Don’t let your guard down as COVID cases drop in southeastern NC, health experts say

By Sarah Nagem

COVID-19 cases are falling across southeastern North Carolina, and fewer people are hospitalized with the virus. But now is not the time to stop taking precautions, health officials say.

“I don’t believe for a minute we can let our guard down,” said Renae Taylor, vice president and chief nurse executive at UNC Health Southeastern in Robeson County. “The last thing I want to happen is for people to get comfortable.” 

COVID numbers have been dropping for weeks across the state, after the highly contagious delta variant led to a spike in cases that overwhelmed hospitals this summer.

The Border Belt Independent compared new reported cases in four counties – Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland – on Oct. 8 and Aug. 23. Here are the numbers. 

While new cases are dropping, the percentage of COVID tests that are positive remains above health officials’ goal of 5% or lower. 

Bladen and Scotland counties both have a 14-day positivity rate of 8.9%, data shows. The statewide rate is 7.5%. 

But hospitalizations have fallen drastically. Here are the numbers for Oct. 8 and Aug. 23.  

Although numbers have improved, Taylor said she worries about what might be ahead as the holidays approach. 

So does Scotland County Health Director Dr. Eli Caldwell, who said everyone should still wear a mask, wash their hands and social distance. 

“If we let our guard down now and we go into the holiday season and people aren’t practicing those measures, what will happen?” he said. 

Cases spiked in January after the holidays, shortly before vaccines became available. 

The vaccine is the best way to prevent another surge, Taylor and Caldwell said. But vaccination rates continue to lag. 

People who are vaccinated can still get COVID, but they are less likely to get severely ill or require hospitalization. 

Caldwell said Scotland County’s goal is for 60% to 70% of the population to be vaccinated. So there is still work to do. 

Here are the vaccination rates.

Pandemic fatigue remains a threat, experts say. Taylor said she has noticed more maskless people in stores. 

“Sometimes I’ll be the only one in there wearing a mask,” she said. 

But she said it’s just as important as ever, along with hand washing and social distancing. 

Caldwell said it’s also important “to test, test and test.” 

The number of people getting COVID tests has dropped across the state, but Caldwell said regular testing will help prevent spread. 

“That’s the worst thing, when people get complacent,” Taylor said.