COVID-19 in Charlotte: Positivity rate stable, caseload low

A carefully watched coronavirus metric — the percent of positive tests — is stable in Mecklenburg County after steadily falling for the last 12 weeks, the latest public health data show.

The weekly average positivity rate locally is 5.7%. In North Carolina, the governor and health officials have said they want the percent of positive tests to reach 5% before contemplating reopening more businesses.

That’s in line with the World Health Organization’s guidance for states still seeing widespread COVID-19 transmission. “If a positivity rate is too high, that may indicate that the state is only testing the sickest patients who seek medical attention, and is not casting a wide enough net to know how much of the virus is spreading within its communities,” according to Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

The Charlotte region continues to see improvement with other coronavirus trends, including the daily caseload and hospitalizations. But Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio announced Wednesday most county employees would keep working remotely through the end of the year, emphasizing the accommodation for “especially those who have young and school aged children.”

“While we hoped we could begin returning to the office by now, I have decided to again delay moving to Stage 2 of the County’s reopen plan,” Diorio wrote in an email shared with the Charlotte Observer. “This decision…remains consistent with protecting the health and well-being of both the staff and the residents we serve.”

Reopening debate is top of mind for many in North Carolina. On Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to announce whether the state will transition into Phase 3. That would permit restaurants, houses of worship and certain businesses to expand their capacity limits. And restrictions on mass gatherings, both indoors and outdoors, would be loosened further.

North Carolina entered Phase 2.5 on Sept. 4, letting long-shuttered gyms, fitness centers and museums welcome back patrons. Bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, indoor entertainment venues and amusement parks have remained closed.

Mecklenburg has been reporting an average of about 100 new cases daily, down from an average of 160 earlier this month and more than 300 daily at a peak point in July. The encouraging numbers show Charlotte avoided a post-Labor Day spike in cases, as Public Health Director Gibbie Harris recently told county commissioners.

The weekly average number of COVID-19 patients needing hospital-level care was about 82 on Sunday, according to an Observer analysis of the most recently available county health data. That compares to an average of 136 patients at the start of September — and 190 at the start of August.

There have been about 264 coronavirus cases for every 10,000 residents in Mecklenburg since mid-March, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported Tuesday.

In total, Mecklenburg has seen more than 28,800 lab-confirmed coronavirus cases, DHHS data show. The county health department has reported a total of 357 virus-related deaths, including 62 fatalities reported in September so far.

The new inclusion of antigen test results, so far, has not had significant statistical impact on the overall trends locally.

Unlike the majority of COVID-19 tests administered locally and statewide, antigen tests can deliver rapid results in 15 minutes to determine whether a person has COVID-19. People who are presumed positive through antigen testing should seek confirmation through the widely-used PCR test, a more sensitive and reliable diagnostic tool, Harris said last week.

In Tuesday’s coronavirus data release, Mecklenburg officials did not differentiate between confirmed and probable cases — a common practice used by other states and health departments to convey more granular information about the pandemic.

“Regardless of the test used, a person who tests positive is considered to have COVID-19,” health officials said. “(Mecklenburg County Public Health) has and will continue to treat and report antigen positive cases the same in terms of our public health response.”

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The average number of people requiring hospital-level care for COVID-19 continues to decline in and around Charlotte, county health data shows. Mecklenburg County Mecklenburg County

Mecklenburg COVID-19 update

As of Sept. 27 — the last date demographic data was publicly available — county coronavirus data show:

Most people — about 60% of more than 28,000 cases — were adults under the age of 40. People older than 60 account for just over 12% of all cases reported but about 85% of all deaths.

After symptoms of coronavirus subside, a person diagnosed may be “released” from isolation under CDC guidelines. In Mecklenburg, roughly 8 in 10 people who tested positive have met the criteria to end isolation, according to local health officials.

About 1 in 20 people diagnosed were hospitalized due to their illness. People age 60 or older were more likely to need hospital care compared to younger people with coronavirus.

More than half of those people who have died from COVID-19 locally were connected to “active outbreaks” in long-term care facilities or nursing homes. Still, five of the 356 deaths recorded, as of Tuesday, were among people who had no known underlying conditions. Forty-six of the people who died were between the ages of 40 to 59, and four people were under the age of 40.

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Alison Kuznitz is a local government reporter for The Charlotte Observer, covering City Council and the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. Since March, she has also reported on COVID-19 in North Carolina. She previously interned at The Boston Globe, The Hartford Courant and Hearst Connecticut Media Group, and is a Penn State graduate.
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