RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — During the delta spike in July and August, North Carolina’s key COVID-19 numbers climbed quickly.
What’s striking now is just how fast they’ve fallen back down.
“It seems that we’re having a pretty precipitous fall as well, in coming down from that surge,” said Dr. Erica Pettigrew of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
State Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen made mention of the falling case numbers Wednesday, calling it “great progress” that they “have been trending down for the last several weeks.”
But it goes beyond just the fall.
It’s the pace of the plunge.
Two measures — the weekly average number of new cases, and the total count of hospitalized COVID-19 patients — have fallen every day for more than a month.
NCDHHS reported just over 1,400 people in hospitals and a seven-day average of just more than 2,100 new cases per day.
Those numbers are not only well below the peaks set in September, but more remarkably, they’ve come down quickly.
It took about 50 days for the average case count to climb from 2,000 to the peak of about 7,000 — and just 40 days for that average to drop right back down to the earlier level.
The hospital numbers are doing roughly the same thing: In 40 days the state went from having fewer than 1,500 patients to hitting the peak of more than 3,800. It only took slightly more time for that number to fall back below 1,500.
It’s an about-face from the summer, when Cohen and other public health leaders expressed significant concern about the fast pace of the increases.
“Cases are coming down, positivity rate is coming down, hospitalizations are coming down, vaccinations are going up,” Pettigrew said. “So these are all good things.”
She credits much of those drops to the prominence of the vaccines and to people following mitigation measures such as wearing masks indoors and doesn’t want the drops to give everyone a false sense of security.
“I do think that we need to acknowledge that there’s still a lot of unknown,” she said. “Things could get worse again.”
She says public health officials are watching for what are called “escape variants” that the vaccines can’t slow — stressing that they have not yet seen any of those.
“Anybody who’s unvaccinated is somebody who could potentially help the virus mutate and figure out how to get around our defenses,” she said.
There are also concerns about the start of flu season potentially complicating things because the symptoms are so similar to those of COVID. She said UNC Health observed its first flu case of the season earlier this week.
And while our COVID-19 numbers are better, they’re still not quite good enough.
The latest transmission map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 98 of the state’s 100 counties — including everyone in central North Carolina — are shaded either red or orange, signifying either high or substantial spread.
The exceptions are Hyde and Cherokee, which are both yellow to indicate the spread is moderate.
CDC guidance for those counties recommends masking indoors, and Pettigrew says now might not be the time to roll back those mandates — such as the one in Wake County that expires Monday.
She says walking back those measures too soon over the summer contributed to the start of the delta surge in the first place.
“Finding that balance, but I think that we need to exercise some caution before we completely roll back all of the things that really got us to a good place,” Pettigrew said.