Leo Carney, kitchen manager at McElroy's Harbor House in Biloxi on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, holds his ever present face mask, in early March. (Image via AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) Vaccines are here, but you still need to mask up.
Leo Carney, kitchen manager at McElroy's Harbor House in Biloxi on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, holds his ever present face mask, in early March. (Image via AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

One out of every five North Carolinians has gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccination in the arm. But this disease is still very much out there.

Don’t mess this up, North Carolina.

While the state dares to dream about herd immunity, unrestrained barbecues on the Fourth of July, and maybe even giant turkey legs at the NC State Fair—in short, a return to normalcy—North Carolinians must not let their guard down, state and federal health officials say. All the progress we’ve made over the last few months will be for naught if people stop wearing their masks, or declare victory too soon over a virus that is still spreading rapidly.

On Wednesday, NC will open vaccines to Group 4, which includes adults of all ages with health conditions that put them at risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Go to https://myspot.nc.gov to find out where to get a vaccine. 

Nearly 2 million people in NC have received at least the first of their two vaccine doses—almost 1 in every 5 people—and the total cases and percentage of positive cases are going down, trending in the right direction. This sense of guarded optimism nationwide was apparent as President Joe Biden said in a speech Thursday night that all adults would have access to the vaccine by May.

But, we can do all these great things ONLY IF people continue to wear masks and take the still-raging pandemic seriously. 

Complacency, North Carolina’s elected and health officials say, could return us to the worst stages of the pandemic, especially given the new variants of the virus, make a large foothold in NC.

While the numbers are looking better than the nightmare we all lived through in the winter they are still far from good. There were 1,337 new cases announced on Monday, according to the latest NCDHHS data, and 976 people in North Carolina’s hospital with COVID-related illnesses. 

In August of 2020, for example,  the caseload ranged between 1000 and 1,300 new cases a day, and hospitalizations hovered 1,000. And 40 of NC’s 100 counties still show substantial or critical community spread, according to the state’s county alert system. 

“We are seeing progress in our key COVID metrics and vaccine rollout, but we still have much more work to do,” Catie Armstrong, a spokesperson for the NC Department of Health and Human Services, wrote in an email to Cardinal & Pine on Friday. “Our COVID-19 numbers remain stable, and that is due in part to people continuing to wear their masks and use good judgment.”

In some ways, if you’ll forgive the cliche, masks are more important than ever.

President Biden said as much in his speech Thursday.

“We need everyone to keep washing their hands, stay socially distanced and keep wearing the mask as recommended by the CDC,” he said.

“If we do all this, if we do our part, if we do this together, by July the fourth, there’s a good chance you, your families and friends, will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day.

“But to get there we can’t let our guard down.”

The three things that could set us back: complacency, variants and resistance to getting the vaccine.

  • Complacency: Like President Biden, Gov. Roy Cooper and state health officials continue to warn residents against shedding their masks. There are signs the warnings aren’t sticking. Both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University have had widely publicized recent breaches in protocol. Hundreds of UNC students flooded Franklin Street after the men’s basketball team beat Duke and Duke fraternities held several parties that broke mask and distance rules, leading to spikes in cases. 
  • Variants: The three new mutations of the coronavirus, which originated in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil; are more contagious and potentially more deadly; and have shown signs of reducing vaccine effectiveness could also threaten the progress. The UK and South African variants have been confirmed in North Carolina.  “There are almost certainly more cases than have been identified,” Dr. Whitney Robinson, professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, told North Carolina Health News last month.  “There could really be a sudden burst of more infections, and we need to be ready for that.”
  • Vaccine Hesitancy: The metric for normalcy, NC health officials say, is vaccinating most of the population, and while the demand for vaccines is high, there is still resistance, especially among Republicans. According to some recent surveys, a third of Republicans have said they “definitely won’t” get the vaccine if offered. As The Washington Post wrote this month, “As a result, millions of Republicans could remain unvaccinated, a potential roadblock to efforts to achieve the high levels of immunity needed to stop the virus in the United States.”

“We’ve lost so much over the last year,” Biden said on Thursday.  “We’ve lost family and friends. We’ve lost businesses and dreams we spent years building. We’ve lost time, time with each other.” 

He added: “If we don’t stay vigilant and the conditions change and we may have to reinstate restrictions to get back on track, please, we don’t want to do that again. We’ve made so much progress.”

This is not the time to let up.