RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – While North Carolina’s COVID-19 state of emergency will end next month, health experts said the pandemic is not over and projected another rise in cases and hospitalizations as the Omicron subvariant BA.5 has become dominant in the United States.
Gov. Roy Cooper (D) is lifting the state of emergency on Aug. 15 after signing the state budget into law Monday, which included changes to state law that his administration sought to continue its pandemic response.
Dr. Julie Swann is an expert on health systems who leads a team at N.C. State University that has been modeling the impacts of COVID-19 on hospitals.
“The time period when I’m really expecting a bigger surge is more in the timeframe of August, September, even October. And, some of that surge is associated with the waning immunity from past recovery,” said Dr. Swann. “The very best defense that we have is to get people vaccinated and to continue doing that.”
While some patients in hospitals will test positive for COVID-19 even though that’s not the primary reason they’re there in the first place, Swann noted it still puts a burden on those hospitals as they
“We do need to be thinking about our hospital systems and whether they can handle that capacity, particularly if this surge does happen as we’re projecting and if it does happen in multiple states around the same time,” Dr. Swann said.
While North Carolina remains under state of emergency for another month, there have been no statewide restrictions in place for more than a year.
Dr. Pia MacDonald, an epidemiologist at RTI International, said with vaccines and treatments more widely available, the state is in a much different position that it was a year ago.
“We’re far ahead of where we were,” she said. “It’s not over by any stretch. But, we’re becoming more and more familiar from a medical standpoint and from a public health standpoint on how to best intervene.”
She said with young children eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s important to focus on improving the rate of vaccinations among kids more broadly.
“We’re at a point now where, to some extent, it is time to learn how to live with this disease as part of the disease portfolio that we deal with all the time,” she said. “The higher the vaccination rate is among children and then their siblings at home, the better we’re going to be able to mitigate a big surge in the fall.”
Gov. Cooper has decided to lift the emergency order more than two years after he first implemented it. North Carolina is among about a dozen states that still have statewide orders in place, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.
Earlier this year, officials at the NC Dept. of Health and Human Services asked the General Assembly for various regulatory changes to be put into state law, which would help to lift the state of emergency. They relate to: standing orders for vaccination, testing and treatments; healthcare licensure and regulation, particularly related to staffing; as well as asbestos management, lead abatement and renovation professionals.
Republicans in the General Assembly have been pushing for him to end the state of emergency much sooner.
“I think it’s a sigh of relief now that it’s over,” said Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett). “A cloud lifted off the state of North Carolina.”
As part of the budget that Cooper signed into law last year, there’s a process the Governor has to follow starting in 2023 in order to extend statewide emergencies longer than 30 days.
For that to happen, the Governor has to get concurrence from the Council of State, which is the group of 10 statewide elected officials, including the Governor. For a statewide emergency lasting longer than 60 days, the General Assembly would have to enact a law to extend it. Both the Council of State and General Assembly currently have Republican majorities.
“I trust the Governor to make an initial decision, but then after that I think you need wise counsel to decide if you’re gonna lock down a state for 30 to 45 days,” said Sen. Burgin. “Most of the time it’s never been an issue. This is the first time that I know of in North Carolina history that this something like this has happened. I hope it’s the only time it happens.”