No spike, no drop in NC coronavirus cases: A closer look at the Memorial Day plateau

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — North Carolina appears to be passing its first big stress test after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, a data analysis found.

Two weeks after Memorial Day weekend, and — unlike what happened after many other holidays during the previous 14 months — new cases in the state have not spiked.

“So far, the case counts have been relatively calm,” said Dr. Erica Pettigrew, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “So, cautiously optimistic.”

Experts previously expected any bump to be small because enough people have been vaccinated. The state Department of Health and Human Services says 44 percent of all people across North Carolina have had at least one dose.

So far, at least, not even a minuscule bump has shown up. But the steady drop that was evident throughout May has been halted, too — leaving North Carolina’s numbers in another plateau.

The seven-day rolling average of statewide new cases has leveled off at just over 400 new cases per day over the past 10 days, with that average settling at 419 on Tuesday.

The plateau comes after that average dropped steadily over the previous month and a half, dropping 77 percent from April 18 to June 5 as the vaccines became more readily available across the state.

“We have not seen a significant spike, which is the good news,” Pettigrew said.

This plateau looks much different than the more problematic one that emerged in March — when the state averaged between 1,500 and 1,800 new cases each day for more than two weeks.

The average now is roughly a quarter of what it was then, and Pettigrew says the numbers may linger at this level until the stagnating vaccine numbers improve. The state averaged about 57,000 first doses each week over the past three weeks — roughly one-sixth of the average when vaccinations peaked in early April.

“This low-level, sort of a couple hundred cases a day, may likely continue unless we can really ratchet that (vaccination rate) up,” Pettigrew said.

Memorial Day was the first big test in the gradual return to normal, with the unofficial start to summer marking the first major holiday in more than a year without a mask mandate or distancing rules.

“We know that people are gathering more, we know that restrictions in general are being eased but we’re also seeing a lot more people vaccinated and that’s a good thing,” said Katie Galbraith, president of Duke Regional Hospital.

And at the county level, once again declining case rates continue to track with increasing vaccination rates.

During the two weeks immediately following the holiday weekend, the state had 12 counties with either no new cases or one for every 10,000 residents. In nine of them, at least 40 percent of residents had at least one shot.

Conversely, of the 15 counties with 12 or more new per capita cases, all but three had vaccination rates of less than 40 percent.

It comes down to one key question: Is an average of a few hundred new cases each day a neighborhood we want to live? Or is it worth the effort to push those numbers down even further through ramped-up vaccinations?

“It all comes down to our goals as a society,” Pettigrew said.

“We have to decide as a society if we are unwilling to get the vaccination rates up high enough to completely stamp it out,” she added. “Then essentially, we are saying that some level of morbidity and mortality from COVID infection is acceptable to us. And we just have to figure out what that looks like for our society.”

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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