New COVID-19 infections in North Carolina rose sharply Wednesday and hospitalizations continued their upward trend.
An infectious disease expert at Duke University told reporters that hospitalizations will continue to go up as more people who are newly infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 develop symptoms that require inpatient care.
“It’s baked into the system that the number is going to go up for at least a couple of weeks,” said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke Health and an associate professor at the Duke University School of Medicine.
Most new infections and hospitalizations are caused by the more contagious coronavirus delta variant. Wolfe said time between infection and symptoms is compressed with delta variant.
The state Department of Health and Human Services reported 2,633 new cases Wednesday, the highest daily number since last winter. Nearly 11% of COVID-19 tests were positive Monday. The optimum is 5% or less. More than 1,000 people with COVID-19 were in North Carolina hospitals on Tuesday, and 253 were adults in hospital ICUs.
The new wave of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations across the country pushed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday to recommend that people in areas with substantial or high viral spread wear masks in public indoor areas.
The CDC released a map of viral spread by county. Most North Carolina counties are in viral spread categories where the CDC is recommending masking.
Wolfe said it makes sense for everyone in North Carolina to follow the CDC advice on indoor masking because counties can easily cross the threshold into substantial viral spread.
“Masking is a simple thing,” he said. “It’s a pretty standard thing we should be able to do. I would be in favor of broadening it as wide as we can.”
On Wednesday, Duke University announced it would require masks in all of its buildings starting Friday because of the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in North Carolina.
Masks, however, like vaccinations, have become political.
The North Carolina House Republican caucus sent out a fundraising email after the CDC news conference on masks under a red BREAKING NEWS banner, claiming that President Joe Biden is about to issue a mask mandate.
“ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. We already went through this Covid Craziness once…North Carolina, are we going to accept it for a second time?” the email says before asking for donations to “maintain our freedoms.”
Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina attacked the mask recommendation on Twitter, saying it would lead to more vaccine hesitancy and government mask mandates.
“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 tweeted.
North Carolina and the rest of the country are nowhere near the vaccination goals set this spring. About 47% of North Carolinians are fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
David Montefiori, a Duke professor who has been studying the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against new variants, said there are lots of reasons for vaccine hesitancy and most are based on a lack of information or misinformation. He said he expects more people to get shots once the vaccines gain full approval from the Federal Drug Administration.
Wolfe said he could sympathize with what’s been called ‘mask fatigue’ but that it’s important to remain flexible as knowledge grows and health recommendations change.
“I think we’re all fatigued, to be honest, by lots of things over the last 18 months,” he said. “We are watching evolution in progress. And because of that, and because this is a new virus for us, this will continue to ebb and flow in ways that are hard for us to predict, try as we might.”
Patience with changing recommendations is important because the pandemic is not under control and mutations continue to evolve, he said.
“If we didn’t have flexibility, this would be much more difficult to control,” Wolfe said.