‘A really important crossroads’: Why health experts are concerned about another winter COVID-19 surge

Coronavirus

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Cases of COVID-19 are rising in more than half the country.

But not in North Carolina — at least, not yet.

Instead, our numbers have plateaued, although at levels that many public health experts still consider too high. And with Thanksgiving a week away — and with people expected to gather indoors for holiday gatherings over the next six weeks — many of those experts are concerned about the possibility of yet another winter surge.

“We’re certainly planning that there might be an increase again,” said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease expert at the Duke University School of Medicine.

North Carolina averaged about 1,770 new cases per day over the past week, and that weekly average has been stuck in a relatively tight range between the high 1,600s and the high 1,700s for the past two weeks.

That came after it dropped on 50 days in a row by an average of 110 cases per day as the summertime delta surge faded.

“It would seem that we’re plateauing at a place that leaves us prone to going back up again,” Wolfe said.

And while a plateau certainly sounds good in theory — after all, those case counts aren’t going up anymore — there is also significant a downside: They’re not falling, either.

“When we see a plateau, there is a concern that we’re not doing enough as a community that our behaviors are not driving that continuous reduction of cases,” said Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

“I think it represents a really important crossroads for guys to think about our choices and our behavior as we head forward knowing that with other plateaus, that this could turn upwards if we aren’t careful,” she said.

Public health experts point to early December — in the weeks after Thanksgiving — as the time when the next surge could show up.

“Because if you think back to last year, that was around the point when things started heading back up again,” Wolfe said.

The good news: Another surge shouldn’t be nearly as deadly as the one last winter — or the one this past summer.

Vaccines didn’t become widely available until after the surge last winter ended. Now, 60 percent of all North Carolinians have had at least one shot and others have recovered after catching COVID-19.

And the most recent update from NCDHHS showed nearly a million booster doses had been given as of Nov. 8, which should help fortify the immunity of those who might otherwise be at risk of a breakthrough infection. 

About 1.7 percent of the state’s 5.5 million fully vaccinated people have reported a breakthrough infection, according to NCDHHS.

“I think we’ll follow similar trends as last year this time, but the peaks will not be as high and the deaths will absolutely not be as high,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, an epidemiologist at RTI International.

But Sickbert-Bennett says there’s one group that could feel the worst of the next surge — and it’s the same group that felt it during the delta spike.

“There’s no doubt that the hardest hit in our community will be those individuals who are not vaccinated,” she said. “So if we experience another surge, it will absolutely be devastating for individuals who are still in the community who have not been vaccinated.”


CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.


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