RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — With the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services confirming that there is community spread of COVID-19 across the state, Wake County is changing its strategy to fight the virus.

Community spread means there are COVID-19-positive residents who do not know where or how they became infected with the virus.

Specifically, these individuals did not travel to a high-risk location, nor did they have known close contact with an existing COVID-19-positive person.

“Now that North Carolina has community transmission of the virus, we are moving to a community-based mitigation strategy aimed at decreasing the spread, especially among those most at risk of serious illness,” said Dr. Kim McDonald, Wake County medical director. “In this phase, testing and contact tracing are more focused than in the broad-based containment approach we executed early in the outbreak.”

Officials say under a new strategy, individuals and families who do not fall into an at-risk group but start to experience COVID-19 symptoms – fever, cough and difficulty breathing – should self-isolate for seven days after the onset of symptoms. If symptoms are mild, officials say they do not need testing.

Once the symptoms resolve, they should remain at home without fever for three more days.

If serious illness develops, they should call their primary care provider. If they have trouble breathing, they should call 9-1-1.  

In addition, the county will continue to monitor the at-risk people it tests. The county will no longer monitor cases in the public at large.

County officials say mitigation efforts will help to slow the spread of the virus and allow us to better prepare for COVID-19’s impact on vulnerable populations and the healthcare system.

The county says the purpose of the initial approach was to pinpoint where in the county COVID-19 was occurring and try to contain the spread.

Now that the county knows the virus has spread throughout the county, it must begin conserving resources such as personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and direct testing to those more likely to become seriously ill.

As a result, starting today, the county will reserve its tests and protective gear for two main groups of people if they become symptomatic:

  • Seniors ages 65 and older and people with underlying health conditions. They will be among the first to be tested, because they are most at risk of experiencing serious illness if they contract the virus.
  • First responders and healthcare workers. They are on the frontlines of this situation, and if they are infected, the county doesn’t want them spreading COVID-19 to anyone else. Conversely, if they test negative for the virus, they can return sooner to their important jobs caring for and protecting our residents.

By shifting to a new strategy, the county is able to preserve limited protective equipment and test kits for groups at highest risk of contracting the virus and experiencing significant health impacts such as hospitalization, organ failure or death.

The new approach also enables the county to help protect the community’s healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed, so local hospitals can continue to treat only those who need critical care.

“While our strategy to fight COVID-19 is changing, health and safety recommendations for the public are not,” said Dr. McDonald. “Residents should keep practicing social distancing, washing their hands often and staying home while sick. We’re all in this together, and every precaution taken helps prevent the virus from spreading further.”

Businesses and community organizations allowed to remain open are encouraged to alter work practices and schedules to protect at-risk populations. Some options to consider include teleworking, staggering shift work, extending spring breaks and conducting health screenings. 

People should avoid nursing homes, assisted living centers and long-term care facilities. Starting March 25, they cannot allow visitors per Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order.