Hospitals see post-holiday rise in COVID-19 cases in North Carolina’s Border Belt

By Sarah Nagem

Southeastern North Carolina is seeing an expected increase in COVID-19 cases after the holiday season. 

But there is some good news: The number of reported influenza cases has dropped significantly since November. 

Health officials across the country have been talking for weeks about a “tripledemic” that has filled hospitals with patients sick with COVID-19, the flu and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. All of the viruses can cause respiratory symptoms, and RSV is often seen in young children. 

In the Border Belt region of the state, Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties recorded the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases in the week ending Dec. 24 since late summer. The rise mirrors statewide trends, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.  

Robeson County recorded 279 COVID-19 cases that week, the most since mid-September, data shows.

UNC Health Southeastern in Lumberton has seen an increase in patients hospitalized with COVID-19, according to spokesperson Amanda Crabtree. 

“This increase was expected following Thanksgiving, Christmas and general indoor holiday gatherings,” Crabtree said in an email. “Analytical experts at UNC Health predicted this increase and alerted their health network to begin preparations as necessary.” 

Freezing temperatures ahead of and after Christmas kept many families indoors and in close quarters, possibly increasing the potential to spread airborne viruses.   

Despite the increase, COVID-19 cases “only account for a small percentage of total hospitalized patients” at UNC Health Southeastern, hospital CEO and President Chris Ellington said in a statement. 

“There are no issues with bed availability or access at the current time,” he said. 

Health experts say the number of COVID-19 cases is likely much higher than what is reported by government agencies, partly due to the increased availability of at-home tests. 

Chris Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said in September that only about 4% to 5% of cases were being reported. 

UNC Health clinics across the region have also seen an uptick in patients with flu symptoms, Ellington said, adding that most cases do not require hospitalization. 

DHHS is tracking flu cases in six regions across the state. A 12-county region that includes Robeson, Scotland and Bladen counties has led the state since October in the number of patients with flu-like symptoms at emergency departments, data shows. 

During the week ending Dec. 31, 4.2% of emergency department visits in the region involved patients with flu-like symptoms, according to the data. That was up slightly from the week before but a big drop from early November, when 10% of emergency department patients had flu-like symptoms.

The Scotland Health Hospital in Laurinburg has seen an increase in COVID-19 patients since early December, said CEO Greg Wood. 

The county recorded 76 cases in the week ending Dec. 24, the most since September, according to DHHS data. 

“Fortunately we have not yet seen a large amount of RSV or flu cases but our hospital has been nearly full for the past six weeks with many respiratory patients,” Wood said. 

UNC Hospitals opened a pediatric surge unit at the end of November to keep up with RSV and flu cases among children in the Raleigh-Durham area. The unit closed last week as cases dropped, The News & Observer reported.  

The Border Belt region has some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the state. In Columbus County, 47% of residents have had at least one vaccine dose and 48% have had at least one booster, data shows. The statewide figures are 67% and 59%, respectively. 

Vaccinations for COVID-19 and the flu are “the best defense against these illnesses,” Dr. Joe Roberts, UNC Health Southeastern vice president and chief medical officer, said in a statement. 

Those who experience respiratory symptoms should consider taking over-the-county acetaminophen (Tylenol) or other pain relievers and a cough suppressant, Roberts said.

People with COVID-19 should isolate for five days, according to Roberts. If they are asymptomatic at the end of the isolation period, they should wear a mask for an additional five days.