Stay-at-home order unlikely, Meck official says, as COVID-19 conditions deteriorate

With the promise of vaccine distribution just weeks away, Mecklenburg County commissioners’ chairman George Dunlap says he doesn’t anticipate issuing another stay-at-home order, even as COVID-19 cases balloon throughout the Charlotte region.

The strict pandemic measure — implemented by local officials last spring, ahead of a statewide order from Gov. Roy Cooper — continues to lack the countywide support that’s needed to effectively flatten the coronavirus curve.

And Mecklenburg officials cannot stop residents from venturing into nearby counties, including Gaston and Iredell, where the virus is spreading more rapidly, Dunlap acknowledged. “Knowing what I know right now, I would not” sign a new order, he told The Charlotte Observer Tuesday.

“We’re not talking about building a field hospital or anything like that anymore,” Dunlap said, invoking early fears from April that local hospitals could be overwhelmed without sweeping lockdowns.

“The concern that I have is as people hear there’s a vaccine … I think people will begin to relax and not be as diligent in terms of following COVID protocols. That has the potential to allow the cases to get out of hand.”

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles could not be reached for comment on the prospect of additional safety measures. But Lyles, who’s signed other local emergency declarations tied to the pandemic, has previously signaled her intent to support all guidance from Mecklenburg Public Health Director Gibbie Harris, a city spokesman said.

Mecklenburg has logged 41,392 cumulative cases since the start of the pandemic in March, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported Tuesday. That’s a rate of 373 cases for every 10,000 residents. The death toll is 436, Mecklenburg officials said Monday afternoon.

Over the weekend, the county shattered a single-day record when it added 534 new infections.

Local COVID-19 trends

In recent weeks, Mecklenburg’s new daily caseload and other crucial metrics have continued to accelerate in the wrong direction, moving closer to the alarming levels seen during July’s coronavirus peak.

Local and state health officials say the public must comply with basic guidelines, like wearing a face mask and social distancing, to avoid more regulations that could once again shutter businesses.

“We are in danger,” Cooper said in a news conference Monday. “This is a pivotal moment in our fight against the coronavirus. Our actions now will determine the fate of many.”

Mecklenburg has averaged nearly 365 new daily cases over the past week — nearly double the volume recorded at this point last month, public health data shows. The surge in infections cannot be solely attributed to expanded COVID-19 testing in Mecklenburg.

The county’s case tally rose by more than 110% in the first three weeks of November, compared to the same time span in October. In that period, the amount of tests administered among Mecklenburg residents increased by only 34%, according to a Charlotte Observer analysis.

The total could likely swell further by mid-December, when health data incorporates infections linked to the Thanksgiving holiday.

Health experts are encouraging people to keep gatherings small, get tested for COVID-19 prior to traveling, and opt for virtual celebrations if possible.

”The bottom line is we’re not naive — we know it’s going to happen,” Dunlap said of risky indoor get-togethers with extended family and friends. “We would simply warn people that once you’ve gone on your vacation and your Thanksgiving dinner, get back to the (coronavirus) protocols.”

Mecklenburg’s average positivity rate — which measures the percentage of COVID-19 tests that return a positive result — was 7.8% in the past week. That exceeds the 5% target outlined by the state and World Health Organizations when contemplating easing and tightening restrictions.

A higher positivity rate means the virus is growing more prevalent in a community, though Mecklenburg still ranks in the state’s lowest tier for community spread, based on a new county alert system. The tool also indicates local hospitals systems are equipped to care for coronavirus patients, with adequate staffing and beds still available.

The average number of people needing intensive hospital-level care has hovered around 180 in the past week, though — just 20 patients below the July peak.

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