Gov. Roy Cooper issued a dire warning to the entire state on Monday about rising COVID-19 infections and illnesses, and he asked for help enforcing the statewide mandate for wearing masks and limiting customer capacity inside businesses.
And he warned that if the worsening trends are not halted, the state could return to more strict limits on businesses. The next seven to 14 days could be critical, he said.
“Our numbers are going up, but things are not on fire yet,” he said. “We want to give this a little more time to see if we can stem the tide.”
Illustrating the worsening trends, state officials updated the County Alert System report that first was issued a week ago, and the number of counties color-coded red and categorized as having critical levels of community spread of the virus doubled from 10 to 20 now. They include Catawba, Alexander, Wilkes and Avery counties, all neighbors of Caldwell County.
Caldwell County is still in the orange tier of counties having substantial community spread. But the county now has a case rate equal to 489.2 per 100,000 people, up from 416.2 per 100,000 people a week ago.
The percentage of COVID-19 tests in Caldwell County coming back as positive has increased from 7.6% last week to 8.1%. If it reaches 10%, Caldwell will jump to the red tier. Caldwell County also reported its 40th death from COVID-19 on Monday.
The person was between the ages of 65 and 74, was hospitalized, and had other health problems.
Statewide, 2,419 new COVID-19 cases were reported Monday, and the number of people being treated in hospitals for the virus was 1,601. Cooper said that over the weekend the state “passed the grim benchmark” of having more than 5,000 deaths from the virus.
“I have a stark warning for North Carolinians today: We are in danger. This is a pivotal moment in our fight against the coronavirus. Our actions now will determine the fate of many,” Cooper said.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said that the state is “on very shaky ground,” and that the coming weeks will be a test.
“We know so much more about this pandemic than we did back in March. … We need to put that knowledge to use, particularly when the actions are simple and the effects are profound,” she said.
She appealed for people to “celebrate Thanksgiving differently this year,” continuing warnings that public health officials have been issuing for weeks that gatherings of extended family during the holiday pose a serious risk of spreading the virus.
“Keep it small, keep it outdoors, and wear a mask at all times,” she said.
She encouraged getting tested before traveling for the holiday but said a negative test is not a pass to ignore safety guidelines.
“Even if you have a negative test you still must wear a mask and wait 6 feet apart,” she said.
Cooper issued a new executive order extended Phase 3 capacity limits and safety requirements to Dec. 11. Starting Wednesday, the order also tightens the existing statewide mask requirement, making it clear that everyone needs to wear a mask whenever they are with someone who is not from the same household and adding the mask requirement to any public indoor space even when maintaining 6 feet of distance; gyms even when exercising; all schools public and private; and all public or private transportation when traveling with people outside of the household.
The order also requires large retail businesses with more than 15,000 square feet to have an employee stationed near entrances to ensure that customers wear masks and to implement occupancy limits for the business.
Cooper said he hopes that local governments will help enforce the mask mandate and limits on businesses, and he highlighted emergency orders issued by Greensboro that could temporarily close businesses found to be ignoring requirements for employees to wear masks or to limit the number of customers inside.
Also Monday, 100 hospital systems across the country issued a statement urging the public to wear masks to lower the COVID-19 risk and lessen the load on medical centers. The health systems signing onto the statement include UNC Health, which includes Caldwell UNC Health Care.
“If the nation stays on its current course, hospital leaders are increasingly concerned that more health care facilities will be overwhelmed as shortages of healthy caregivers make it difficult to handle a rapidly increasing number of patients,” the statement from the hospital systems says.
Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.