Delta variant leading to rising hospitalizations in North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- North Carolina, like many other states across the country, is seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

5:15 p.m.
North Carolina State University announced that face coverings will be required in classrooms and laboratories for the first three weeks of the semester.

Face masks will not be required outdoors.

In other indoor spaces, those who are vaccinated are the exception to this requirement. The university encourages anyone who has not been fully vaccinated to continue wearing masks indoors and when in close contact with others.

The requirement extends to the campus' bussing system.

4:30 p.m.

Duke University announced all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, will be required to wear face masks in all Duke-owned and leased buildings effective Friday, July 30, until further notice.

The university cited the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in North Carolina related to a combination of the Delta variant and the number of people who remain unvaccinated, as its reasoning.
Masks will not be required in on-campus residence halls.

Triangle hospitals say they are seeing an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Dr. Lisa Pickett, chief medical officer at Duke University Hospital, said their numbers are double from what they were two weeks ago.

While they don't know if patients have the Delta variant since they don't sequence at the time of admission, they presume many do, since it's the most prevalent strain in our area, Dr. Pickett said.

WakeMed Health & Hospitals is reporting their COVID inpatient hospitalizations tripled in the last month.

A spokeswoman said more than 92 percent of COVID inpatients are unvaccinated and that the Delta variant is responsible for a spike in cases. She is stressing vaccination and said the comprehensive use of masks and other personal protective equipment inside all of their facilities is helping keeping staff and patients and their families safe.

UNC Health has 150 COVID patients in hospitals. That's about the same as a year ago and up from about 50 patients a month ago, according to a spokesperson. UNC Health said most of their cases are among the unvaccinated and due to the Delta variant.
"A couple of days ago (North Carolina) crossed 1,000 people again for the first time in quite a few months in terms of hospitalized bed numbers and it is baked into the system, that the number is going to go up for at least a couple of weeks," said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, Duke Health infectious disease specialist, in a virtual news conference Wednesday.

A new Lambda variant was first identified in Peru and some cases have been reported in the U.S. but the World Health Organization doesn't consider it a variant of concern. It does consider the Delta variant one though.

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"We're part of a team that works with the people who are doing the genetic surveillance and looking at what other variants are out there," said Dr. David Montefiori, director of the Laboratory for AIDS Vaccine Research and Development at Duke University Medical Center, in the news conference. "They're not prevalent enough to be a variant of interest or a variant of concern yet but do they have the potential to escape our vaccines? Does this virus have the ability to completely escape our vaccines? That's a question that we're studying and that other people are studying."

Dr. Wolfe said if you're outdoors, there's typically a lower risk of contracting the Delta virus than indoors. He said vaccinations matter and that a mask helps further reduce the spread.

"If your outdoor activity is a spaced out game on the soccer field, in reality your risk is extremely low," Dr. Wolfe said. "So athletics last year, for example, were very good at going through degrees of proving that in fact on field transmissions were exceptionally uncommon."

"I think if your situation is an outdoor concert venue where for protracted periods of time, you're sitting in close proximity, perhaps yelling and screaming at the concert, that risk has gone up," Dr. Wolfe said. "And the way that it stands at the moment is our chance of having someone in close proximity to you, who has, unbeknownst to them, COVID, has also gone up."

Montefiori said it's critical to keep the pandemic under control to keep the virus from mutating and becoming more resistant to vaccines, something routinely seen with influenza strains.

"Every time the virus gets transmitted from one person to another, it has an opportunity to mutate, to change, and so the more we can shut this pandemic down and slow down the spread of the virus, the less opportunities it's going to have to continue to mutate and change and become more contagious and potentially even escape our vaccines," he said.

That leads to the question on booster shots and Montefiori said that could be a real possibility.

"I think we're probably getting very close to a time where we're going to know if and when a boost is necessary," he said. "I believe that boosting will be necessary. It's very likely going to strengthen the immune response against the variants."

4:25 p.m.
The Durham County Department of Public Health will offer COVID-19 vaccines at Durham Academy and Lakewood Shopping Center during the week of July 26, 2021.

When: Thursday, July 29, 4:30pm-6:00pm
Where: Durham Academy. 3116 Academy Rd., Durham, NC 27707
Vaccines offered: Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson; first & second doses
How to be vaccinated: Appointments & walk-ins. Open to all people 12 and older. To schedule an appointment, call 919-560-9217.

When: Saturday, July 31, 5:00pm-8:00pm
Where: Lakewood Shopping Center. 2000 Chapel Hill Rd., Durham, NC 27707
Vaccines offered: Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson; first & second doses
How to be vaccinated: Appointments & walk-ins. Open to all people 12 and older. To schedule an appointment, call 919-560-9217.

