COVID-19 variant first identified in the UK confirmed in Durham County

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

9:45 p.m.
Cumberland County Schools - 43% of its 8,000 full-time and part-time employees have been vaccinated. At this rate, Director Of Health Services Shirley Bolden believes every employee who wants a vaccine will get one before their March 15 in-person start date.

Durham Public Schools' officials tell Eyewitness News 422 doses were given out to employees on Thursday.

Johnston County has vaccinated more than 2,000 of their more than 5,000 staff.

ABC11 reached out to Moore, Hoke, and Harnett County schools for numbers; we're still awaiting a response.

Sampson County Schools has had a few dozen teachers get vaccinated with more than 500 signed up. Health care officials will hold a drive thru vaccination clinic for this new group on Saturday morning at the Sampson County Expo Center.

5 p.m.
Wake County plans to announce updated spectator guidelines sometime next week that are in line with Governor Cooper's ease of restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic

The update follows after calls for increased outdoor sports viewing count. As of Wednesday, one petition making rounds in the state has 45,000 signatures.

In the meantime, Wake County sports officials will continue to work on guidelines and keep attendance capped at 100 for outdoor events and 25 for indoor events.

4 p.m.
Starting this weekend, UNC will welcome back its fans with 30 percent capacity at outdoor stadiums and 15% for indoor stadiums with at least 5,000 seats.

This means, starting at 5 p.m. on Friday, a limited number of fans will be able to spectate UNC Men's Basketball, Baseball, Women's Lacrosse and Men's Lacrosse games this weekend.

6 p.m.
After months of waiting, 63-year-old Perry Tharrington is one of the first public school teachers in Durham to get the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday.

"I feel unbelievable. I feel relieved," said Tharrington. He is a special needs teacher with the district and has a chronic health condition.

The shot makes him feel more comfortable going back into the classroom.

"A real game-changer to have the vaccine before going back live," He said. "So if we do get COVID-19 hopefully it will not be nearly as severe or life-threatening."

Today, the health department vaccinated Durham Public School employees who fall under Group 3. So far 1,800 DPS employees, which is at least 35 percent of its workforce have signed up.

Staff are then prioritized and given appointments based on who will be around the most people at school, which starts next month.

Yesterday in Johnston County, nearly 2,000 teachers received a shot in the arm.

It's not clear if everyone who registered in Durham for the vaccine will get it by the time school starts. And that's a concern for leaders at the Durham Association of Educators (DAE).

"We are the City of Medicine I just feel like if we want our teachers to be face to face with students, our bus drivers, our child nutrition workers, our custodians, all those folks then we can figure out a way to start doing this at a large scale," said Michelle Burton with DAE.

DPS says it's hopeful it will vaccinate all employees but it depends on supply.

In a statement, the district says: The CDC and NCDHHS say that schools may reopen with safety measures in place without full vaccinations, but we realize how reassuring the vaccine is and we are working to provide it as quickly as possible.

In Raleigh on Thursday, 310 Wake County Public School teachers received the vaccine at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School. On Saturday, another clinic for teachers will take place at Knightdale High School. Health officials at Wake County Health Department say neighborhoods around those two schools have high rates of COVID-19 spread.

The fastest and most efficient way for Group 3 people to be vaccinated right now remains signing up on our WakeGov.com/Vaccine request form. Group three consists of frontline workers and childcare workers and educators.

In Durham, employees in daycares, other childcare centers, and schools not in the DPS system should have their principal or director email PhPlanning@dconc.gov to coordinate appointment scheduling. All Group 3 vaccination appointments are being scheduled through employers at this time.

2:35 p.m.
The first known case of the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19 -- first identified in the UK -- has been confirmed in Durham County.

The county public health department identified the case on Wednesday.

"There have been variant cases found in several other counties across the state, as well as in at least 45 states across the nation, so we did expect that eventually, we would see variant cases here as well," said Durham County Health Director Rod Jenkins.

