COVID cases rise across NC’s Border Belt as concerns about omicron variant grow

By Sarah Nagem

The number of new COVID-19 cases is on the rise across North Carolina’s Border Belt counties.

Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties all recently recorded the highest numbers of single-day new cases in months. The increase mirrors what is happening throughout North Carolina and the country as concerns about the omicron variant continue to grow ahead of Christmas. 

The best way to gather safely for the holidays is to make sure everyone is fully vaccinated against COVID and has a booster shot, said Scotland County Health Director Dr. Eli Caldwell.

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The coronavirus is likely to continue to evolve, Caldwell said, and “the only way we can control that is to get a good chunk of the population to get the vaccine.” 

In Scotland County, 47% of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID, below the statewide rate of 58%, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.  

Nearby counties also lag behind on vaccinations: 40% of the population in Robeson County is fully vaccinated, while the figure is 42% in Columbus and 48% in Bladen. (In North Carolina’s most populous county, Wake, 70% of people are fully vaccinated.) 

The number of people hospitalized with COVID is not near the record highs seen late last summer. But hospitalizations have been on the rise at UNC Health Southeastern in Robeson County. 

“Our inpatient COVID-19 patient census dropped to as low as two patients prior to and through the Thanksgiving holiday,” Dr. Joseph Roberts, vice president and chief medical officer for the hospital, said in a statement last week. “Since Thanksgiving, our numbers have gradually increased to a high of 13.  We are now hovering around 10.” 

Robeson County saw 66 new COVID cases on Dec. 6, the most since late September. Columbus County also broke a months-long record that day, with 30 new cases reported. 

The omicron variant, which was first reported in November in South Africa, spreads more easily than the original strain of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Most states, including North Carolina, have identified new COVID cases linked to the omicron variant. Meanwhile, experts say the country is still dealing with the delta variant that caused a big spike in cases over the summer. 

“With the lingering Delta variant and increasing prevalence of the Omicron variant, we need to remain vigilant in wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and taking recommended vaccinations against COVID-19,” Roberts said. “Vaccines have been effective in reducing the severity of cases, thus, keeping patients out of the hospital with approximately 85 percent of hospitalized patients being unvaccinated.”

Thankfully, Caldwell said, the region has not seen an increase in COVID-related deaths this month. Scotland County recorded one death last week, he said, which was the first in about a month. 

“To me, that was a good sign we can get out of this pandemic,” Caldwell said. 

But like Roberts, Caldwell said it will depend on people getting the COVID vaccine and booster shots. 

Anyone who feels sick should get tested for COVID right away, Caldwell urged, and anyone who tests positive for the virus should quarantine. 

He said practicing those measures, along with wearing face masks and washing hands, will make holiday gatherings safer. 

“You can’t keep people hostage for the rest of their lives,” Caldwell said. 

Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem