Coronavirus omicron updates: Here’s what to know in North Carolina on Jan. 29

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We’re tracking the most up-to-date information about the coronavirus and vaccines in North Carolina. Check back for updates.

More than 22,000 cases added

At least 2,374,866 coronavirus cases have been reported in North Carolina, and at least 20,595 people have died since March 2020, according to state health officials.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Friday reported 22,631 new COVID-19 cases, down from 28,753 the day before. Another 78 coronavirus-related deaths were added.

At least 5,084 people were reported hospitalized with COVID-19 on Jan. 28, including 816 adults in intensive care units. The total patient count was down from 5,201 the day before, according to state health officials.

As of Jan. 26, the latest date with available information, 30.4% of coronavirus tests were reported positive. Health officials say 5% or lower is the target rate to slow the spread of the virus.

Roughly 75% of adults in North Carolina have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and about 70% have been fully vaccinated. Of the state’s total population, about 60% are fully vaccinated and about 65% have received at least one dose. State officials round vaccination numbers to the nearest whole number.

About 2.9 million ”additional/booster” doses have been administered in North Carolina as of Jan. 28, the health department said. Health officials have urged those who are eligible to get boosted, as data suggests it offers increased protection against the omicron coronavirus variant.

About 99% of all new COVID-19 cases in the Southeast were attributed to the omicron variant as of Jan. 22, the latest date for which data is available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

COVID cabin fever? Blue Ridge Parkway visits up in 2021

The number of visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway rebounded last year from a dismal 2020, when government COVID-19 orders kept many people from venturing outdoors, the Asheville Citizen Times reported.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, parkway visits jumped 13.3%, the newspaper reported, citing National Park Service figures.

COVID-19 cabin fever likely explains the increase, parkway spokesperson Leesa Brandon said.

The parkway monthly public use report shows the number of visitors jumped from 14.1 million in 2020 t0 15.98 million in 2021, keeping the parkway the most-visited National Park Service destination, the Citizen Times reported.

Hospital postpones some surgeries as more staff get COVID

Mission Hospital in Asheville is postponing some surgeries due to an uptick in omicron-variant COVID-19 cases among staff, WLOS reported.

Only surgeries that “can safely be delayed” are being postponed, a Mission Health spokeswoman told the station.

Hospital officials didn’t say how many staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

“As always, we continue to take all emergencies, including heart attack, stroke (and) trauma patients, and our ER doors are always open,” hospital officials said in a statement. “We are working with our clinical staff to ensure that we provide the best possible care for our community.”

Mission Hospital is “the only designated trauma center in Western North Carolina,” according to the Mission Health website.

Large NC mountains school district lifts quarantine order

Students and staff in a large school district in the N.C. mountains no longer need to quarantine from school if they’ve been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

In a news release posted on its website Wednesday, Asheville-based Buncombe County Schools said the new no-quarantine measure applies only to students and staff with a non-household exposure, who are asymptomatic and can wear a mask “consistently and correctly for 10 days after exposure.”

The measure aligns with a change in the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit established by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Per the toolkit, since Buncombe County Schools has a universal masking policy, (such) students and staff” are exempt from quarantine, district officials said in the release.

With nearly 25,000 students, Buncombe County Schools is the 13th-largest district in the state, according to its website. The district is the county’s second-largest employer, with nearly 4,000 workers.

Mecklenburg offers COVID test-kit sites Saturday

With cases in the county at an all-time high, Mecklenburg County Public Health will offer a limited number of free COVID-19 at-home test kits on Saturday.

County residents can visit either of two distribution sites from noon to 3 p.m.: J.M. Alexander Middle School, 12010 Hambright Road in Huntersville; and the Central Piedmont Community College Harper campus, 315 W. Hebron St. in Charlotte.

Boxes of BinaxNOW and QuickVue home COVID-19 tests are shown for sale Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, at a CVS store in Lakewood, Washington. Mecklenburg County Public Health will offer free COVID-19 at-home test kits on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022.
Boxes of BinaxNOW and QuickVue home COVID-19 tests are shown for sale Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, at a CVS store in Lakewood, Washington. Mecklenburg County Public Health will offer free COVID-19 at-home test kits on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022.

Kits at the CPCC site will be distributed in the large parking lot on Hebron Street, across from the main campus entrance.

Entrances to the distribution sites will be blocked before their 10 a.m. openings, and residents won;t be allowed to wait in line blocking roadways. They’ll instead be redirected elsewhere until space allows for more visitors.

Public Health will provide up to four tests per household, and no appointment is necessary. Neither is a prescription from a health care provider.

How to get rental assistance in Charlotte

Multiple organizations in Charlotte are offering financial assistance to help with rent and utility payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Crisis Assistance Ministry can help with rent and utility assistance at 704-371-3001 or online at crisisassistance.org/programs/basic-needs/emergency-financial-assistance. Matthews Help Center and Community Link are also potential resources, The Charlotte Observer reported.

The city of Charlotte also has a “COVID-19 Mortgage Relief Assistance Program” to help families struggling to pay their mortgage, and Mecklenburg County’s Low Income Energy Assistance Program provides financial assistance to qualifying households.

Patients on ECMO machines as coronavirus fight continues

Despite falling coronavirus case counts in places that first saw the omicron variant, a nurse at an intensive care unit in North Carolina isn’t confident that the pandemic will be over soon.

Katie Creran works as a registered nurse at UNC Medical Center, where seriously sick patients receive extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) so their blood receives oxygen. These days, patients receiving the treatment have underlying conditions and aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19, according to Dr. Lauren Raff.

Health experts have urged people to get vaccines to help prevent serious illness. Statewide, fewer than half of adults have gotten their COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots, The News & Observer reported.

“Things might get better for a little while, and then a new variant comes out and we still don’t have the herd immunity we need to be able to keep people out of the ICU,” Creran said. “I just guard my hope pretty close to the chest.”

How can face masks impact kids?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges kids ages 2 and older to wear face masks inside schools and other public places where community transmission of COVID-19 is considered substantial or high.

While data shows children are less likely to have serious COVID-19 symptoms, they can develop a long-term side effect or a complication called multisystem inflammatory syndrome. Studies have also found that wearing face coverings can help reduce the spread of particles that can transmit COVID-19, The Charlotte Observer reported.

Though there are health benefits, some studies have suggested that wearing masks could affect kids’ learning and social skills.

Despite possible concerns, masks don’t block oxygen, trap carbon dioxide or weaken immune systems, said Dr. Kimberly Dickinson, a Johns Hopkins University pediatric pulmonary fellow.

Storm closes most StarMed COVID outdoor test sites

Most StarMed outdoor sites are closed Saturday, the health care company said

In Charlotte, only the site at 4001 Tuckaseegee Road will be open for COVID tests and vaccinations. The hours will be limited to 2-4 p.m.

A medical worker administers a COVID vaccine in Charlotte, NC
A medical worker administers a COVID vaccine in Charlotte, NC

These outdoor sites also will have limited hours on Saturday:

Harrah’s Cherokee Center, Asheville — Open for testing 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

410 Four Seasons Town Centre, Greensboro — Open for vaccinations 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

Indoor StarMed locations will be open normal hours on Saturday:

FreeMore Family & Urgent Care — 4001 Tuckaseegee Road.

Eastland Family & Urgent Care — 5344 Central Ave.

The Antibody Treatment — 491 N. Wendover Road.

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