RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- COVID-19 cases increased for the third week in North Carolina. Unlike in past weeks, the number of patients hospitalized for the virus also increased by 47% or 119 patients.
"We're in a surge right now, cases are going up and they have been for a while," said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease expert at UNC.
The state's trends are in line with nationwide increases including a 20% increase in hospitalizations and a 27% increase in cases.
Unfortunately, health experts predict the spike will continue with around 5,000 additional COVID-19 deaths coming during the next four weeks.
Wohl is hopeful that hospitalizations and deaths won't increase as high as cases during past surges.
"Cases are mounting. There's so much more COVID this week than there was last week circulating, as we all know because we know people who are getting infected, but we're not seeing that translate into hospitalization, which shows us we have built up immunity. We are better protected than ever before, against this virus. So that's a good thing," Wohl said.
However, as metrics do go up, health officials are urging those who qualify to get an additional booster.
"When people asked me if they should get boosted now or boosted later on in the year my answer is yes. Which means maybe both and that might be totally okay," Wohl said. "Look cases are going up right now. If you are not masking religiously, if you're going to be doing more traveling more, interacting with people, and thus more exposed at the same time cases are going up really, really high. You want to be as best protected as possible."
Data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) reported around 146,000 residents have received a second booster. Individuals over 50 years old or who are immunocompromised have qualified for the extra protection for around five weeks.
Only around 5% of fully vaccinated North Carolinians older than 50 years old have gotten an additional dose.
Around half of the individuals who are fully vaccinated are also boosted.
"I think a booster now makes a lot of sense," Wohl said. "If had Omicron in January, or maybe you had your last booster in December or January, maybe you can wait a little while longer. If you're trying to be strategic about this, I think just get a shot now or within the next couple of weeks. I would not wait until the end of the year to get a booster."
Research from Israel found around a 20% increase in protection between a fourth and third shot.
Wohl said he expects the requirement for additional boosters to be expanded in near future, especially if cases continue to rise.
"The CDC and the FDA are very responsive to these numbers. So as numbers climb, even if we don't see hospitalization and death, I think they're going to be very motivated to get more people boosted," he said.
This week state officials urged North Carolinians who do test positive to seek treatment quickly.
There are a number of treatment options available across the state including Paxlovid, a pill that can be taken within five days but must be prescribed.
An estimated two-thirds of North Carolinians qualify for the medication. Individuals who are older, pregnant and have certain medical conditions like obesity, asthma, diabetes or depression qualify.
Wohl said information about the drug for patients and providers needs to increase.
"There are pharmacies that have it. We have to get it into people. Too few people know about it. Too few providers are prescribing it and I do think that this is another way we can keep people out of the hospital in addition to vaccination and boosting," he said.
Many patients can get a prescription for Paxlovid from their primary care doctors but Wohl said access needs to expand for individuals who don't have a doctor.
"We have people who are uninsured, people who don't have providers, who don't have access to these medicines, and that's a failure of our health care system, not just our COVID response and that really bothers me," Wohl said.
NCDHHS said there are around 900 providers across the state.
There are a number of Test-to-Treat sites across the state that individuals can find at https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/FindTreatment
Patients can locate specific treatments here: https://covid-19-therapeutics-locator-dhhs.hub.arcgis.com/