RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — COVID-19 cases are on the way up again in North Carolina.

The number of people in hospitals is not.

Those two numbers — linked so tightly during the first two years of the pandemic — appear to have become decoupled, and if that trend holds up, doctors say it can only be considered a significant positive.

“This time, we’re cautiously optimistic that we may not be seeing it quite in that pattern,” said Dr. Erica Pettigrew, a family medicine physician and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

It went like clockwork so many times since 2020: Cases would rise, followed a couple of weeks later by the total number of patients in hospitals.

“That’s the trend that we’re typically used to,” Pettigrew said Friday.

But it doesn’t appear to be happening now.

As the BA.2 “stealth” omicron variant has become the dominant strain across North Carolina and the U.S., those case numbers have ticked back up, with the daily average more than doubling since the end of March. 

The most recent case count from the state Department of Health and Human Services from April 16 showed North Carolina averaging 1,040 new cases per day during the previous day — about 2 1/2 times the average of 399 on March 28.

And that rise in cases surely would be higher except that more people than ever are testing at home, and those results are rarely reported to public health officials.

“We absolutely know it’s an undercount,” Pettigrew said.

But there's no way to undercount the number of people hospitalized — yet during that time the running total has dipped slightly and can best be described as flat.

“We have not seen, reassuringly, a significant jump in the numbers of hospitalized patients yet,” said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at the Duke University School of Medicine.

So why aren’t those new cases showing up at our hospitals?

There are a few reasons, from the effectiveness of the vaccines at preventing severe cases to the number of those who recovered from previous infections to the increasing availability of treatments.

Pettigrew says those vaccination rates in particular have been key.

“That really seems to be the biggest thing in our favor,” she said. “The counties where we have very large vaccination rates, the states where a lot of people are vaccinated, that is really helping us in making sure that people don't get severely sick and need hospitalization from this strain.”

Pettigrew says it’s still a bit early, and she’ll feel better if the trend holds up for at least a few more weeks.

“There’s still some time for that trend to rear its ugly head again,” she said.

Could this decoupling make any future surges easier to handle as well?

“We always hesitate to predict what what the next variant is going to bring,” Pettigrew said. “But this is certainly promising.”


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.