The Durham County Department of Public Health said the person is currently in isolation and all known close contacts have been contacted.

2 p.m.
At least 3,500 incarcerated people will be granted early release from North Carolina state prisons, according to the NC NAACP and ACLU, after a settlement was reached in NC NAACP v. Cooper, a lawsuit brought by civil rights organizations, three individual incarcerated people, and a spouse of an incarcerated person, challenging the conditions of confinement in North Carolina's state prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the state has 180 days to release 3,500 people currently in its custody.

That window begins once the trial court grants a request to stay the case during that period. The parties jointly filed the stay request Thursday.

"Today's historic settlement is a step forward after nearly a year of advocating for the human lives of our neighbors who, in too many cases, have been treated as disposable," said Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the NC NAACP.

1:22 p.m.
The Halifax County Health Department reports 12 new cases for a total of 4,972 positive COVID 19 cases. One additional death has been added for a county total of 96 -- 1.9% of cases.

1:10 p.m.
Dr. Anthony Fauci says if a novel coronavirus vaccine is available, regardless of which one, take it.

The top U.S. infectious disease expert told NBC's "Today" show a third vaccine becoming available "is nothing but good news" and would help control the pandemic. U.S. regulators announced Wednesday that Johnson & Johnson's single-dose vaccine offers strong protection against severe COVID-19. It's expected to be approved soon by the FDA.

Fauci warns people not to hold off on getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while waiting for the slightly more effective two-dose Pfizer or Moderna shots.

He says it's a race "between the virus and getting vaccines into people" and "the longer one waits not getting vaccinated, the better chance the virus has to get a variant or a mutation."

Fauci says public health officials are always concerned about virus variants and stressed following public health measures of wearing masks and social distancing.

The predominant coronavirus variant in the United States is from Britain. Fauci says the vaccines distributed in the U.S. "clearly can take care of that particular strain."

1 p.m.
NCDHHS on Thursday reported 3,351 new COVID-19 cases in the state.

1,498 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. 171 confirmed patients were admitted in the last 24 hours.

The percent of positive tests is at 4.5 percent.

The number is a drop from previous days, but an increase in tests was also reported in the last 24 hours, which could lead to a sharper decline in the percentage.

11,137 people have died in North Carolina from COVID-19 since last March.

835,244 people in North Carolina have received both doses of the vaccine.

12:45 p.m.
Sampson County reports 49 new cases for a total of 6,819 positive test results. One additional death was reported for a county total of 91.

There is a drive-through vaccination clinic planned Saturday for childcare and grade-school employees at the Sampson County Expo Center from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. This is a first-dose vaccination event. Participants are encouraged to bring their teacher IDs or another form of employee identification. Vaccines will be available as supply allows.

11 a.m.
Two separate teams of researchers said this week they have found a worrying new coronavirus variant in New York City and elsewhere in the Northeast that carries mutations that help it evade the body's natural immune response -- as well as the effects of monoclonal antibody treatments.

Genomics researchers have named the variant B.1.526. It appears in people affected in diverse neighborhoods of New York City, they said, and is "scattered in the Northeast."

10:30 a.m.
There's new evidence that connects testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies from prior infection with a significantly lower risk of becoming infected again in the future.

A study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine on Wednesday, found that people who tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies were at a decreased risk of coronavirus infection compared with those who tested negative for antibodies.

THURSDAY MORNING HEADLINES
High School football returns to the Triangle on Thursday night after an extended absence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leesville Road High School is hosting Cardinal Gibbons High School at 6:30 p.m. in the ABC11 Game of the Week.

Student-athletes and fans in the stands will be required to wear masks at all times. There will be fans in the stands, but for now, it will only be the immediate family of players on the home team.

That is a Wake County Public School System policy. However, it's unclear if that policy will be adjusted as the season moves forward--especially in light of Gov. Roy Cooper's decision to ease some COVID-19 restrictions starting Friday.

