Healthcare workers process COVID1-9 rapid antigen tests at a testing site Thursday. Last week North Carolina broke single-day records for COVID-19 cases three days running, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services, topping out at 19,620. Friday, the state reported 28,474 new cases. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)
Healthcare workers process COVID1-9 rapid antigen tests at a testing site Thursday. Last week North Carolina broke single-day records for COVID-19 cases three days running, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services, topping out at 19,620. Friday, the state reported 28,474 new cases. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

Here’s what you need to know about what’s happening with hospital capacity levels, schools, vaccines and boosters when it comes to COVID.

A new year starts with the worst kind of déjà vu.

The Omicron variant of the nemesis virus is behind skyrocketing cases in North Carolina and across the country, and could soon overwhelm healthcare facilities. State and federal health officials had to adapt quickly to this new phase of an evolving virus, and issued a flurry of new guidelines this week. 

Here’s a summary of recent developments about the virus and North Carolina’s response. 

Uncharted Territory 

North Carolina is reaching the wrong kind of milestones.

“Last week we set a single-day record for COVID 19 cases,” Kody Kinsley, secretary of the NC  Department of Health and Human Services said this week. “The next day we broke it. And the next day we broke it again, topping out at 19,620.” 

On Friday, North Carolina reported 28,474 new cases. 

This near vertical spike here and across the country is a clear indication that Omicron is the most contagious of any strain so far. 

Hospitalizations Not Rising as Fast. But the silver lining is that while hospitalizations are also climbing fast in NC and the rest of the US, it is at a much slower rate than the case number. This suggests that on an individual level, Omicron is not as severe as its predecessors. 

There are several reasons. The virus does not seem to infect the lungs as well as earlier strains, lab studies and anecdotal evidence show; two doses of the vaccine offer strong protection against severe illness; and those who have gotten the recommended booster shots have even more protection. 

Worst May Be Ahead. Still, the sheer number of cases is so high that even if a smaller percentage of people require hospitalization, it could be too much for already strained hospitals. Across the state, 86% of staffed intensive care unit beds are full. And healthcare workers are getting infected too. Even if symptoms are relatively mild, sick doctors and nurses can’t work, which adds to the strain on the system. 

Like with the other strains, the unvaccinated are the most likely by far to be hospitalized with Omicron. In North Carolina, 87% of those hospitalized are unvaccinated, Kinsley said. 

And 100% of the patients on ventilators in the WakeMed and UNC hospital systems are unvaccinated, hospital officials said this week.

There has been a spike in hospitalizations among children under 4, who can’t yet be vaccinated, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said on Friday. There has not, however, been a spike among vaccinated children. 

North Carolina Schools in Face of Surge

Like hospitals, schools in NC are worried about potential staffing shortages, even as most health officials say it is crucial to do everything we can to keep kids in the classroom. 

Keep Masks on. Even with Omicron, masks are still highly effective at keeping transmission rates low in schools, health officials at Duke University Medical School said last month. Schools that don’t require masks, however, are at high risk of rapid spread and shutdowns. 

Get Your Boosters

The federal Food and Drug Administration and CDC made some important updates to their COVID guidance this week. They recommended: 

  • People fully vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine get their boosters 5 months after completing their two-shots, instead of 6. 
  • 12-15 year olds are now eligible for Pfizer vaccine boosters.
  • Immunocompromised children 5 and older should also get boosters. 

Testing Plans 

Rapid at-home COVID tests are still hard to find, but there are several other ways to find testing sites. You just might have to do some searching through the state’s online testing database. 

Find a Test. NC officials are increasing the number of testing sites across the state, Kinsley said, that will account for thousands of new appointments each day. The state’s labs have plenty of capacity, he said, and you can find a testing site near you, including no-cost sites, here

But hospitals are not the place to get tested, Kinsley said. 

“Please do not go to the emergency room to get tested,” he said. 

Be Wary of High Costs. NC Attorney General Josh Stein called on residents to report any instances of price gouging when purchasing at-home rapid COVID tests. The most common at-home tests should be $20 to $25. (Many of the state’s laboratory testing sites are free.) You can report any excessive prices to the state department of justice at https://ncdoj.gov/gouging or 1-877-5-NO-SCAM.

Getting Insurance to Pony Up. The Biden Administration announced that next week people could be reimbursed for at-home tests through their health insurance, though details on how that would work have not yet been released. 

So what do we do? 

The Iredell Health System on Friday asked for help. 

“I know that everyone is fatigued by pandemic challenges and all want to wish it away,” John Green, President and CEO of Iredell Health System, said in a news release. “Healthcare professionals are no different.” 

Get vaccinated. Wear masks. Get your booster. For the doctors and nurses, they said, if not for yourself. 

Though there have been recent developments in promising treatments for COVID-19, they are very limited in supply, and for the foreseeable future will be reserved for the most vulnerable populations. 

“The best treatment is prevention,” Kinsley said. “So get your vaccination or booster if you are eligible now.”

But for the willfully unvaccinated, the best weapon against the virus is no longer any use once you get sick. 

“In the hospital,” Dr. Vivek Trivedi, chief of medical staff at Iredell Memorial, said, “we do hear critically sick people with COVID repeat a simple line: ‘I wish I would have gotten vaccinated.’”