RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Sharp increases in some of the key coronavirus metrics tracked by state leaders appear to line up with the transition to Phase Three of the reopening process.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases increased by 37 percent from Oct. 2 — the day the latest loosening of restrictions took effect — and Wednesday, while during that span that average in daily hospitalizations rose by nearly 30 percent.
Health experts at covidexitstrategy.org identified North Carolina as one of 32 states experiencing uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 with 194 new cases per day per million people and a 16 percent increase in cases over the past 14 days.
On the same day the state reached the milestones of 250,000 total cases and 4,000 deaths, Gov. Roy Cooper announced a three-week pause in Phase Three due to increases in both cases and hospitalizations.
Health officials have said it usually takes at least two weeks for specific events to show up in the data.
Epidemiologist Pia MacDonald of RTI International says the numbers reflect the loosening of those restrictions, with several factors related to that driving the rise.
“There is more opening up happening, and it’s people resuming their day to day activities,” she said. “There are daycares that are now opening, there are schools that are moving from distance-based to hybrid, there are people going to actual workplaces versus telecommuting, there’s more people moving around. There’s also the change in seasons.”
The seven-day average of daily cases was mostly flat during September, ranging in the 1300s before inching higher near the end of that month and into early October, with the average at 1,479.
Since then, it has steadily climbed, surging past 2,000 on Oct. 16 for the first time since mid-July and setting a high of 2,080 two days after that. That average was at 2,026 on Wednesday.
The two days with the most new cases reported took place last week, with a record 2,684 cases last Friday following 2,532 cases reported last Thursday.
The hospitalization numbers are also problematic, MacDonald said.
The seven-day rolling average of hospitalized patients was 925 on Oct. 2 but has also steadily risen over the past three weeks to a high of 1,161 on Wednesday. The 1,219 people in hospitals across the state Wednesday was the highest single-day total since July.
“The best indicator to look at for what’s happening right now is the hospitalizations,” MacDonald said, “and right now, the number of hospitalizations is increasing with each day.”
MacDonald wants another number to increase — the number of tests conducted.
Testing levels have been relatively flat, “and we need it to increase. As we open up, we need to do more and more testing,” she said.
DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said not all the metrics were as dire: She reported a drop in the number of people visiting emergency rooms across the state with COVID-like symptoms, and the percent positive — the percentage of tests that confirm a COVID infection — has been lower than it was during the last surge over the summer.
“We have to look at them in combination to understand how they influence each other,” Cohen said.