RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Some of North Carolina’s key COVID-19 metrics are starting to show glimmers of improvement.
The average number of new cases has dropped to its lowest level in nearly two weeks. And that figure fell 15 percent in just five days from a peak last Tuesday.
While those figures are still high overall, some experts are cautiously optimistic that those slight declines could mark the beginning of the end of the post-Christmas spike in new cases.
“Over the last handful of days, it looks like things may be plateauing, or starting to come down,” said Paul Delamater, an expert in health geography at the UNC Chapel Hill and one of the leaders of the nc-covid.org project that has been tracking coronavirus data throughout the pandemic.
“But it’s hard to know what’s going to happen a few days or even a week from now,” he added.
The state Department of Health and Human Services did not update its COVID-19 dashboard Monday due to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.
The seven-day rolling average of new cases dipped to 7,350 — its lowest level since it was at 7,074 on Jan. 6.
It peaked at 8,654 on Jan. 12 — which was the last day the seven-day period in its sample size included all three days when at least 10,000 new cases were reported as part of the spike that followed significant COVID-19 spread during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
“What I saw was a Thanksgiving spike, and then it never really went back down, and it felt like to me like the surge in Christmastime infections just kind of built on,” Delamater said.
The daily case count has fallen daily for each of the past three days it was reported.
Dr. Joseph Rogers of the Duke Clinical Research Institute also pointed to drops in the daily test positivity rate — the percent of tests on a specific day that are found to be positive — and in the number of people visiting emergency departments with COVID-like symptoms.
The test positivity rates have been in the 10-11 percent range in each of the past four days it has been measured, according to DHHS. It had been higher than 13 percent on every day since Dec. 26.
Increases in those leading indicators are often the first warning signs that a spike is imminent.
“So as a leading indicator of what’s going on in the community, I think that there is a signal that we should be optimistic,” Rogers said.
And the effective reproductive number — or R number, the average number of people a COVID-19 diseased person will infect — has dipped to its lowest levels of the pandemic in North Carolina.
A figure higher than 1 indicates exponential spread while a drop below 1 means it’s possible the spread can be controlled.
According to r-t.live, which tracks the reproductive number, it dipped below 1 in the state in late December and was at 0.96 on Saturday — one of its lowest levels of the pandemic.
But there’s a difference between leading indicators and lagging indicators like hospitalizations and deaths, which don’t show up in the data until weeks or months after a trigger event.
And while hospitalizations have shown day-over-day declines on four of the past five days they’ve been reported — the first time that’s happened since late October — they’re still at levels that worry Rogers and Delamater.
The state most recently reported 3,862 hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Sunday, a drop of 130 from the single-day record of 3,992 set last Thursday. Hospitals across the state were still at 76 percent capacity, with a quarter of those patients hospitalized with COVID-19.
“We still have very high numbers of COVID patients that have gotten sick enough that they require in-hospital care,” Rogers said. “And we have not seen that number begin to trend back down yet, and that’s sort of what we would expect.”
And it’s all relative. Some numbers that are considered low in January — 6,000 cases per day, for example — would have been frighteningly high just a few months ago, leading to a concern about desensitization to those figures.
Delamater says that, coupled with the fatigue of a 10th month of following social distancing guidelines and avoiding crowds, is worrisome.
He’s urging North Carolinians to maintain their focus and trust that the vaccination process will speed up fast enough.
“The vaccine rollout has been a little slow, but it is getting out there and I was so happy to see that the state put out new guidelines and simplified things,” Delamater said. “I do think ours was a great plan, but it was a little complicated, so seeing those new simplified guidelines for vaccination actually made me quite happy, because I think that gets more shots in people’s arms and it gets us back to normal faster.”
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.