SEE MORE: Details behind Gov. Roy Cooper's rollback of COVID-19 restrictions

Cooper's decision means Caniacs will be back at PNC Arena soon. The Carolina Hurricanes will be allowed to host about 2,800 fans at home games under the new restrictions.

Team President Don Waddell said that won't give the teams a major boost financially, but it is a significant moral victory.

"We want to prove to everybody and make sure that we do everything in a very safe manner," Waddell said. "But more importantly, for our customers to feel like they're being watched out for. So they feel that they can come back to the hockey game and enjoy it without having to worry about it."

Duke University said it plans to finish the season without any spectators inside Cameron Indoor Stadium.

UNC Athletics Director Bubba Cunningham welcomed the new guidelines. He said the university is working on ways to safely bring fans back to games. He said the university would place a priority on getting family, friends, students and Rams Club members into the Dean E. Smith Center.

One of the largest crowds in North Carolina will be at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day Weekend. The large outdoor venue will be allowed to fill 30 percent of the seats.

Meanwhile, the peak of the 2020-2021 flu season features a stark decrease in infections as compared to previous years.

Flu cases and hospitalizations are the lowest they've been in decades. Experts say mask-wearing and social distancing related to COVID-19 precautions are the main reason for the low flu numbers.

WEDNESDAY
7:15 p.m.
K-12 teachers and daycare workers in Cumberland County received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday at the Crown Complex.

The Cumberland County Department of Public Health held their vaccine clinic drive for this new group along with Groups 1 and 2.

Stephanie Terrell, a Cumberland County teacher, signed up online on Wednesday morning and was able to get an appointment later that afternoon, adding, "I was anxious to get it, um, because I do work with children and, you know, that contact. So, I wanted to be safe for myself as well as the children."

A similar experience for Cumberland County substitute teacher Cecilia Dean who said, "They just came to my car and gave it to me in my car, and I never got out; it was really quick."

County officials at the arena say around 50 percent of Wednesday's appointments were made up of teachers and daycare workers like Terrell and Dean. The others were frontline health care workers or residents 65 years or older.

In a Monday Zoom interview with Dr. Jennifer Green, the Director of the CCDPH, she told ABC11 that they were seeing fewer people in Groups 1 and 2 who need the vaccine.

"We've seen the demand for our 65 and older group drop off a little bit. We still know there are many more that still need to get vaccinated," Green said.

Dean tells ABC11 she is eager to receive the second dose and see her students for the first time in nearly a year.

"I'm excited. I'm very excited. I want to see the children, and I want to see my coworkers," Dean added.

The county health department will hold another vaccination clinic on Friday.

5:15 p.m.
Durham Public Schools said that in partnership with the Durham County Department of Public Health, Duke Health, and others. more than 200 teachers and other employees have received their first shots of the COVID-19 vaccine.

5:02 p.m.
Nash County Public Schools has partnered with the Nash County Health Department to host two COVID-19 vaccine clinics for school employees who elect to get vaccinated.

There are currently 1,100 employees signed up to receive their vaccination. The first clinic will be held March 5 for staff members whose last names begin with A through K and all staff members who are age 65 or older. The remaining staffers whose last names begin with L through Z will be vaccinated during the second clinic on March 12.

Only NCPS employees will be eligible to receive their vaccination at these clinics. Registered Nash County Public School staff will receive their vaccinations in a drive-through clinic at Nash Central High School.

4:44 p.m.
The Halifax County Health Department reports 17 new cases for a total of 4,943 positive COVID-19 cases. The death toll remains at 95 countywide -- 1.9% of cases.

3:30 p.m.
A bill that would require school districts to offer summer school programs to aid kids who struggled to learn during the pandemic is on its way to North Carolina Senate floor for debate.

House Bill 82, also known as Summer Learning Choice for NC Families, was met with unanimous approval (120-0) by the state House of Representatives on Wednesday.

So far, the bill has been met with bipartisan approval from state lawmakers.

3 p.m.
More than 2,000 Johnston County Public School employees received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on the first day that the vaccine were available to North Carolina educators.

