By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • With two vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States, Christmas just a few days away and cases of coronavirus in North Carolina continuing to rise, health officials urged people to keep gatherings small and to get tested for COVID-19 before traveling.
Hoke County remains in the “critical” red for coronavirus infections in the latest County Alert System report, along with 64 other counties across the state. North Carolina continues setting daily case records, with a new high of over 8,800 new virus cases reported in one day in the last week. Hospitalizations continue rising with more than 2,800 people across the state in the hospital with COVID-19, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
In a live-streamed press conference Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper urged people not to “get numb” to the surging cases.
“This virus continues to spread quickly. Don’t get numb to these numbers. They have plateaued over the last few weeks but they are still too high,” he said.
With Christmas coming up, state officials urged people to avoid travel and gatherings where possible, especially in red counties like Hoke that are seeing a high percent of positive test results. If people choose to gather in person to celebrate, it’s best to get a COVID-19 test beforehand, and keep gatherings small and outdoors if possible.
Spread out tables and chairs, follow the stay-at-home mandate to be home by 10 p.m., and wear a mask when around people you don’t live with, Cooper said.
As of Tuesday, Hoke County was up to 2,575 positive COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, with at least 75 of those in just the last three days, according to the Hoke County Health Department. The county has seen 393 new positive cases in the last 14 days, and 185 in the last seven days total. Over 2,000 of the people in Hoke who contracted the virus are considered recovered, while 34 Hoke residents have died after testing positive for the illness.
Currently, over 16 percent of all COVID-19 tests for Hoke residents are coming back positive – far above the goal of five percent or less set by the state. The percentage of positive tests to all tests is one of the highest in North Carolina, and has gone up since the state unveiled the County Alert System last month.
Last Tuesday, Cape Fear Valley Hoke Hospital became one of the first 11 hospitals in the state to receive doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The Cape Fear Valley hospital system began vaccinating its healthcare workers with the first of two required doses of the vaccine.
FirstHealth of the Carolinas received a shipment of the Pfizer vaccine at its Pinehurst hospital last Thursday and has since started vaccinating its staff members, according to a press release. FirstHealth received around 1,000 doses in its initial shipment – about enough to fully vaccinate 500 people – and expects to receive more in the coming days and weeks.
“As supplies expand, FirstHealth hopes to continue its vaccination rollout to health care workers across the entire system,” the press statement said.
FirstHealth registered nurse Lauren McDaniel, who has spent months working directly with COVID-19 patients in Moore Regional’s intensive care unit, was one of the first to get the vaccine.
“I was very excited. It’s been very hard on everyone the last few months, from the staff and doctors to patients and the hospital in general,” McDaniel said in a statement. “Working through this pandemic and being with COVID-19 patients is not easy, and it can be very dark some days. I don’t think the average person understands that. I think that made today even more important, because it provides some good news for everyone who wants to see the pandemic end.”
The United States Food and Drug Administration authorized last week a second COVID-19 vaccine, developed by Moderna, for emergency use. The Moderna vaccine does not need to be refrigerated at ultra-cold temperatures, as the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine requires. Similar to the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna vaccine also takes two injections to provide protection against the coronavirus.
FirstHealth infectious diseases expert Dr. Gretchen Arnoczy cautioned that even with the vaccine slowly arriving, it’s “not a time to let down our guard.” It will still be months before most members of the public have access to the vaccine.
“We have a new tool in the toolkit, and we’re thrilled that both the Pfizer vaccine and others that could be approved shortly are highly effective,” Arnoczy said in a statement. “But this is certainly not a time to let down our guard. COVID-19 is spreading widely throughout our area, and I expect that to continue for the next several months.”
The Hoke County Health Department is registered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will begin administering the vaccine “when the time is right,” Director Helene Edwards said last week. The department is engaging in meetings with state and federal health agencies on vaccine protocol and guidance, preparing for the eventual widespread vaccine distribution.
By some estimates, it could be late spring or summer of 2021 before enough of the vaccine makes its way to health departments and doctor’s offices to make it widely available to the public. The vaccines are only authorized for emergency use in people 16 and older, as the developers are still testing the vaccine’s effectiveness in children.
Health officials continue to urge people to practice the “three Ws” of wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart and washing hands frequently to fight the spread of the virus.
The Hoke County Health Department will resume offering free COVID-19 testing after Christmas, with testing available December 29 at the Health Department on Palmer Street in Raeford. Call (910) 875-3717 for an appointment or more information.