As the coronavirus pandemic approaches its second anniversary, the specter of COVID-19 has lost much of its death-like grip over the popular imagination.
After nearly two years of quarantines, contact tracing, and rising case counts, people across the U.S. are no longer willing to stay cooped up in the headspace of a perennial state of emergency. A growing number are now leaving home without facemasks; some are exchanging handshakes and hugs; and many are, once again, belting out the song “Happy Birthday” at parties rather than using it to accompany a compulsive handwashing routine.
But this widespread ennui with the pandemic has prompted increasingly dire warnings from public health officials, who’ve witnessed an abrupt spike in infection rates over the past month due to the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Among those who are struggling to reverse the public’s sense of complacency is Alamance County’s health director Tony Lo Giudice. Over the past couple of weeks, Lo Giudice has observed a marked increase in the county’s own Covid statistics, which he attributes to the spread of Omicron among area residents.
“Right before Christmas, we saw cases start to go up,” he recalled in an interview with The Alamance News on Tuesday, “Now we’re seeing 338 new cases a day on average…and across the Southeast, 95 percent of the cases are made up of the Omicron variant.”
Lo Giudice said that, prior to the arrival of Omicron, the county’s one-day record for new cases had stood at about 140. At 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, the local health department reported a truly formidable figure of 428 new cases. To make matters worse, the department has logged positive results for 32.6 percent of the Covid tests that are administered to the county’s residents – a figure that Lo Giudice admits indicates a “high” rate of spread within the community.
“That puts a lot of demand on the healthcare system in our area,” the county’s health director added. “But we can be more preventative to lessen that demand. My plea to everyone is that, if you don’t have a religious exemption or a medical reason not to, you need to consider getting vaccinated.”
Although a shot in the arm won’t necessarily prevent the recipient from contracting COVID-19, Lo Giudice stresses that it can still reduce the likelihood of serious complications that can result in hospitalization or death.
The health director’s assertion is largely borne out by Cone Health, the Greensboro-based hospital chain that owns Alamance Regional Medical Center in Burlington. As of late Tuesday night, Cone’s member institutions were treating a total of 266 Covid patients – all but 56 of whom hadn’t been unvaccinated. At last count, Cone’s hospitals were using 96 percent of their ICU beds due, in part, to the influx of patients with COVID-19.
In an attempt to keep people out of the intensive care unit, the local health department has been working with private healthcare providers to distribute coronavirus vaccines in Alamance County. Thanks to their collective efforts, some 61 percent of the county’s residents have received at least one shot of the vaccine, while 57 percent have completed the full vaccination regimen, which generally comprises two to three initial injections and a booster after five or six months. Alamance County nevertheless lags behind the state as a whole, which currently boasts a 59 percent rate of full vaccination.
In addition to plugging the Covid vaccine, Lo Giudice also urges people to get tested if they experience Covid symptoms or have had close contact with people who’ve recently contracted the virus.
The county’s health director points out that the state has contracted a firm called Optum to provide free Covid tests along Burlington’s Martin Street – not far from the health department’s own headquarters on Graham-Hopedale Road. Lo Giudice notes that a list of other testing locations can be found on the website of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Service. Nor does he turn up his nose at home testing kits, provided that residents can find them in stock at their local pharmacies.
In any event, Lo Giudice stresses that he and his colleagues at the health department could really use an assist from the general public as they struggle to turn the tide against COVID-19.
“Be aware of it; be cognizant of it,” he said. “Wear your mask, especially during quarantine period, and continue to socially distance.”
School-age children represent county’s second-highest number of cases
Meanwhile, Lo Giudice briefed Alamance-Burlington school board members this week about the county’s current trends in Covid-19 cases, as he has periodically done since the 2021-22 school year began in August.
Lo Giudice told school board members during their work session Tuesday afternoon that children up to age 19 currently account for the second-highest number of cases in Alamance County. Adults between the ages of 25 and 49 account for the highest number of cases, he said.
“The vast majority we’re seeing right now is [from] household spread,” Lo Giudice added. He also reiterated his earlier advice to the board that vaccination remains the best defense against Covid-19.
“If you’re fully vaccinated and test positive for Covid, you can still transmit the virus to someone else,” the county’s health director confirmed in response to a question from school board member Ryan Bowden.
ABSS has reported a combined total of 641 cases of Covid-19 among students and staff at all 35 schools, as well as the central office in Burlington, during the three-week period between December 17 and January 7. Of the three-week total, 528 ABSS students and 113 employees had tested positive for the virus, according to the latest data that was posted on the school system’s online dashboard Friday afternoon. ABSS reported that 205 students and six employees were quarantined as of last Friday.
ABSS announced last week that the school system is following the latest Covid-19 protocols outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. NCDHHS has shortened the required quarantine – from 10 days to five days – for K-12 students who test positive, allowing students to return to school, regardless of vaccination status, five days after the onset of symptoms, providing that face coverings are worn at all time.
Lo Giudice nevertheless told the school board on Tuesday that state public health officials are no longer requiring K-12 students to quarantine if they’re fully vaccinated or have had Covid-19 within the last 90 days if masks are worn at all times at school and/or on school buses. ABSS continues to require universal masking in schools and on school buses.
Based on the state’s revised Strong Schools NC toolkit, students who are fully vaccinated and/or have no known exposure are allowed to return to school at least 24 hours after they last had a fever and their temperature has returned to normal without the use of a fever-reducing medicine; and they felt better for at least 24 hours.
Unvaccinated students who have had close contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19 but who have not been tested are presumed positive under the state’s revised guidelines. K-12 students in that category are now allowed to return to school five days after the onset of symptoms, with three conditions: that it has been at least 24 hours since they had a fever; other symptoms are improving; and masks are worn at all times, according to the Strong Schools NC toolkit.