'Everybody wants to be done with the pandemic': Health experts expect a rise in COVID-19 cases in NC

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- COVID-19 cases are once again on the rise in parts of the United States and health experts predict North Carolina will soon see similar trends.

"I am anticipating that with the increase in travel and changes in patterns with spring break and several holidays coming up, we are likely going to have an increase in cases and potentially hospitalizations over the next few weeks," said Dr. Julie Swann, a professor at North Carolina State University who has tracked models throughout the pandemic.

Around half of the country is already reporting an uptick in cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported hospitalizations were still on the decline nationwide last week. The weekly case average has increased by around 8% nationwide since the beginning of April, according to CDC data.

"Everybody wants to be done with the pandemic. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean we can't just wish it away. And right now, most schools do not have masks, many workplaces do not as well. And so that is also an increase in risk compared to what we might have had a couple of months ago," Swann explained.

Last week the state reported an increase in COVID-19 particles in the wastewater. Wastewater surveillance signals how quickly the virus is spreading and doesn't rely on people getting a test or reporting symptoms. The number of particles found was up around 25% last week. The number of COVID-19 particles is still down 98% from the peak in January.

"Just look to your left, look to your right. We're all hearing about friends, neighbors, and family who are getting infected over the last week, so the numbers are going up," Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease expert at UNC said.

Wohl pointed to the recent dinner in Washington D.C. where 70 people were infected as further evidence that the risk for COVID-19 remains very real.

"The good news is the difference between now and maybe a year ago is those people didn't end up in the hospital because they are vaccinated," Wohl said. "So, once we don't have people in the hospital that's the big-ticket. That's what we want. Having a lot of people with sniffles that's not why we shut down our economy. It's keeping people off of life support."

Predicting how many cases will increase is difficult, especially with the rise in popularity of at-home testing.

"There is less data than there was earlier because of testing. It's not updated as frequently because we are not in as dire a situation as we have been before," Swann explained.

Positive at-home testing kits are not included in states' case counts, which means the number of total cases is underreported.

"We know those lab-reported cases won't capture all of them including our at-home tests. But that's why all along we've never relied on looking at one metric, we've relied on multiple metrics that help look at our trends," Dr. Elizabeth Tilson, North Carolina's state health director explained.

The Wake County Health Department did report an uptick in people seeking COVID-19 testing over the past week. A spokesperson for the county said they are monitoring demand and may consider expanding capacity again.

Tilson said so far hospitalizations and test positivity rate remains stable.

"It is true that we are in a much better place than we were last year one, because again, all of our metrics are down but more importantly because we have so many tools in our toolkit that people can utilize to protect themselves and their families," Tilson said.

One of those top tools; is vaccinations.

Around 41,000 North Carolinians have received the second booster since it was approved for part of the population nearly two weeks ago. This represents around 1% of the population who has been boosted. Around 40% of North Carolinians remain unvaccinated.

"That's a problem because really what protects us from having our ICUs full of people with COVID-19 is the immunity we get from vaccination," Wohl explained.

Durham County Health director Rodney Jenkins said the country has seen a noticeable uptick in people coming in for vaccine appointments since the second booster was approved.

"Last week, we had two COVID deaths in Durham County and that was the first time we had a death due to COVID since February 13. So that lets us know that you know, again, vaccines continuing to work," Jenkins said.

Officials are continuing to press individuals to take action now, before cases tick back up.

"Now is the time to get your immunity as high as you can and get prepared. So don't be fooled by low cases. Cases are up ticking right now," Wohl said.

IHME has monitored COVID-19 metrics and offered projections throughout the pandemic. Current projections from IHME predict hospitalizations may creep up slightly over the next two weeks before dropping.

As health officials prepare for the next increase, one main obstacle is a potential lack of funding.

Congress has yet to approve additional money to fund critical services to combat COVID-19. The lack of additional funds has caused the federal Uninsured Program to stop reimbursing providers for testing, vaccination and treatment for serving uninsured individuals.

There are still multiple free testing and vaccination options throughout the state and supply remains in good shape.

"I do worry moving forward though, that if this continues, we will run out of supplies, we will run out of tests," Wohl said.
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