six feet apart from others – and to follow the extra guidelines suggested for critical counties. People who live in critical counties are encouraged to take extra precautions, such as limit mixing between households and minimizing the number of people in your social circle, avoid settings where people congregate, order takeout instead of dining in at restaurants and reducing public interactions to essential activities. Individuals who are at high risk for developing serious illness should consider staying at home as much as possible, according to the NCDHHS.
But there’s a bright spot on the horizon, Cohen said: the Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing the first of several vaccines that have shown, in trials, to be largely effective against COVID-19. The Hoke County Health Department is preparing to help roll out the vaccine locally, when one is approved. If all goes well, the first groups of at-risk people could start receiving the vaccine as early as December, officials said.
“Don’t lose hope. We are so close,” Cohen said.