RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — It could be at least another week before the effects of Thanksgiving travel show up in the state’s critical COVID-19 metrics.
Experts say small, seemingly safe gatherings are among the key drivers of the current climb. They are bracing for even more of a rise once the holiday shows up in the numbers.
“I would be very fearful if the numbers get a lot worse based on what happened during Thanksgiving as we move into this other holiday season of people gathering,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, an epidemiologist at RTI International.
Surges in COVID-19 numbers typically tend to follow a clear timeline.
Because the coronavirus has an incubation period that can last two weeks, it usually takes about that long for the number of new cases to rise correspondingly.
Then, it takes another few weeks for infected people to feel sick enough to check into a hospital — and deaths, the ultimate lagging indicator, typically follow weeks after that.
“Hospitalizations will lag just because it takes a while for people to get sick enough to go to the hospital,” MacDonald said.
The easiest parallel to draw might be what happened to the numbers in North Carolina after the Independence Day holiday.
Two weeks after the Fourth of July, the seven-day rolling average in new cases topped out at 2,046 on July 18. That rolling average in hospitalizations then peaked at 1,242 per day four days after that. And finally, the rolling average in deaths reported climbed to 30 per day on Aug. 7.
A similar phenomenon took place after Memorial Day, which coincided with a move forward in the reopening process, with the rolling average of new cases peaking at 1,245 cases per day on June 18.
And when college students returned to campuses in mid-August, the average daily new cases climbed past 1,700 during the first week in September.
If the data from Thanksgiving follows a similar pattern, any increase in cases would likely start to show up late next week, with hospitalizations and deaths rising closer to Christmas.
Leaders promise to be watching carefully, with Gov. Roy Cooper saying he doesn’t want the hospitals in North Carolina to experience the same strain that other states have already faced.
He says the state already has strong measures enacted — from a tighter mask mandate to capacity limits at certain places — but says worsening trends could lead to an imposition of even more restrictions.
“We will do what we need to do to protect the safety and health of North Carolinians,” Cooper said Tuesday. “All options are on the table.”
MacDonald says people should use Thanksgiving “as an indicator of how to critically change our behavior through the rest of December.
“So we really need to look at those numbers, understand them, and if necessary modify our behavior dramatically,” she said.