The NC National Guard to help Alamance County hospital with COVID crunch

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Here's the latest news and information on COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccines.

2:01 p.m.
The North Carolina National Guard is deploying guard members to Alamance Regional Medical Center, part of the Cone Health System, in Burlington to support staff and hospital operations.

The 25 soldiers and airmen will arrive Thursday morning.

Though COVID-19 cases are declining and hospitalizations are starting to decline, some hospital systems, including Alamance Regional, are struggling with high caseloads from the Omicron variant surge and staff shortages.

The Guardsmen will remain onsite through March 4. The workload they take on will allow Alamance Regionals' doctors and nurses to focus more solely on their hands-on work with patients.

Cone Health requested staffing assistance in January through the NC Department of Health and Human Services.

12:53 p.m.
COVID-19 numbers continue to get better across the state.

NCDHHS said there are 10,513 new cases, nearly half of the number from two weeks ago (20,286) and better than the previous week (12,335).

The total number of cases since the start of the pandemic is 2,509,470.

The daily percent of positive tests also continues to improve, coming in at 20.2%. A week ago it was 24.2% on this day and two weeks ago the number was 32.4%.

Hospitalizations also continue to drop with 3,812 fewer patients. That's 19% fewer than last week (4,725).

Seventeen percent of patients are in the ICU.

There were 157 new deaths reported for a total of 21,482 since the start of the pandemic.

12:40 p.m.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced an extension of the policy that allows state employees to use volunteer days to help combat staff shortages in K-12 school districts across the state caused by COVID-19.

The extension, which runs through April 15, provides an additional 24 hours of Community Service Leave for state employees with supervisor approval to work in North Carolina schools as substitute teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff and other needed roles - in addition to the standard 24 hours of volunteer leave provided annually.

The policy also continues to allow state employees to keep any compensation provided by the school district through April 15.

"We want to keep students learning safely in the classroom and encourage state employees to serve as substitutes and volunteers and be able to keep any compensation they receive," Cooper said. "This extension gives school districts more time to bring in volunteers and gives our generous state employees more opportunities to lend their talents to their local schools."

Some districts across North Carolina, including Wake County Public Schools, have made it easier for state employees to volunteer in the schools, by streamlining onboarding and waiving usual fees for training or to cover the cost of background checks.

Many school districts continue to have a greater need for substitute teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff and other need areas because of absences from employees who need to isolate or quarantine because of COVID-19.

"We are extremely grateful for state employee volunteers who are willing to make a difference to schools that are struggling due to COVID-related staff shortages," said Jacqueline Williams, principal at Fox Road Elementary School in Raleigh. "Governor Cooper's decision to make additional volunteer hours available to state employees who wish to serve our schools helps in a direct and meaningful way."

The decision extends the original Jan. 12 announcement.

12:13 p.m.
A new no-cost testing site has opened in Raleigh.

Mount Peace Baptist Church is offering PCR rapid testing with results in 24 hours.

The church began offering tests Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and tests will be performed Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

There will also be Saturday hours from 8 a.m. to noon.

The church is at 1601 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Raleigh

10:53 a.m.
Starting Friday, Orange County residents can pick up a free N95 mask at two locations.

In Hillsborough, go to the Orange County Public Library, 137 W. Margaret Lane from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday.

In Carrboro, go to Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, 110 W. Main St. from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday - Friday.

The masks are available while supplies last.

Two school districts in central North Carolina voted to end their mask mandates for students and teachers.

Leaders for both Johnston County Schools and Cumberland County Schools voted Tuesday to make mask-wearing optional. That goes into effect Feb. 21 and Feb. 16 respectively.

Meanwhile, Lee County Schools voted to keep the mask mandate in place.

Raleigh city leaders also met Tuesday to talk about the city's mask mandate. Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin said the COVID-19 metrics are worse now than they were months ago when she strongly considered lifting the mandates.

"We're not there yet," she said. She hopes to be able to lift the mask requirements soon but would first need to see the COVID-19 metrics improve.

The United State's largest county, Los Angeles County, is also not ready to lift mask mandates.

Despite California Gov. Gavin Newsom deciding to end the statewide mask mandate next week, Los Angeles County health officials said Tuesday they have no immediate plans to drop their mask mandate.

