Raw COVID-19 case numbers in NC might not matter as much anymore. Here’s why


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — We’re averaging more than 3,000 new COVID-19 cases each day in North Carolina.

But should those case numbers even matter as much anymore?

Maybe not, one expert says.

“I’m really moving away from getting obsessive about cases,” said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

“Cases are important, but they are only part of the story,” he added.

His point: One of the main goals all along has been to prevent the overcrowding of hospitals, intensive care units and emergency rooms. And the vaccines have been effective at lowering the risk of severe cases.

“If we all get mild cases of COVID-19, we are no longer in a crisis,” Wohl said. “It may not be what we want. But that’s what we get with common colds with other coronaviruses.

“If we’re in a situation where (hospital overcrowding is) not happening, we’re no longer in this crisis,” he added. “And we’re no longer going to have to do all the things we’re doing now.”

RTI International epidemiologist Dr. Pia MacDonald calls it a complicated concept, saying it reflects both the effectiveness of the vaccines and the shift from a pandemic to an endemic.

“So with that, the indicators that we’ve been watching early on in the pandemic, they do change in terms of importance,” she said.

Chatham County Public Health Director Mike Zelek says case numbers do have value when it comes to tracking spread, calling them a “piece of the puzzle.” 

But he does agree with Wohl’s larger points, saying the vaccines have changed things.

“The primary reason you get vaccinated, so you don’t get really sick and certainly so you don’t succumb to an illness,” Zelek said. “So I think it’s important to look at those metrics, like Dr. Wohl said.”

There were 1,371 people in hospitals with COVID-19 on Tuesday, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Of those, 350 were in intensive care — the most since Nov. 1.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says the unvaccinated account for about 80 percent of general COVID patients and 90 percent of those in ICUs.

MacDonald says giving COVID tests to everyone admitted to a hospital — no matter the reason for their admission — helps to measure just how prevalent the virus is in the community.

But there is a difference between someone who is in intensive care because of COVID-19, and another person who tests positive but was initially hospitalized for another reason.

“Understanding who has severe disease from COVID-19 is also important,” MacDonald said. “And that impacts on the giant influx of people related to COVID-19 in the ICU who are very, very sick.

“Now, understanding that number as in who is getting very, very sick from COVID-19, and who is ending up in the hospital, that is very important for understanding how effective the vaccine is moving forward with increasing number of variants that come into play,” she added.

Indeed, the new omicron variant could change things all over again.

“With the new variants coming in, understanding how that impacts on the cases is definitely of interest for public health,” MacDonald said. “Because again, it’s about transmission within the community and knowing how prevalent it is.”

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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