2:45 p.m.
Pfizer released new data showing its vaccine's ability to protect against severe illness remains strong six months out. Efficacy against symptomatic disease also remains high, but appears to taper off over time.

Pfizer is using this data to bolster its argument that booster shots are needed six months out.

But the FDA - not the company - will decide if and when booster shots are needed. This data has not yet been peer reviewed.

12:15 p.m.
2,633 new COVID-19 cases were reported in North Carolina on Wednesday. That's even higher than the count on this day last year -- which was 1,805 new cases. This marks the highest daily cases since Feb. 27.

The percent positive in the state is at 10.8%. Tuesday marked the first time over 10% since the end of January. Tuesday's percent positive was 10.2%.

1,091 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state. Tuesday marked the first day with hospitalizations above 1,000 since May 7.

The number of patients hospitalized has doubled in the last two weeks.

13,606 people have died since the start of the pandemic.

The percent of the adult population that has at least one dose of the vaccine in North Carolina has inched up one percent to 61%.

Despite vaccines declining since early June, the state finally saw an increase last week. Last week, about 94,000 doses were administered. That's a 17% increase from the week before. Most of the new vaccines were first doses. 17,000 more people got a first dose last week than the week before. 59,000 total people last week got a first dose.

12 p.m.
In the last week, the US reported the highest number of new COVID cases in the world, according to the WHO.

For the week of July 19-25, the US reported a 131% increase in new COVID cases, over the previous week, according to the latest WHO epidemiological report.

There were 3.8 million new COVID cases reported worldwide in the last week, an 8% increase over the previous week.

The number of new COVID related deaths increased sharply this week to over 69,000, up 21% from 57,000 last week.

The Americas and European regions are reporting the highest weekly case incidence per capita: 123.3 and 108.3 new cases per 100,000 residents respectively.

10:50 a.m.

Anyone working for NCDHHS at state-operated facilities will have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by September 30.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services released a statement about its decision Wednesday saying the vaccine is the most effective weapon in the fight against the pandemic.

The agency's decision falls in line with recommendations from the North Carolina Healthcare Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nursing Association.

The full statement is below:

"NCDHHS will require that that all employees, volunteers, students, trainees, as well as contracted and temporary workers working at state-operated facilities be fully vaccinated or receive an approved medical or religious exemption by September 30, 2021.
Vaccination for COVID-19 is the most effective prevention against the disease. Over 75% of DSOHF facility staff are vaccinated, with three facilities over 90%. As a health care system, we have a responsibility to protect the patients and residents that we serve - many of whom are at high risk for COVID-19 complications, are without other options for care, and in our care for long periods of time. It is well documented that health care personnel often unintentionally introduce the virus into institutional settings prompting an outbreak. That's why numerous professional organizations recommend that vaccines be required for all healthcare and long-term care staff, including the North Carolina Healthcare Association and over 50 national groups such the American Medical Association and the American Nursing Association.
Rigorous clinical trials among thousands of people ages 12 and older, have proven that vaccines are safe and effective at preventing COVID-19 and virus-related hospitalization and death. More than 160 million Americans have been safely vaccinated."


9:20 a.m.
A third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine can "strongly" boost protection against the delta variant -- beyond the protection afforded by the standard two doses, suggests new data released by Pfizer on Wednesday.

The data posted online, which are expected to be discussed in a company earnings call on Wednesday morning, suggest that antibody levels against the delta variant in people ages 18 to 55 who receive a third dose of vaccine are greater than five-fold than following a second dose.

9:15 a.m.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky says new mask-wearing guidance, coupled with higher rates of vaccination against COVID-19, could halt the current escalation of infections in "a couple of weeks."

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told "CBS This Morning" she hopes more stringent mask-wearing guidelines and other measures won't be necessary as the country heads into the fall.

"We can halt the chain of transmission," she said. "We can do something if we unify together, if we get people vaccinated who are not yet vaccinated, if we mask in the interim, we can halt this in just a matter of a couple of weeks."

With the delta variant fueling a surge of infections across the country, the CDC on Tuesday recommended even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in areas where the variant is prevalent.

Walensky says the new guidance was prompted by data that vaccinated people can pass on the virus. However, the vast number of infections are occurring in unvaccinated people, she noted. Walensky said 80% of the counties with the highest number of infections have less than 40% of people vaccinated.

The nation is averaging more than 57,000 cases a day and 24,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations. The guidance on masks in indoor public places applies in parts of the U.S. with at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week.

