DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- As COVID-19 cases rise across North Carolina, the I-Team uncovered a strong correlation between the rate of new cases and counties' vaccination rates.
The rate of new cases reported across North Carolina counties over the past week has varied from 210 to 9 cases per 100,000 residents.
Many of the southeastern counties, like Cumberland, Robeson, Scotland and Richmond County reported the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases. These same areas also have reported lower vaccination rates than counties with fewer cases.
An I-Team analysis found the counties reporting the fewest new cases have fully vaccinated 7% more of their population than counties reporting the highest number of new cases.
The correlation is not surprising, but it reinforces the message health officials have been stressing for months: vaccines make a difference.
"In my humble opinion, those counties that have not broken the 30% vaccination rate for the entire county, they're really seeing a lot of trouble with the Delta variant right now," said Rodney Jenkins, Durham County health director. "For ourselves, Orange County, and Wake County, and pretty much the Triangle proper, we were really hard at work getting the vaccine out, we're so much better for it."
Orange and Durham County rank among the top 10 counties for vaccination rates, and each reported less than 50 cases per 100,000 residents on average this past week.
Wake County reported a rate of around 79 new COVID-19 cases for every 100,000 residents this past week; ranking it in the middle of the state.
Meanwhile, Hoke County reported some of the top increases in the state with 161 cases per 100,000 residents reported this week. State data shows only about 22% of the county's residents are fully vaccinated, the lowest in North Carolina. The county's numbers, like Cumberland County's, may be be an undercount due to vaccines from Ft. Bragg and the VA not being included in the state's count.
Hoke County health director Helene Edwards said the county has increased the intensity of contact tracing efforts to align with pre-vaccine protocols to combat the rise in cases.
Jenkins credits Durham's partnerships, resources, residents and workforce for the position it is in today.
Despite the lower increase, even the Triangle is seeing an uptick in cases as the Delta variant spreads throughout the country. Jenkins said he expects Durham's cases to continue to increase.
"We're no different than anywhere else, cases are inching up a little bit, but nowhere near where we were," Jenkins said. "And I fully expect that it won't be a repeat of what it was last summer and last winter. But we certainly want to make sure that our residents, particularly our kids, we want to make sure that kids are protected as to go back to school."
RELATED: Data shows roughly 1 in 4 Durham COVID-19 cases are in children under 17
Jenkins said the spread of the Delta variant is sparking some increase in vaccination rates, along with parents finding time to bring their kids in for a shot.
Jenkins said the county's top challenge remains convincing those who are hesitant that the vaccine is effective.
"We have tried to canvas neighborhoods, we tried to do canvasing and just talk to folks and just say, 'Hey, you know, if you don't want a vaccine, tell us why and let us educate you.' And so far those tactics have been successful," Jenkins said.
RELATED: Side effects, mistrust top reasons NC residents are hesitant about COVID-19 vaccine
Jenkins said the county will continue to stay vigilant in its efforts.
North Carolina averaged 500 more cases a day this week. Earlier this week the number of COVID-19 tests coming back positive exceeded the level reported last July.
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NC counties with highest rate of new cases reporting 7% fewer residents vaccinated
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