COVID-19 case rates are rising across the country and North Carolina has seen a 100% increase in new cases per day from mid-July to early August while hospitalizations have more than tripled. The Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 has proven to be a dangerously contagious version of the virus that we came to know in 2020. This variant quickly became dominant in recent weeks, accounting for 83% of cases by the end of July compared to 54% at the beginning of that month.
Yet, available vaccines have proven to be highly effective at protecting people from severe illness and death, even as the Delta variant is contributing to rising cases. As of early August, 51% of North Carolina residents have received at least one vaccine dose and 47% of North Carolinians are fully vaccinated. Of all eligible North Carolinians (anyone over age 12), 55% are fully vaccinated. Disparities in vaccination rates continue, with 58% of Asian and Pacific Islanders fully vaccinated, compared to 42% of Whites, 34% of Black or African Americans, and 21% of American Indian or Alaskan Natives.
In addition to continued concern about virus spread among the unvaccinated population, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new information in late July about the ability of vaccinated people to both contract and spread the newer variants of the virus. This information led the CDC to release updated guidance on when and where vaccinated people should continue to wear masks. CDC guidance recommends that in areas of the country with substantial or high transmission, people who have been vaccinated should wear masks when indoors in public to “maximize protection” from the Delta variant.
The CDC provides daily updates on the level of transmission in communities across the country. As of August 6, two counties in North Carolina were at Moderate transmission (Hyde and Warren), nine were at Substantial transmission (Alleghany, Avery, Bertie, Hertford, Northampton, Orange, Vance, Watauga, and Wilson), and the rest of the state was experiencing High transmission.
North Carolina has started to see an uptick in vaccines administered per week over the past month, from a low of less than 79,000 the week of July 5 to 105,097 administered the week of August 2. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) continues to work with community partners to increase vaccination rates by addressing concerns and logistical issues that people may have with receiving a vaccine and developing new incentives for vaccination. On August 3, NC DHHS announced $100 cash cards for first-time COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as continued $25 cash cards for drivers who help transport people to vaccine sites.
In addition, Governor Roy Cooper has issued a vaccine verification for all employees of state executive agencies. Under Executive Order 224, state cabinet agencies will begin verifying vaccination status of their workers, and unvaccinated employees will be required to wear a mask and be tested at least once a week. Executive Order 224 also encourages private companies to issue similar verification requirements. Throughout the state, many health systems—including Atrium Health, Cone Health, Duke University Health System, Novant Health, Wake Forest Baptist Health, and several UNC Health hospitals—have issued vaccine requirements for employees. On August 6, the University of North Carolina System released a vaccine verification policy for all students, faculty, and staff at all system schools. As the Delta variant continues to lead to increased case rates, other companies and employers may soon follow.