The drive-through clinic, located at North Johnston High School, was a coordinated effort with Johnston County schools and health officials.

The event ran from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

2 p.m.

Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday announced significant rollbacks of restrictions on businesses and other venues, as the rates of COVID19 hospitalizations, deaths and positive cases continue to drop and stabilize across the state.

Specifically, Cooper officially lifted his modified Stay-At-Home closing non-essential businesses like gyms, restaurants, and retail, at 10 p.m. nightly. That order, signed in the wake of the Thanksgiving and Christmas surge, also slapped a 9 p.m. curfew on alcohol sales.

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Governor Roy Cooper on Wednesday announced significant rollbacks of restrictions on businesses and other venues.



"This is a huge, hard-fought win," said the North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association President Zack Medford. "The lessening of these restrictions would never have been possible without the tireless efforts of NCBATA members and allies for the past 343 days. We look forward to continuing to build on this success with the Governor's Office, and helping get our bar and taverns back on their feet after such a devastating year."

READ MORE: Cooper's full executive order (.pdf)

NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said that tracking metrics are improving but she urged caution as variant strains of the coronavirus emerge.

"With those new COVID variants, we need to keep our guard up," Cohen said.

Cohen said new cases are trending down since a peak in January.

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Dr. Mandy Cohen talks about improving COVID-19 metrics but urges continued caution.



"New case rates are back down to levels where they were in October," Cohen said.

Hospitalizations are also trending downward, Cohen said, but she warned that they remain high.

12:30 p.m.
North Carolina health officials are reporting 3,346 new COVID-19 cases. This brings the total to 849,630 statewide since the pandemic began.

Throughout the state, 109 more people have died from the virus. Now, 11,074 people in North Carolina have died from COVID-19.

With 97 percent of hospitals reporting, there are 33 fewer COVID-19 patients in North Carolina hospitals. In total, 1,530 remain hospitalized with the virus.

NCDHHS data said 180 confirmed COVID-19 patients were admitted in the past 24 hours.

11 a.m.
During the State of Agriculture address, Commissioner Steve Troxler said: "We are going to have a State Fair. Everybody take the vaccine when it's available to you and let's have the biggest State Fair ever." He also said that COVID-19 has challenged farmers but: "Together we're going to build a strong future for agriculture and that's what we do every day."

10:07 a.m.
Sens. Todd Johnson (R-Union), Danny Britt (R-Robeson), and Vickie Sawyer (R-Iredell) will hold a press conference at 10 a.m. with parent-advocates whose petition urging an increase in attendance limits at outdoor high school sporting events garnered 45,000 signatures.







8 a.m.
President Joe Biden is preparing to sign an executive order to review U.S. supply chains for large-capacity batteries, pharmaceuticals, critical minerals and semiconductors that power cars, phones, military equipment and other goods.

The shortage of PPE amid the COVID-19 outbreak, for example, exposed the fragility of the nation's vital supply chains.

5:45 a.m.
Long lines are expected at North Johnston High School as more than 2,000 teachers, principals and other staff receive their COVID-19 vaccines. The appointment-only event begins at 8 a.m.

Have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine? Send them to us here
WEDNESDAY MORNING HEADLINES
Wake County Public Health will hold a mass COVID-19 vaccination event for teachers, educators and other school staff. This will include Groups 1 and 2, plus 400 people in Group 3.

The County Health Department believes there are an estimated 50,000 people in the Pre-K through 12 and childcare setting population they will likely get to. This also includes people who may be signed up on more than one list.

Gov. Roy Cooper could ease COVID-19 restrictions as trends improve across North Carolina. He is scheduled to hold a news conference at 2 p.m.

The state's stay-at-home order is set to expire on Sunday, Feb. 28.

11 p.m.

On the eve before North Carolina educators are able to get a COVID-19 vaccine, ABC11 spoke with a UNC doctor who helps run the clinics ready to administer shots to the next group of eligibility.