9 a.m.
WakeMed Health & Hospitals has told workers it will require them to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The Raleigh-area hospital system is the leading provider in the state's second largest county. It has three acute care hospitals and one physical rehabilitation hospital.

The timeline for when the vaccine requirement will take effect has not yet been determined. The move comes amid growing concern of the more contagious delta variant. Several other North Carolina hospital systems have announced plans to compel workers to come in get vaccinated. WakeMed's vaccine requirement will apply to all employees, providers and volunteers in the "near future."

8:45 a.m.
Duke University announced all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, will be required to wear face masks in all Duke-owned and leased buildings effective Friday, July 30, until further notice.

The university cited the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in North Carolina related to a combination of the Delta variant and the number of people who remain unvaccinated, as its reasoning.

Masks will not be required in on-campus residence halls.

WEDNESDAY MORNING HEADLINES
Gov. Roy Cooper and the state's coronavirus task force will not be issuing an update today as previously planned.

The governor's office said Tuesday afternoon that the previously planned Wednesday update would be pushed to Thursday.

Meanwhile, Cooper said he is reviewing mask guidance issued Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC changed its mask recommendations in light of new evidence about the Delta variant of COVID-19.

That variant has become the most dominant form of the virus in the US. The CDC's new evidence suggests that vaccinated people remain well protected against all forms of COVID-19, including the Delta variant. However, unlike other variants, vaccinated people can still spread the Delta variant.

That's why the CDC said all people should wear masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging.

Since the COVID-19 vaccines still provide strong protection against the Delta variant, health officials continue to urge people to get vaccinated.

Many healthcare facilities have begun mandating vaccines for their employees.

President Joe Biden is expected to announce federal employees will be required to be vaccinated or else face "stringent COVID-19 protocols."

TUESDAY
7:02 p.m.
ABC News has confirmed, via sources familiar with the discussion, that President Joe Biden will likely announce Thursday that federal employees will be required to be vaccinated or else they must abide by "stringent COVID-19 protocols like mandatory mask wearing -- even in communities not with high or substantial spread -- and regular testing."

The sources caution that at this point no decision has been finalized.

The federal government is the nation's largest employer - 2.1 million workers and this would therefore be the largest vaccine mandate by a single employer of this pandemic.

This also represents a major policy shift from the White House. Since day one -- this administration has publicly said it was opposed to vaccine mandates like this - preferring to leave it up to individual employers and local governments.

6:39 p.m.
House Speaker Tim Moore reacted to news that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced that the Division of State Operated Healthcare Facilities (DSOHF) will now require employees at all state healthcare facilities to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 30.

"I have personally been vaccinated against COVID-19, and I have done my best to help educate the public and urge others to get vaccinated if they choose to do so," Moore said. "But at the end of the day, the decision whether or not to vaccinate is a personal one and should be made between a doctor and patient. North Carolinians will not be bullied into being vaccinated against their will, particularly with a vaccine that has yet to be approved by the FDA."

All DSOHF employees who are not fully vaccinated by the deadline will "be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal, for unacceptable personal conduct."

"Our healthcare workers are certainly capable of weighing the risks and benefits and can make their own decision about the vaccine," Moore said. "This mandate could force healthcare workers to choose between their employment and their conscience. Now is not the time to risk losing any of our healthcare workers who have been at the front lines of this pandemic."

6:07 p.m.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC, criticized the updated mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Americans who have already been vaccinated, saying the flip=flop could increase vaccine hesitancy.

"Since last year, I've been telling North Carolinians that vaccines are the most effective tool we have to return to life as normal and the scientific data has shown that to be true, with 94% of North Carolina cases and 97% of all U.S. hospitalizations occurring among the unvaccinated population," Tillis said. "I am deeply concerned that the Biden administration's contradictory decision will cause even more vaccine hesitancy, giving many Americans the false impression that the vaccines are not as effective as they were originally told. The data shows that fully vaccinated Americans are at a very low risk of a breakthrough infection and are at an incredibly low risk of serious complications. The promise of the vaccine was to protect Americans from the worst outcomes and allow them to return to life as normal. Now many local and state governments across the nation are bound to reimplement restrictions and mask mandates, even for Americans who are fully vaccinated."

The CDC reversed course Tuesday on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging.
Citing new information about the ability of the delta variant to spread among vaccinated people, the CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.

"The Biden administration apparently doesn't trust the science, and they clearly don't trust the American people to take personal responsibility for their own choices," Tillis said.

5:45 p.m.
The CDC late Tuesday issued a health alert to doctors on the need to increase vaccinations "to prevent surges in new infections" that could "overwhelm healthcare capacity" and increase death toll.

