A new statewide alert system shows county-by-county the rising levels of COVID-19, identifying the counties with the highest levels of community spread.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced the system Tuesday afternoon, saying that the state now has the highest rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began.

“These are numbers we cannot ignore,” he said.

The new COVID-19 County Alert System, which identifies the state’s viral hotspots, uses three metrics to designate counties as yellow, orange, or red — in yellow counties, there is “significant” spread, in orange, it is “substantial,” and in red it is “critical.”

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said that since no metric presents a complete picture of the virus in North Carolina, the state is using a combination of three metrics to categorize counties.

The first metric used is case rate, adjusted for the population of the county. What’s counted is the number of new cases in 14 days per 100,000 people, and it is the same measure that the White House Coronavirus Task Force uses to compare counties and states.

The second metric is the percentage of coronavirus tests that are positive, and the third measures the impact on local hospitals. It is a composite score based on the percentage of hospitalizations that are for COVID-19; the number of COVID-19-related visits to the emergency room; the numbers of hospital staff; the number of open hospital beds; and whether there are critical staffing shortages over a two-week period.

Caldwell County is considered an orange county. The case rate is 416.2 per 100,000 people, the most recent two-week positivity rate is 7.6%, and the impact on Caldwell Memorial Hospital is considered “moderate,” a more severe rating than most counties in the state received.

A hospital official was unable to provide the numbers of people who have been going to the emergency department with COVID-19, but he said that COVID-19-related emergency department visits are “trending up.”

Forty-two cases were reported in Caldwell on Tuesday, bringing the county’s total number of confirmed cases to 3,104.

While Caldwell County is in the orange category, neighboring Alexander, Wilkes and Avery counties are all red. Alexander County has the highest 14-day case rate in the state, at 914.7 per 100,000 people, and its positive test rate is 16.8%.

Cooper said that in North Carolina, 3,288 new cases of COVID-19 had been reported since Monday, with 1,501 people hospitalized and 4,852 who have died. He said that there is widespread virus transmission across the state.

“By pinpointing counties with high virus transmission and asking everyone in those counties to work with us … we can succeed,” Cooper said.

While he didn’t impose any further pandemic-related restrictions on Tuesday, he said that if the numbers keep moving in the wrong direction, the state could impose additional orders at either the local or statewide level.

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.