Delta variant gains ‘new energy’ in the region as COVID cases, hospitalizations rise

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The coronavirus pandemic has gained “new energy” in Mecklenburg County, especially among unvaccinated residents, Public Health Director Gibbie Harris told the Observer Friday.

More than one-third of local cases as of June 25 were identified as the highly transmissible delta variant, Harris said in a statement Friday.

It’s the clearest picture to date of how rapidly this strain of the virus is circulating locally.

Last week, Mecklenburg officials said only a handful of delta variants infections had been detected so far, based on a new genetic sequencing pilot program for positive COVID-19 tests.

“We do believe that the rising case numbers, rising test positivity rate and the increase in hospitalizations are all best explained by and caused by the rapid spread of the Delta variant here in Mecklenburg County as well as activity over the 4th of July holiday,” Harris said.

During the past 14 days, Mecklenburg’s rate of positive COVID-19 tests more than doubled, according to a Charlotte Observer analysis of the latest county public health data.

The rate of positive tests, a crucial metric that health officials use for monitoring coronavirus spread, is now 8.6%, compared to 5.2% one week ago. At the start of July, the average weekly positivity rate was 3.2%.

But the positivity rate is still below double-digit rates observed during the winter peak, which reached as high as 16% in early January.

Unvaccinated at risk

Coronavirus numbers for new cases and hospitalizations are seeing a “rapid acceleration” in Gaston County too, with officials on Friday saying the positivity rate there exceeded 5% for the first time since early May.

Other trends, including the new daily caseload and hospitalizations, are also rising in Mecklenburg. That is despite weeks of progress earlier this summer, which local health officials and hospital leaders attributed to the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines at preventing severe illness.

Melinda Forthofer, a public health professor at UNC Charlotte, is concerned about the impact the delta variant could have on the “pretty significant subsection of population” that is not vaccinated. Already, the variant led to an outbreak at an emergency shelter for women and children, county health officials said last week.

“Overall, the strongest data we have continues to show that people who are vaccinated are fairly safe against serious infection and hospitalization from the delta variant,” Forthofer said.

“That’s not to say they may not experience a very mild illness as a result of exposure to someone with the delta variant,” she said. “For the people who are not vaccinated, the risk is even greater than it was with the original virus.”

Mecklenburg COVID trends

These are the latest coronavirus numbers for Mecklenburg:

Just over half of county residents have received at least their first shot of the COVID vaccine and 48% are fully protected as of Friday, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

On average, the county is logging more than 170 new cases each day, state public health data show. The caseload rose by about 245% over the last 14 days.

The average number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 hit 70 in the past week, county officials said. That’s a nearly 71% increase over the last 14 days.

The local death toll rose by four in the past week. County officials say 994 residents have died of coronavirus-related complications.

Forthofer said the Charlotte area could regress further, particularly if vaccination rates remain stalled and people do not take the threat of the virus seriously.

”I think we may be moving in the direction of needing a more widespread mask mandate,” Forthofer said. “We may need to go back to where we were before.”

Harris told the Observer that Mecklenburg County Public Health is not recommending any new restrictions or guidelines.

Eligible residents should get immunized if they aren’t already, Harris said. Vaccinated residents should wear a mask in crowded indoor settings, the health director said.

Delta variant in Gaston County

In neighboring Gaston County, officials on Friday said the delta variant has spurred a rise in new cases and hospitalizations.

Public Health Director Steve Eaton urgent residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — and to continue wearing a mask and practicing social distancing if they are unprotected.

“This is our chance to let people know who have been on the fence about this: Get your vaccine,” Eaton said in a statement.

In Gaston County, 39% of residents are at least partially vaccinated and 36% are fully vaccinated, according to N.C. DHHS. Statewide, 49% of residents are at least partially vaccinated and 46% are fully vaccinated.

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