COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in North Carolina’s rural counties

Nearly twice as many of the state’s new COVID-19 cases since September were in rural counties rather than urban or suburban counties, says a new report the state Department of Health and Human Services released Thursday.

Most of the rural cases were in the white population and among people 49 years old and younger, the report said.

New cases and hospitalizations are increasing around the world and setting records in North Carolina.

DHHS says the state’s increases in COVID-19 cases are fueled by community spread.

Despite increased COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide, UNC Health is not considering going back to the policy it pursued earlier in the pandemic when its hospitals postponed elective surgeries to preserve supplies and keep beds available, spokesman Alan Wolf said in an interview.

The hospital system was treating 170 people with COVID-19 as inpatients one day this week, and most were not in ICUs, Wolf said.

“There is some concern as we look ahead. The projections do show higher numbers in the coming weeks, partly from the pandemic, partly from the flu. It’s going to be a busy time,” he said. “We’re not as worried about capacity. We’ve gotten a lot better at this.”

State officials are working to adjust as cold weather sets in and the holidays approach.

Thanksgiving is going to look a lot different in North Carolina for people who are used to big meals with friends and family, if they follow the state’s pandemic guidelines.

Indoor gatherings will be limited to 10 people, folks will be sitting apart from people they don’t live with, and conversations will be through masks.

And for the first time in the pandemic, state officials are suggesting that people get tested if they plan to travel, even if they don’t have symptoms or aren’t in a high-risk group.

DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen

Dr. Mandy Cohen, head of the NC Department of Health and Human Services,  said at a Thursday afternoon news conference that people traveling should consider getting a coronavirus test three or four days in advance. Gov. Roy Cooper’s office announced it was supplying college and universities with 74,470 rapid tests, paid for by the federal government, for students to use before they leave campus for the holidays.

Holiday gatherings, where people who don’t usually live together sit side-by-side indoors, are conditions where the coronavirus spreads easily.

“We have to approach those traditions very carefully,” Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett, director of Infection Prevention at UNC Medical Center, said during a UNC Health news conference Thursday morning.  “COVID transmission won’t halt for the holidays.”

It’s important to acknowledge that the holidays are going to look different this year, Crystal Schiller, clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the UNC Psychology Department, said at the morning news conference. Plan to emphasize the things that make the holiday special, she advised. Schiller said her family enjoys cooking together, so this year they’ll translate that tradition to Zoom.

Sickbert-Bennett said even people who test negative before traveling should still practice all the other safety precautions.

“A negative test only gives you information about a single point in time. It does not mean you will remain negative after that test. This can be very worrisome,” she said.

They’ve seen instances in the community and the hospital were testing has given people a false sense of security, leading them to dismiss COVID-19 symptoms because they had recently tested negative, she said.

“Don’t use that as a substitute for any other prevention measures,” she said.

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