Students are being sent home. The emergency department is “overrun.” Nursing homes are wrestling with outbreaks. Following is a look at the latest on COVID-19 in Moore County.
Citing “multiple classroom COVID-related quarantines” and the “absence of a large number of staff due to quarantines and/or infections,” Pinehurst Elementary School on Wednesday announced a week-long shift to online instruction for students.
“The decision to move to all-remote learning is based on the recommendation of the school administration, central service administration and the Moore County Health Department,” the school said in a Facebook post.
Teachers are being asked to work remotely until in-person instruction resumes on Jan. 19. Custodians, cafeteria workers and office staff must still “report to school each day” according to the announcement, which came two days after the Moore County Board of Education voted to reinstate a district-wide policy requiring all students and staff members to wear face masks to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Other disruptions have been reported in Moore County amid an avalanche of new COVID-19 cases.
The Robbins Board of Commissioners was forced to postpone its monthly meeting on Thursday following a "surge in COVID at Town Hall,” town clerk Jessica Coltrane wrote in an email. Robbins Elementary announced Thursday that one of its second grade classrooms would be closed for the next five days “due to a positive case of COVID-19 and possible spread within the classroom.”
Friend to Friend, a Carthage nonprofit that provides support to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, has recast its annual fundraising luncheon on Jan. 25 as a virtual event to “ensure our community’s safety and wellbeing.” The West Southern Pines Civic Club has called off its annual Martin Luther King Day march through downtown Southern Pines.
"We have too many members and residents who are infected, been exposed or are taking care of neglected family members," said Kim Wade, president of the club. "We know how important this celebration is, but the health and well-being of our community is more important."
Fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant, COVID-19 is spreading faster than ever in Moore County.
The local health department saw a moving, daily average of 259 new infections for the seven days ending Thursday, surpassing the record average of 240 cases set only a day earlier. The department reported an all-time high of 2,258 active infections, or cases involving people who have not yet recovered from COVID-19, on Wednesday.
“It seems to be that every day we have a new record number of COVID cases,” Matt Garner, interim director of the health department, said during Monday’s meeting of the Moore County Board of Health. The county, he said, has “not seen quite this level of surge” at any other point in the pandemic.
The number of people hospitalized across the state for COVID-19 has “nearly doubled” since the beginning of December, according to Garner. Jayne Lee, director of infection control for FirstHealth of the Carolinas and a member of the county health board, said the influx of infected patients is threatening to overwhelm FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst.
“Our hospital is at full capacity and our ER is overrun with patients,” she said. “We have patients right now from many surrounding counties and other states as well.”
The stark rise in cases has stirred unprecedented demand for coronavirus testing.
Lee said that over 500 people were attending the company’s daily, drive-thru testing clinics in Pinehurst. The laboratory that FirstHealth had been using to process the tests was working through a backlog, she said, creating a “huge delay in getting those results.”
“We’ve got several thousand results that we’re waiting on,” Lee said Monday, adding that FirstHealth has begun processing the tests differently to provide faster results to patients.
Drive-thru COVID-19 testing is available without an appointment from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily in the parking lot of the FirstHealth Cancer Center on Aviemore Drive in Pinehurst. No-appointment testing is also available from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Friday at the Moore County Health Department’s office in Carthage.
OUTBREAKS ON THE RISE
Nine long-term care facilities in Moore County are currently experiencing outbreaks of COVID-19, with most of the infections linked to staff members.
On Tuesday, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported outbreaks at six local nursing homes and three assisted living communities. They include:
• Accordius Health at Aberdeen, where seven employees and a resident have tested positive;
• The Coventry in Southern Pines, where three employees and a resident have tested positive;
• The Greens in Pinehurst, where nine employees have tested positive;
• The Inn at Quail Haven Village in Pinehurst, where six employees have tested positive;
• Magnolia Gardens in Southern Pines, where five employees have tested positive;
• Peak Resources Pinelake in Carthage, where five employees and a resident have tested positive;
• Pinehurst Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, where six employees and two residents have tested positive;
• St. Joseph of the Pines Health Center in Southern Pines, where six employees and a resident have tested positive;
• TerraBella, formerly Elmcroft, in Southern Pines, where three employees have tested positive.
An outbreak is defined by the state as two or more active infections in a congregate living setting. While such events were uncommon in the months before Omicron, outbreaks were once a major driver of COVID-19 cases and coronavirus-related deaths in Moore County.
Residents of long-term care facilities, a population that is especially vulnerable to the virus, account for a large number of the county’s fatal infections. The vast majority of those deaths, however, were reported before the arrival of vaccines.
People in long-term care were among the first groups eligible for vaccination in North Carolina, and recent data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services showed that nearly 90 percent of the county’s nursing home residents were fully vaccinated as of Dec. 19.
Many long-term care residents have also availed themselves of booster shots, which provide increased protection against Omicron. According to the CMS data, an average of 62 percent of the county’s fully vaccinated nursing home residents are boosted.
But vaccine hesitancy has persisted among workers in long-term care facilities. Over a quarter of the county’s nursing home employees are not fully vaccinated, according to the CMS data.
That number is likely to dwindle in the coming weeks. Under a federal mandate, nursing homes that receive reimbursement from Medicare or Medicaid must make sure that their employees receive either the one-dose vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson or the first shot of one of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna by Jan. 27.
‘BEST THING YOU CAN DO’
Garner said that while “illness from Omicron may be less severe,” the variant can still be “dangerous for those who are not vaccinated or those at higher risk of developing severe illness.”
“The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to get vaccinated, if you’re not already,” he said in a recent interview with The Pilot. “Additionally, you can extend that protection even further by getting a booster.”
People aged 16 or older are eligible for booster shots if they received both doses of Pfizer’s vaccine at least five months ago. Individuals aged 18 or older who received both doses of Moderna’s vaccine must also wait five months. Adults who received the one-shot vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson are eligible after two months.
Appointments for vaccinations and boosters can be scheduled with the Moore County Health Department by calling 910-947-7468 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays.
People who have not yet received a booster shot should quarantine for five days if exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, according to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC said boosted individuals are not required to quarantine following exposure unless they experience symptoms.
About 54 percent of the county’s population was fully vaccinated as of Wednesday — the same percentage reported in late-November. If counting only residents aged 18 and older, about 65 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
FirstHealth of the Carolinas joined nearly 30 other North Carolina hospital systems in signing an open letter on Wednesday asking for the public’s “immediate help to slow community spread” of COVID-19. Released by the North Carolina Healthcare Association, the letter said hospitals across the state are being inundated with infected patients — “a vast majority of whom are unvaccinated.”
“This situation is putting daily strain on our ability to care for those who have other urgent medical needs that are not COVID-related,” the letter said. “Our best chance of returning to living healthy, normal lives is to make sure our families, friends and work colleagues are choosing to be vaccinated and getting their recommended booster shots.”
The letter also urges people to wear face masks in public even if they have been vaccinated — a recommendation that was echoed by Garner during Monday’s meeting of the Moore County Board of Health.
““What we’ve seen, and what the science and data has shown, is that (masks) go a long way in reducing the spread,” he said.
The health department will be distributing free packages of N95 masks to residents from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesday at the Moore County Agricultural Center in Carthage. According to a news release from the department, the masks “offer enhanced protection by filtering out all types of particles, including bacteria and viruses.”
A total of 17,841 infections have been identified in Moore County since the pandemic began nearly two years ago, with over 2,750 of those cases recorded in the first two weeks of January alone. At least 266 of the county’s cases, or about 1.4 percent, have been fatal.