In July, North Carolina saw its percentage of positive tests jump to 10, even 11% on some days. However, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said through concerted efforts and observation of prevention techniques, the state has been able to bring that number down.
"We've really seen over the last number of weeks that percent positive has come down close to 5%," Cohen said. "We haven't dipped below, but we're right at it. So that's good. We're making progress. So I'm really appreciative to everyone doing the hard work of what it takes to get there."
Cohen credited the decrease to North Carolinians following the "3 W's" of wearing a face covering, waiting 6 feet apart and washing hands frequently and state efforts to ramp up testing. But she added that without continued efforts on both fronts, metrics could increase again.
"You can see how much hard work it has taken to get close to 5%," Cohen said. "It takes hard work to stay there as well."
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And Cohen added that 5% is a goal, but not the destination. She would like to see that number drop below 1% eventually, like in New York State.
Earlier in the pandemic, New York saw its hospital systems become overwhelmed as the governor took swift action to shut down the state and implement a mask mandate. For the last 30 days, however, the state has seen its percentage of positive cases stay below 1%.
"I'm hoping we can learn lessons from the Northeast or from the rest of the South that saw those real tensions with their healthcare systems," Cohen said. "I don't want to ever get to that place."
During a Tuesday news conference, Cohen said North Carolina has the lowest percentage of positive tests in the southeast region. According to their respective state dashboards, Tennessee and Virginia are reporting about 6% positive tests. Georgia is reporting a rate twice North Carolina's, and South Carolina is reporting a rate 3 times as high.
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"I think the biggest difference between North Carolina and some of the other states is honestly the mask mandate," Cohen said. "I think the other has been our measured approach to easing restrictions. We wanted to go slow."
However, she said North Carolina's rate isn't as low as some Northeastern states like Massachusetts and Vermont because they have kept restrictions in place even longer.
"They have kept a tighter rein on some of the activities, despite the fact that they are at lower levels of viral spread, because I think they understand that it takes continued effort to keep the virus level low. It's not just about achieving the low level of virus, you have to maintain it."
And within the state, the same dichotomies are playing out between urban and rural areas. While counties in the Triangle are seeing percent positive rates below 5%, other areas, like the Sandhills and Eastern North Carolina, are seeing their percent positive rates hover between 6 and 10%. Robeson County is still reporting 12.4% positive tests.
"I think a lot of folks were saying, 'oh, this is spreading more in urban areas,' but I think the data really speaks to the fact that our rural areas are also seeing a significant amount of viral spread. Just because there's not a lot of people around doesn't mean this virus isn't spreading in rural areas."
Cohen said many of the state's rural areas tend to be heavy in agriculture businesses and meat packing, where employees have trouble social distancing and can spread the virus more easily.
And while she said a test cannot prevent the spread of COVID-19, she said face coverings and social distancing can dampen the amount of virus in communities, and she has hopes that North Carolina will continue to be a model for other states.
"I want to be the best and we have work to do to get there, but we are really doing quite well when you look at our region," Cohen said. "I'm proud of that work, but I know it's been hard and I know every North Carolinian has been working hard at it as well."