Dr. Sachin Gupta of the UNC Physicians Network manages clinics outside of the Friday Center including four in Wake County. Gupta is excited to enter the next phase but still foresees supply chain issues.

"We are not having problems putting vaccines into arms, just the biggest challenge is getting that supply and part of it is the weather," said Gupta. "It's not only about the adults it's for the kids as well and being able to get them back into school is critical.

Gupta says he believes more people will become less leery of getting a shot as more people get vaccinated.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that the tide is starting to shift a little bit. As we start to get more and more people vaccinated, we're hearing good results. People seemed a little leery of the side effects. We've seen those numbers be really low so I feel more people are getting comfortable with this," said Gupta.

7:30 p.m.
Nearly 100 vaccine providers in North Carolina reported discarding COVID-19 doses, according to records the ABC11 I-Team obtained from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services .

Of the 1.8 million doses the state has administered, 2,346 doses (0.1%) were deemed unusable as of Feb. 18.

Vaccine providers attribute the waste to shipping issues, lack of patients, refrigeration problems and user errors.

1:45 p.m.
1,514 new COVID-19 cases were reported on Tuesday.

That's the lowest number of new cases this month but tests completed were also lower than average in the last 24 hours.

1,563 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-10 in the state. That number has been declining since January.

Still, 139 confirmed COVID-19 patients were admitted in the last 24 hours.

31 more deaths were reported Tuesday, bringing the total to 10,965 since the start of the pandemic.

1:19 p.m.
The Halifax County Health Department reported nine new cases for a total of 4,943 positive COVID 19 cases. There have been 95 deaths countywide -- 1.9% of cases.

1 p.m.
Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky addressed the National Forum on the COVID-19 vaccine and shared that more than 44 million people in the United States have now received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot. Walensky also said that 75 million vaccine doses have been delivered and some 64 million vaccine doses have been administered so far.

"More than 75 million vaccine doses have been delivered, and approximately 64 million doses have been administered. This represents more than 44 million people who have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. And approximately 20 million people who were vaccinated receiving two doses," Dr. Walensky said.

12:21 p.m.
The Orange County Health Department said it will work with the two public school systems, private and charter schools and childcare providers within the county to develop a plan to vaccinate eligible staff. More information about the process will be available soon on the Orange County website.

Orange County continues to register people in Groups 1 and 2 (healthcare workers and long-term care providers and anyone 65 or older). The county will announce its plans for registering the other essential frontline workers from Group 3 soon.

11:54 a.m.
The Sampson County Health Department said it has 39 new cases of COVID-19 for a total of 6,770. One additional death was reported for a total of 90.

Sampson County is holding a drive-thru vaccination clinic for second dose administration on Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Sampson County Expo Center.

Second dose administration is guaranteed for those persons 65 and older who received their first dose vaccine on Jan. 23.

On Saturday, there will be a drive-thru vaccination clinic for childcare and grade-school employees from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Sampson County Expo Center

This is a first dose vaccination event for childcare and grade-school employees. Participants are encouraged to bring their teacher IDs or another form of employee identification. Vaccines will be available as supply allows.

11:05 a.m.
With COVID-19 numbers decreasing across North Carolina and vaccine distribution increasing, a group representing bars and taverns in the state has formally asked Gov. Roy Cooper to allow bars to reopen and end the stay-at-home curfew.

"We're not asking to go back to business as usual," said Zack Medford, president of the N.C. Bar and Tavern Association. "We're just asking for Gov. Roy Cooper to turn the dimmer switch up a notch. We're asking him to allow bars to operate at 30 percent capacity inside, and let them serve until 11 p.m. We can do it safely. We can do it wearing masks, and we can do it socially distant."

NCBATA released a proposal back in September with guidelines for reopening bars safely. The proposal calls for all bars to require masks, social distancing and capacity restrictions.

"No one knows better than bar owners that this pandemic is an immediate threat to our community and that we must all do our part to help stop the spread of Covid19," said Medford. "Bar owners know the stakes, and are willing to follow this guidance to the absolute best of their ability."

