With COVID-19 spread limited mostly to the unvaccinated, is there a better way for NC to track numbers?

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — North Carolina’s COVID-19 numbers show optimistic signs of a virus largely in retreat — but for the state’s roughly 6 million unvaccinated people, that picture might be too rosy.

That’s because it takes into account both groups of people — the vaccinated, for whom the virus no longer poses much of a threat, and the unvaccinated who account for virtually all new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Several health experts see the merit in a new analysis by The Washington Post that adjusts the numbers to account for those numbers rising only among those who have yet to get the shot.

For example, according to the Post’s analysis, the adjusted level of hospitalized patients in the state as of last week would be roughly equal to what it was for everyone a month earlier — when the state averaged roughly 1,100 patients per day.

Similar trends emerged in cases and deaths, though they were not nearly as pronounced in North Carolina as they are in other states.

Source: The Washington Post.

“At this point, we need to be looking at our data slightly differently than we were earlier, when we were aggregating everyone into the same bucket of people who are susceptible to disease,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, an epidemiologist at RTI International. “With vaccination, different people are susceptible to disease and potential death. And it’s very important to understand what the trends look like within the group that has not been vaccinated.”

Dr. Ross McKinney, a former doctor at Duke and the chief science officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, said: “Increasingly, the only people we have to worry about are going to be the unvaccinated people.”

The vaccines are highly effective at preventing hospitalization and nearly perfect at preventing death. The relatively few vaccinated people who do wind up with breakthrough infections tend to have much less severe cases.

But the concern for everyone else: The optimistic numbers lately might give the unvaccinated a false sense of security.

“All those unvaccinated people are basically sitting on a time bomb,” McKinney said.

The state Department of Health and Human Services says just over 40 percent of the state’s 10.5 million residents have gotten at least one shot, including more than half of all adults. 

But that still leaves millions who haven’t. 

And while McKinney says those who are vaccinated so far do give everyone else some semblance of protection, it’s far below the level required for herd immunity.

“The odds that you’re going to bump into someone who is infectious has decreased considerably,” McKinney said. “And that’s great news.”

He says both measures can be helpful. But putting those numbers in terms of the unvaccinated — as opposed to the entire population — paints an even clearer picture of their risk.

“If it pushes them to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be in this group anymore. I want to be in that protected group so I don’t have to worry about this anymore,’ then it’s going to be useful,” McKinney said.

The state’s next big litmus test could come in the next 7 to 10 days when activity from Memorial Day gatherings could start to show up in the numbers.

McKinney says he doesn’t expect to see a huge bump that would rival “some of our previous holidays because there are enough people vaccinated.

“I think we’ll see less of a Memorial Day bump in people who were in families that wanted to get together,” he said. “I think a larger percentage of those people have gotten themselves vaccinated.”

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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