By Richard Sullins |

Lee County reached it a milestone in its struggle against the COVID pandemic just three days before Christmas, on December 22. Before noon that day, Lee’s 10,000th confirmed case of the virus was reported to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

As sundown came on Tuesday, January 4, the county had reported 10,658 cases – on a pace to reach 12,000 since the pandemic began in mid-March of 2020. On November 22, Lee’s number of confirmed cases stood at 9,586 persons. In those 43 days, 1,072 new cases were reported.

The virus continues to have deadly impacts among Lee County’s population, now reaching 120 confirmed deaths. 14 of those have been reported in the six weeks since November 22. By comparison, no deaths from COVID were reported between October and November.

Each of the state’s 100 counties have relapsed into a ‘high level of community transmission’ of COVID since Thanksgiving as of Tuesday afternoon. That’s a major change from the days just before Americans gathered for the traditional turkey feast.

That is significant, because the Lee County Board of Education voted on November 9 to continue the mandate for face coverings necessary for all students, teachers, staff, and visitors until the county had gone for 10 consecutive days at a ‘moderate’ level of transmission. The board reaffirmed that policy at its most recent meeting on December 14 and will revisit the issue again at its first meeting of 2022 on January 11.

Since schools resumed in August, 597 students in the school district have tested positive for COVID infections, along with 107 members of the faculty and staff. Another 1,382 students and 40 staff have been quarantined due to exposure with someone who has tested positive for the virus. In just the first two days of this week, 19 students and 22 staff members have tested positive for COVID with the surge of the Omicron variant being reported across the country.

NCDHHS reports the percentage of tests in Lee County being returned with a positive result has increased by a factor of six what it was before Thanksgiving. Tuesday’s positive rate was reported to be 19 percent, more than six times higher than the 3.13 percent reported just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. As North Carolina ramps up testing, the number of positive test results also increases. Scientists tell us that a positivity rate of 5 percent or less is the target level needed to be reached to slow the spread of the virus.

The department also reports that as of Tuesday, 35,184 county residents ages 12 and up have received at least one dose of the vaccine and that 32,495 people are fully vaccinated.

But the COVID boosters that have been available since early fall have not caught on with the public yet. Heath Cain, Director of the Lee County Health Department, told The Rant that as of Tuesday, only 3,685 boosters have been given since they first became available in September. That’s about a tenth of the number of persons who have received at least one COVID immunization.

Cain said the Health Department will be providing booster vaccinations each Tuesday in January at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center from 9 to 11 am. It will also provide a Pfizer booster vaccination clinic for 12 to 15-year-olds on January 21 from 2 to 4 pm.

Omicron arrives for the holidays

The Delta variant of the virus was responsible for the Labor Day surge of COVID and now another, the Omicron variant, has now been reported in both Durham and Orange counties as of Wednesday. It’s the triple threat of Delta, Omicron, and the seasonal flu that has many health officials worried.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, former Secretary of DHHS, said in her final briefing on December 31 that Omicron is spreading at a speed that has made it the dominant strain in the state. Speaking from the state’s Emergency Operations Center, she said “we now have both Delta and Omicron side by side.”

Cohen stressed that the Omicron strain is spreading up to three times faster than the original version of the virus and will likely cause medical clinics and hospitals to be completely overrun during January and February. A recent study by a modeling team made up of scientists from UNC, N.C. State, and Georgia Tech has predicted hospitalizations alone could blow past the records set in January 2021 during the worst of the pandemic.

The study said that if the use of booster shots doesn’t increase significantly, the number of persons hospitalized with COVID infections could triple or even quadruple. The group said boosters, widespread testing, and continued use of masks could reduce the impacts of the expected winter surge.

Health Department addressing test shortage

As people began to travel over the holiday season to visit with families and friends, and as colleges announced plans for mandatory testing when students return for their spring semesters in January, testing kits began selling out across the county.

But the Lee County Health Department is prepared to address those scarcities. Cain said the county has enough tests in stock to meet forecasted needs.

“We are providing COVID-19 testing Monday and Friday afternoons from 1 to 3 p.m., and also on Wednesday mornings from 9 until 11 a.m., except holidays,” Cain said. “We are asking Lee County residents to please call 919-842-5744 to register to be tested. We are accepting walk-ins but prefer registering to expedite the testing process.”

COVID testing in Lee County began on Tuesday morning.

CDC updates testing, isolation guidelines

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday issued revised guidelines that are intended to shorten the periods of isolation for persons who wish to take a COVID test and get a positive result.

The new CDC guidelines provide that, for people who have access to a test and want to see if they have the virus, their best recommendation is to do so near the end of the five day isolation period. If the test results in a positive outcome, the isolated persons should remain in isolation until five more days have passed after their symptoms started. If, after a second test, the result is negative, the isolation may end but the person should still wear a mask in public around other people until day 10.

If that all sounds confusing, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky tried to put things into perspective Monday night during an appearance on CBS-TV’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Walensky said “if you have access to a test, and if you want to do a test at day five, and if your symptoms are gone and you’re feeling well, then go ahead and do that test.”

“But here’s how I would interpret that test,” she continued. “If it’s positive, stay home for another five days. If it’s negative, I would say you still really need to wear a mask. You still may have some transmissibility ahead of you. You still should probably not visit grandma. You shouldn’t get on an airplane. And you should still be pretty careful when you’re with other people by wearing a mask all the time.”

Additional details are coming “soon” on a plan to allow Americans to request free test kits online from the federal government, the White House said Tuesday. The Departments of Defense and Health and Human Services are already working on an “accelerated contracting timeline,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in an afternoon press briefing on Tuesday.

Psaki said the contracts to provide the free tests to the military and civilian populations will be finalized and signed before the end of the week.

“We’re on track to start seeing movement on some of the awards through the RFP this week. So, the first delivery for manufacturers will start later this month. That’s our expectation,” she continued. Once the tests are in hand, she said, the website will come online.

Cain believes we don’t have to look far to find the reasons behind the most recent surge.

“We know that many individuals spent time with family and friends over the holidays. I feel this is the primary reason for the spike in cases because the potential to spread the virus is higher in a closed environment and it would be challenging to maintain the 3 w’s [wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distance],” he said. “This increase in cases we have recently seen creates challenges for our family and friends because others are potentially exposed now due to the transmissibility of the virus. We all want each other to be healthy and we must make sure to protect ourselves and each other by practicing the three w’s and test ourselves when we feel we may be symptomatic. If one is symptomatic, stay home until your health has improved. Knowledge is key to protect ourselves and others.”