9 a.m.
A year into the coronavirus pandemic, doctors and researchers are still striving to better understand and treat the epidemic of COVID-19-related anosmia - loss of smell - draining much of the joy of life from an increasing number of long-term sufferers.

One doctor slid a miniature camera into a patient's right nostril, making her whole nose glow red with its bright miniature light.
"Tickles a bit, eh?" he asked as tears welled in her eyes.

But the patient, Gabriella Forgione, wasn't complaining. The 25-year-old pharmacy worker was happy to be examined at the hospital in Nice, in southern France, to advance her increasingly pressing quest to recover her sense of smell. Along with her sense of taste, it suddenly vanished when she fell ill with COVID-19 in November and neither has returned.

Being deprived of the pleasures of food and the scents of things that she loves are proving tough on her body and mind, causing her to lose weight and self-confidence.

"Sometimes I ask myself, 'Do I stink?'" she confessed. "Not being able to smell bothers me greatly."

Some doctors are concerned that growing numbers of smell-deprived patients, many of them young, could be more prone to depression, cognitive issues and other difficulties.

8 a.m.
Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson says it will be able to provide 20 million U.S. doses of its single-shot COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March, assuming it gets the green light from federal regulators.

J&J disclosed the figure ahead of a Congressional hearing on Tuesday looking at the country's vaccine supply. White House officials cautioned last week that initial supplies of J&J's vaccine would be limited.

The company reiterated that it will have the capacity to provide 100 million vaccine doses to the U.S. by the end of June. That supply will help government officials reach the goal of having enough injections to vaccinate most adult Americans later this year. On a global scale, the company aims to produce 1 billion doses this year.

U.S. health regulators are still reviewing the safety and effectiveness of the shot and a decision to allow its emergency use is expected later this week. J&J's vaccine would be the first in the U.S. that requires only a single shot.

Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses spaced weeks apart. Executives from both companies and two other vaccine makers will also testify at Tuesday's hearing.

7 a.m.
The Food and Drug Administration said Monday that it won't require huge, months-long studies if COVID-19 vaccines eventually need tweaking to better match a mutating virus -- small, short studies will suffice.

The vaccines now being rolled out do still protect against different variants of the virus, the FDA stressed. But viruses mutate constantly, and some new versions are starting to raise concerns. So FDA issued new guidelines for vaccines -- as well as for virus tests and treatments -- on steps that companies can start taking to get ready.

"We're trying to be prepared in advance," said Dr. Peter Marks, the FDA's vaccine chief.

Already major manufacturers have started updating their vaccine recipes if regulators eventually decide that's necessary.

Marks said the needed tests would include a few hundred people rather than thousands and could take just two or three months. Volunteers would receive experimental doses of the tweaked vaccine and then have their blood checked to see if it revved up the immune system about as well as the original vaccines do.

6:25 a.m.
Durham City Council is organizing a virtual town hall to reach out to immigrants and refugees with information about COVID-19 and the vaccine.

The event will begin at 7 p.m. and last approximately 2 hours. Its agenda was set by community members in order to get answers about the pandemic from local elected leaders.

The round table event will be broadcast in three different languages simultaneously.

For English, click here.

For Spanish, click here.

For Arabic, click here.

TUESDAY MORNING HEADLINES
With COVID-19 numbers improving across the United States and in North Carolina, many people are wondering when business restrictions will be lifted.

The current stay at home order in North Carolina is set to end on Feb. 28. The order was put in place Dec. 22 and then extended in January.

But daily cases and the percent positive rate at the time were much higher than they are now. Plus, the state's county alert map now shows 27 counties with critical community spread of the virus--the lowest number since the creation of the map.

Gov. Roy Cooper has not announced when, or if, he'll give a COVID-19 update this week. However, we expect that he will do so sometime in the coming days.

On Wednesday, the state will begin offering COVID-19 vaccines to teachers and other school staff members. In Wake County, 10,000 school workers have already signed up for the waitlist.
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