Much of southeastern NC added to high-risk COVID list. CDC advises masks indoors

By Sarah Nagem

Most counties in southeastern North Carolina are now considered high risk for COVID-19, and people are encouraged to wear masks indoors. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention upgraded the “community level” designation from medium to high last week for much of the region, including Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties. 

Under CDC guidelines, residents who live in high-risk communities are urged to wear a “well-fitting mask indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status,” including in schools. Anyone with a compromised immune system should “consider avoiding non-essential indoor activities in public where you could be exposed.” 

The CDC says it looks at three factors to determine whether a county’s “community level” is low, medium or high: new cases reported in the past week, new hospitalizations and the percentage of staffed hospital beds for COVID patients. 

Columbus County had the highest seven-day COVID case rate in North Carolina’s Border Belt, with 520.65 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the CDC’s data, which was last updated on Thursday. That was an increase of about 131% from the prior week. 

Bladen County had the second-highest rate, with 455.35. Robeson County had a rate of 350.62, and Scotland County had a rate of 295.78. 

All four counties have a COVID hospitalization rate of 12.2 per 100,000 residents, according to the CDC, and 2.6% of inpatient beds are staffed for COVID patients. 

The recent rise in cases is caused by the BA.5 variant of the virus, health officials say. 

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statement July 19 reminding residents to get the COVID vaccine and boosters. 

“This variant is causing repeat infections, even in those who have recent past infections from other variants, and infections in people who are vaccinated,” Cooper said. “Vaccines remain highly effective in preventing severe outcomes including hospitalization and death from COVID-19.” 

Some southeastern North Carolina counties have among the state’s lowest vaccination rates. In Columbus and Robeson counties, 43% of the population is fully vaccinated, compared to 62% statewide, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

In Robeson, only 19% of residents have gotten a booster, lagging far behind the statewide rate of 59%. 

Local hospitals say they are seeing an increase in COVID patients, but the number of people hospitalized with the virus is nowhere near those of previous surges. 

“We continue to encourage everyone to get vaccinated and boosted when they are eligible,” Amanda Crabtree, spokesperson for UNC Health Southeastern in Lumberton, told the Border Belt Independent last month. “As new variants cause more transmission, vaccines and boosters remain the best tools for avoiding serious illness, hospitalization and death from this virus.” 

Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem

Red-colored counties have high community levels of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Screenshot