With some of NC’s COVID numbers improving, now comes the wait for drops in lagging indicators


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — While some of the key COVID-19 numbers have shown signs of improvement over the past week, other slower-to-change numbers have remained high, state data show.

Those lagging indicators — which include hospitalizations, especially in intensive-care units, and deaths — take longer to reflect changes and events than leading indicators, such as emergency-room visits and new cases.

While the state Department of Health and Human Services has reported noticeable drops in newly reported cases — the seven-day rolling average has plunged 22 percent in nine days — it could be weeks before the other figures start to come down.

The overall COVID hospital numbers have fallen, with day-over-day drops on six of the past seven days bringing it to its lowest levels since Jan. 4.

But ICU units across the state have remained at near-record capacity.

They were more than 85 percent full Thursday and have been higher than 80 percent every day since Nov. 30.

“We still have very high numbers of COVID patients who have gotten sick enough that they require in-hospital care,” said Dr. Joseph Rogers of the Duke Clinical Research Institute. “And we’ve not seen that number begin to trend back down yet.”

And January is on pace to become the deadliest month of the pandemic in North Carolina so far.

An average of 60 people died of COVID-19 every day from Jan. 1-15, according to DHHS data, compared to a daily average of 53 in December, which presently stands as the deadliest month.

And the January number is likely to rise because there’s frequently a lag between when someone dies and when that death is reported to the state, meaning those date-of-death figures are frequently updated days or weeks later.

A total of 139 deaths were reported Thursday — the most on a single day since Jan. 10 — though that number reflects the reporting date, not the specific date of death. Only six of those deaths are known to have died Wednesday.

The massive effort to roll out vaccines should help with that — but it’s still way too soon for those vaccinations to have an effect on the numbers. The state says nearly 600,000 doses of vaccine have been administered so far, with at least 76,293 North Carolinians having received the two required doses.

That’s still a small, but growing fraction of the state’s population of 10.5 million, and it’s part of the reason why consumer finance website wallethub.com ranked North Carolina No. 33 nationally in its list of the safest states during the pandemic.

Source: WalletHub

That ranking is based on the rates in five areas: with positive tests, hospitalizations, and transmission each worth 12.5 percent of the total score, the vaccination rate counting twice as much, and the death rate carrying triple that weight. 

North Carolina was ranked 21st for its middle-of-the-pack death rate but was penalized for a vaccination rate that ranked 41st, and doctors have blamed a lack of supply for comparatively low numbers early in the rollout, though the pace has picked up in recent weeks.

“The vaccine effect, I don’t think we’ll see that for a while longer, and there (is) where I would expect to see it in the number of deaths and the number of hospitalizations,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, an epidemiologist at RTI International. “We’d like to see that trending down steadily, and lasting.”

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