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is issuing this Health Alert Network Health Advisory to notify public health practitioners and clinicians about the urgent need to increase COVID-19 vaccination coverage (i.e., the percentage of the population fully vaccinated) across the United States to prevent surges in new infections that could increase COVID-19 related morbidity and mortality, overwhelm healthcare capacity, and widen existing COVID-19-related health disparities," it said.

4 p.m.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course Tuesday on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging.

Citing new information about the ability of the delta variant to spread among vaccinated people, the CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Many counties in North Carolina have high levels of community transmission, according to the CDC.

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3:30 p.m.
Gov. Roy Cooper's office issued a reaction after the CDC reversed course on mask quidance.

"The more contagious Delta variant that is spreading almost entirely among unvaccinated people is concerning. The COVID-19 vaccines remain safe and effective in combatting this virus, and they are the best weapon we have to fight the Delta variant or other strains. Most all of the people getting sick and dying now are unvaccinated and that is why the Governor is pulling out all the stops to get as many people as possible to get their shots. The Governor and state health officials will review changes to CDC guidance and he strongly encourages schools and businesses to enact important safety precautions and unvaccinated people to wear masks until they get their shots," said Mary Scott Winstead, Deputy Communications Director for Cooper's office.

Senator Thom Tillis issued the following statement:
"Since last year, I've been telling North Carolinians that vaccines are the most effective tool we have to return to life as normal and the scientific data has shown that to be true, with 94% of North Carolina cases and 97% of all U.S. hospitalizations occurring among the unvaccinated population.
I am deeply concerned that the Biden administration's contradictory decision will cause even more vaccine hesitancy, giving many Americans the false impression that the vaccines are not as effective as they were originally told. The data shows that fully vaccinated Americans are at a very low risk of a breakthrough infection and are at an incredibly low risk of serious complications. The promise of the vaccine was to protect Americans from the worst outcomes and allow them to return to life as normal. Now many local and state governments across the nation are bound to reimplement restrictions and mask mandates, even for Americans who are fully vaccinated.
The Biden administration apparently doesn't trust the science, and they clearly don't trust the American people to take personal responsibility for their own choices."

12:15 p.m.
1,603 new COVID-19 cases were reported in North Carolina on Tuesday.

The percent of positive tests jumped to 10.4%, the highest the state has seen since early April.

1,031 are currently hospitalized in the state with COVID-19. That's the first time hospitalizations have surpassed 1,000 since May 7.
13,590 people have died since the start of the pandemic.

60% of the adult population has at least one dose of the vaccine.

"This virus is still here and, if you're unvaccinated, still deadly," Gov. Cooper tweeted on Tuesday. "Talking to our friends and family about getting a shot is the best way to stop the spread."

"This moment now is different than the last time we experienced rising trends," Dr. Mandy Cohen said Tuesday in a statement. "Now vaccines are widely available across the state and 60 percent of North Carolina adults have received at least one dose of vaccine. 94% of the cases and hospitalizations we have now are in people who are not vaccinated. The Delta variant is not formidable. Vaccines are the best way to protest your health."

10:25 a.m.
The nation's top health agency is expected to backpedal Tuesday on its masking guidelines and recommend that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging, according to a federal official.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to release the data.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is expected to announce the decision at a 3 p.m. Tuesday.

TUESDAY MORNING HEADLINES
People with lingering COVID-19 symptoms could get help from the Americans with Disabilities Act.

President Joe Biden marked the 31st anniversary of the law by saying some long haul COVID symptoms, such as breathing problems, chronic pain and fatigue, could rise to the level of a disability.

"We're bringing agencies together to make sure Americans with long COVID, who have a disability, have access to the rights and resources that are due under the disability law," Biden said.

In North Carolina, the state health department released new guidance that includes accommodations in the workplace, school and heath care facilities for Americans with long COVID.

Biden's announcement could help people like Monica McGhee. She's a healthcare worker from Person County who continues to live with the lingering effects of COVID-19.

"Your taste is never the same; feeling tired all the time. It's been a challenge. I believe I have developed anxiety because of COVID, because I was so scared," McGhee said.

In order to qualify for special accommodations, long haulers would have to be assessed by a doctor.

This all comes as COVID cases continue to rise. Nationally, cases are up more than 300 percent since mid-June.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now categorizing the country as having "high" community transmission.

The number of people in the hospital is also rising, up nearly 37 percent in the past week--with the vast majority of those people being unvaccinated.

"I'm worried it will get much worse. Right now we're generating 50,000 Americans getting infected. That could easily double or triple," Dean of Brown University's School of Public Health Dr. Ashish Jha said.

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