By Catharin Shepard •
Staff writer •
Another Hoke County resident has died after testing positive for coronavirus, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).
The most recent death brings Hoke’s tally to 31 people who have died after testing positive for COVID-19, and who had permanent Hoke County addresses.
Hoke County has seen 196 new cases of coronavirus in the last 14 days, including 84 new cases over the last seven days. Overall this week the county was edging close to the milestone of 2,000 coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic, as a total of 1,979 people in Hoke have tested positive since March. At least 1,700 of those people are considered recovered from the illness, according to health officials.
Although Hoke’s local hospitals are seeing a relatively low impact from coronavirus cases, according to the state, hospitalizations across North Carolina continued this week to hit new record highs. As of Tuesday, over 2,000 people statewide were in the hospital with COVID-19, according to NCDHHS numbers.
The state noted two new small outbreaks at congregate living facilities in Hoke County. Three staff members at Hope Gardens, a treatment center on Turnpike Road, and one staff member and five residents at Precious Haven, a group home in Raeford, tested positive for COVID-19, according to NCDHHS reports.
Although Hoke County Schools has had individual cases of teachers and students who tested positive for COVID-19, the school system has not had any reported clusters of cases by the state’s definition. NCDHHS defines a cluster of coronavirus cases in a non-congregate living setting as “a minimum of five cases with illness onsets or initial positive results within a 14-day period, and plausible epidemiologic linkage between cases,” according to state documents.
Hoke has been in the “red zone” over the last two weeks due to its number of new coronavirus infections and percent of positive tests. In November the state unveiled its County Alert System, ranking all 100 counties as critical, substantial or significant. Hoke was one of the first 10 counties labeled as “critical” due to its percent of positive tests, which rose to over 14 percent positive last week, making it the third-highest in the state in that metric. As of last week, 20 North Carolina counties total were in the red zone for new coronavirus infections.
The alert system measures three data points: the number of new cases in 14 days per 100,000 people; the percent of tests that are positive over 14 days; and a composite score measuring hospital impact. Counties must have a certain number of new cases over a 14-day period, and either have higher than 10 percent positive rate or a high impact on local hospitals to end up in the red/critical zone.
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.
Preparing for vaccine
NCDHHS is preparing for the arrival of a vaccine against COVID-19, including planning for who will receive the first, limited supply of the vaccine. Gov. Roy Cooper, and NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen discussed the plans for the distribution Tuesday in a live-streamed press conference.
Making the vaccine available will require an “unprecedented effort,” the secretary said.
It’s possible that North Carolina will receive the version of the vaccine developed by Pfizer, which requires ultra-cold refrigeration. The Pfizer vaccine was the first submitted to the federal Food and Drug Administration for approval, which means it’s possible that will be the first one made available. However, the vaccine is still undergoing review and things could change, Cohen said.
A number of hospitals across the state have the capability to provide the ultra-cold storage needed to refrigerate the vaccine, though it does present an additional challenge for the distribution, particularly in rural areas.
“Every person is important, and we’ll work hard to overcome the challenges that our geography presents,” Cooper said.
Health officials in Hoke County are also looking at storage options for the Pfizer vaccine.
The North Carolina Institute of Medicine, taking guidance from federal agencies, is developing a plan for who gets to receive the vaccine first. Under the state’s plan for distributing the vaccine, the very first, limited supplies of the vaccine will go to hospitals where it will be used to inoculate healthcare workers who are caring for people who are sick with COVID-19. Healthcare workers in other settings, and residents and employees of long-term care facilities such as nursing homes will be next.
“We hope that by January our health departments and community health centers will begin vaccinating our other high-risk adults,” Cohen said.
Officials are hopeful that the first vaccine could be available as soon as December for healthcare workers in hospitals. It could be January or later before it’s more widely available, as the distribution plan focuses on those who are most at risk, Cohen explained.
The vaccine itself will be free to everyone regardless of whether they have health insurance or not. Either a person’s health insurance or the government will cover any costs associated with administering the vaccine, officials said.
The plans come as North Carolina continues seeing higher numbers of cases and hospitalizations. Cooper encouraged residents to continue to wear a mask, wash their hands and wait six feet apart from others.
“We need to keep doing what we know works,” he said.