The problem with a plateau: Why officials are watching NC’s leveling of COVID-19 cases

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The average COVID-19 case counts in North Carolina have leveled off after dropping steadily for weeks.

Public health officials are keeping a watchful eye on a plateau that could turn into a problem.

“We need to keep an eye on this,” state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said earlier this week.

And Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, has compared plateaus at the national level to a “holding pattern.”

The state’s seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases was at 1,723 on Thursday, according to a analysis of DHHS data. It’s the 17th consecutive day it’s been stuck in a range between 1,500 and 1,800.

That relatively flat line on the graph means the state is making less progress, and another rise in cases is more likely from a level position than it would be if those numbers were continually dropping.

Dr. Lisa Pickett, a trauma surgeon at Duke University Hospital, said she would “really like to see a drop towards zero,” though a relatively straight line is without question a better option than a sharp increase.

“We’re happy to see a plateau rather than going up, for certain,” Pickett said. “But we’d like to see that trend down.”

Of particular concern are gatherings associated with the spring holidays of Passover and Easter, and the variant mutations of the coronavirus that could spread more easily. 

In North Carolina, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 160 cases of the United Kingdom variant — there were 77 earlier this week, and just 40 last week.

“We really need to keep the amount of virus shared in the community down so that those variants have less opportunity to develop,” Pickett said.

One issue is where on those charts the leveling is taking place: What is considered a valley now was the peak back in the summer.

“It is a number I would have been really shocked by previously, and now it’s like, ‘Well, at least it hasn’t gone up any more,’” Pickett said.’”

The plateau in North Carolina mirrors those around the country. Doctors in Florida warn the flat line in that state’s chart could indicate a coming surge. Officials in New York caution against loosening restrictions too soon.

And doctors in Massachusetts say they are in a race against time to beat any potential spikes in cases with faster vaccinations, with one saying “we can outrun those infections with injections.”

“The path has to be vaccinations,” Pickett said.

She says the flat line is “really a sign there’s not herd immunity yet.”

The state has given more than 4 million doses so far, and all those shots do appear to be having an effect of a drop in cases among the groups who were first in line to get them.

People over 65 accounted for 15 percent of all the cases from last March through late January.

But as vaccines ramped up over the past two months, people in that age group make up just 10 percent of all the cases during that period of time.

“It’s definitely a sign that the shots are effective,” Pickett said. “They’re keeping people from getting sick.”

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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