LA County Department of Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer told reporters the county's decision will be made based on dropping hospitalization numbers or vaccination approval for young children.

The mandate will be dropped when daily hospitalizations drop below 2,500 for seven consecutive days, according to Ferrer. Once this threshold is met, "masking will no longer be required while outdoors at outdoor mega-events or indoor-outdoor spaces at childcare and K to 12 schools," Ferrer said.

Even if that threshold is not met, the mandate could be dropped eight weeks after vaccines are approved for children under 5. Pfizer submitted a request to the Food and Drug Administration to have its vaccine approved for children 6 months to 5 years old. A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 15.

Los Angeles County is the second-largest school district in the country, with over 600,000 students.

10 p.m.
COVID-19 cases are falling in North Carolina and looking ahead, we might have to pay closer attention to wastewater as a way out of the pandemic.

To get a better idea of where COVID-19 is spreading, the CDC is turning to wastewater samples, including here in North Carolina.

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COVID-19 cases are falling in North Carolina and looking ahead, we might have to pay closer attention to wastewater as a way out of the pandemic.

Dr. Rachel Noble is a professor of marine science at UNC; Innovate Carolina and has been working with NCDHHS and the CDC to expand locations where they are testing across North Carolina to include more towns.

Noble said that previously, they were more focused on urban centers such as Raleigh, Charlotte and Greenville.

They're building a program to help public health management navigate this pandemic and beyond. New tools have been added to show the public in better ways what's going on with wastewater signaling.

"So few people are getting PCR tests and when people use home tests, that information largely doesn't get recorded into the state databases, and so testing wastewater for the virus that causes COVID 19 allows us to take the pulse of what's going on in the community," Noble said. "As we see new variants come in, we can watch the trends go up and down. We can also see the effects of mask mandates and vaccine education and really strong booster strategies."

The process is one that continues to evolve and improve.

"We've improved our way to take that quantitative data from the virus in the wastewater and really distill it in a way that the graphs and figures are easier to see and interpret," Noble said. "We are trying to build this for the future so we certainly don't have everything figured out. We hope in the future to be able to add other viruses to it: to Track chemicals of value to people like antibiotics possibly or maybe even certain types of drugs, so we're building all of those capabilities ... it's a lot of people power and it takes a lot of coordination."

-- ABC11's Josh Chapin reported.

7:50 p.m.
The Cumberland County School Board has voted to make face masks optional.

The policy will start Feb. 16.

Meanwhile, a similar push to drop the mask requirement in Lee County failed.

The Lee County school board voted 4-3 to keep the mask requirement.

6 p.m.
Johnston County Schools is making face masks optional for students.

The updated policy will take effect Feb. 21.

5:14 p.m.
Raleigh's indoor mask mandate will continue for now.

During the City Council's work session, Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin gave an update on her meeting earlier Tuesday with Wake County health officials and said simply: "We're not there yet."

Baldwin said Wake County's COVID-19 metrics are still too high but she said the good news is that things are improving.

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Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin said the issue of mask mandates will be revisited in two weeks.

Baldwin said the issue will soon be revisited.

"We'll meet in two weeks to look at the data and hopefully make a decision at that point," Baldwin said.

12:55 p.m.
North Carolina reported 4,648 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday. That's nearly half of the number of cases reported a week ago.

The percentage of tests coming back positive also dropped from last week's 29.8% to 23%. However, that remains much higher than state health officials want to see.

Meanwhile, the newly released data showed 76 fewer people were in the hospital with COVID than were there yesterday.

Raleigh and Wake County indoor mask mandates are up for debate Tuesday.

Government leaders will meet in the afternoon to discuss the next steps in the pandemic.

According to Wake County health leaders, the COVID-19 positivity rate is at 19 percent, which is higher than the goal of 5 percent but significantly lower than it was a couple of weeks ago.

There were also more than 200 new COVID-19 hospitalizations in the last week.

This comes as some Wake County parents urge school leaders to end the mask mandate, citing mental health concerns for their children.

Health experts have warned that it's too soon to end mask mandates, especially in schools due to the low vaccination rate in children.

ABC11 data shows just over 20 percent of kids 5-11 are vaccinated, 44 percent of kids 12-17 are vaccinated, and children younger than 5 are not yet eligible for vaccines.
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