COVID-19 dampens Christmas spirit in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the world

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Here are the latest updates about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in North Carolina.

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FRIDAY



Bethlehem has ushered in Christmas Eve with a stream of joyous marching bands and the triumphant arrival of the top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land. But few people were there to greet them as the coronavirus pandemic and a strict lockdown dampened celebrations in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Similar subdued scenes were repeated across the world as the festive family gatherings and packed prayers that typically mark the holiday were scaled back or canceled altogether. In Australia, worshippers had to book tickets online to attend socially distanced church services. Pope Francis is set to celebrate Mass in the near-empty Vatican basilica early in the evening, hours before a nationwide curfew goes into effect.

The CDC announced a new restriction for travelers overnight. The United States is going to require airline travelers from Britain to get a negative COVID-19 test first.

The state's COVID-19 dashboard won't be updated on Thursday or Friday due to the Christmas holiday. The next update will happen on Saturday, Dec. 26.

THURSDAY


Cumberland County is one of 65 counties in the state with a critical community spread of COVID-19. County officials believe the spread of cases is so severe, they can no longer contact trace. The county is advising residents to celebrate the holiday at home and/or virtually, echoing Gov. Roy Cooper's recent ask.

Gov. Cooper is working to help renters and extend the state's moratorium on evictions until at least Jan. 31.

The UNC men's basketball game at home against Syracuse previously scheduled for Jan. 2 has been postponed. The postponement comes after positive COVID-19 tests in a recent Syracuse opponent.

The CDC's grim new outlook says the U.S. could see up to 419,000 COVID-19 deaths by the middle of January, meaning there could be 90,000 new deaths in the next three weeks. The CDC is reporting more than 1 million Americans have already received the COVID-19 vaccination. Pfizer-BioNTech reached a deal with the U.S. government to supply 100 million more COVID-19 vaccine doses to the U.S.

Q&A with NC's top doctor Betsey Tilson: How will you know when it's your time to get vaccinated?
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6:25 p.m.
Wake County Public Health Department received 975 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in what county officials called "the most anticipated UPS delivery in perhaps the history of Wake County." Those who would be administering the vaccine received the first injections, followed by emergency responders.

"Our vaccination team was so excited Tuesday morning to see the UPS employee walk in with that single box," said Dr. Jason Wittes, Wake County's pharmacy director, in a written statement. "This is a historic week for our community. It represents the beginning of what will eventually stop the spread of COVID-19."

Wake County officials said more than 120 EMS staff were vaccinated in the first four hours.

4:30 p.m.
Governor Roy Cooper announced that he plans to extend the state's evictions moratorium on residential evictions for non-payment of rent through at least January 31, 2021.

"This holiday season, too many families are struggling to pay rent as the pandemic surges," said Governor Cooper. "As the first of the month approaches and rent becomes due, I wanted people to know that we plan to extend the moratorium on evictions."

The details and language of the moratorium are forthcoming and will be based on how or whether Congress extends the federal moratorium.

3:40 p.m.

To notify people as quickly as possible if they have tested positive for or been exposed to someone with COVID-19, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services in cooperation with Local Health Departments, is expanding how it contacts people. Starting this week, all residents who have provided cell phone or email addresses will receive an automatic text or email message to connect people to follow-up resources and supports.

The change comes as the state is experiencing a significant increase in people with COVID-19. Less than a week ago, North Carolina set a new record of 8,444 new cases reported in a day.

People receiving a text or email will be directed to a secure website that provides additional information about how to protect themselves and their loved ones, how to get support if needed to safely isolate, and how to contact someone immediately for additional information.

2:15 p.m.
The Atlantic Coast Conference announced that the Syracuse at North Carolina men's basketball game has been postponed. The game was scheduled to be played on Saturday, January 2.

The postponement follows positive tests in a recent Syracuse opponent, subsequent quarantining, and contact tracing required for the Syracuse men's basketball team.

12:15 p.m.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported 5,609 new COVID-19 cases and 69 more deaths.

As of Monday, 10.7% of tests are positive, a slight decrease from the last two days but still more than double the state's benchmark of 5%. The percentage of positive tests has been hovering between 10.4 and 12.5% for the last two weeks.

Currently, 3,043 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, a new record for the state. Ten more COVID-19 patients were added to ICUs across the state in the last 24 hours for the highest number in at least a month: 696 adult patients. In the last 24 hours, 416 confirmed COVID-19 patients were admitted to hospitals statewide.

The majority of those hospitalized are over the age of 60 whereas the majority of cases are in the 25 to 49 age range.

10 a.m.
Gov. Roy Cooper gave the star of Christmas a special exemption from the modified stay-at-home order to the delight of kids throughout North Carolina.

Santa Claus will still be able to bring gifts to homes of boys and girls in North Carolina, as long as they haven't been naughty. Gov. Cooper granted the OK for Santa in a Tweet sent Wednesday morning, adding that he'll still need to wear a mask.



"It's important that we all follow the Modified Stay At Home order this year to be home between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., but after being assured of his safety measures, Santa will receive a special exemption to carry out his job on Christmas Eve," Gov. Cooper said. "Santa will wear a mask to protect the families in our state, so make sure you do your part and wear a mask, too."

8:40 a.m.
Cumberland County will give an update on COVID-19 spread in the county at 10:30 a.m. Cumberland County is considered a red county where the spread is labeled critical. More than 90% of the state's counties are either red or orange.

8 a.m.
The U.S. government and Pfizer have struck a deal to bring 100 million more COVID-19 vaccine doses to the U.S. All 200 million doses in total are expected to be delivered by July of 2021.

WEDNESDAY MORNING STORYLINES



North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is warning of increased transmission of the coronavirus over the Christmas holiday period. But he imposed no new restrictions on travel or gatherings as he spoke about the pandemic at a news conference Tuesday.

All but eight of North Carolina's 100 counties are presently seeing substantial or critical levels of community spread. The state is also seeing more people in the hospital due to COVID-19 than ever before since the start of the pandemic. Cooper says he will limit his Christmas gathering to immediate family and remain at his home in Raleigh to celebrate.

Given the gravity and uncertainty amid COVID-19, the state has made two 24/7 mental health hotlines open to citizens. The Hope for NC Helpline (855-587-3463) and Hope for Healers (919-226-2002) are available to call.

Johns Hopkins reports more than 3,400 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. on Tuesday, the second-highest total of the pandemic.

Free COVID-19 testing continues in Wake County on Wednesday. Drive-thru testing is being offered at three parks - Sanderford Road Park, Carolina Pines Park and Brentwood Park on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Copyright © 2021 ABC11-WTVD-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved - The Associated Press contributed to this report.