Moore County is experiencing an expected spike in COVID-19 cases, but infections are spreading slower than during previous winters.
“As in years past we have seen a post-holiday surge in cases, likely due in large part to folks traveling, gathering and being indoors,” Matt Garner, interim director of the Moore County Health Department, said during Monday’s meeting of the local Board of Health.
The department, he said, recorded a moving, daily average of about seven new cases the week before Thanksgiving. That number has since climbed to about 30 cases a day.
At the same time, Garner said, the county is “far from the point where we were last year at this same time.” The agency was seeing about 114 new cases a day at the beginning of 2022, owing to the emergence of the then-new Omicron variant of COVID-19.
“As we look ahead, if we go by last year’s trends as a gauge, we might anticipate that case numbers will steadily increase throughout January and then enter a steep decline as we move from February to March,” Garner said, adding that the number of severe infections leading to hospitalization and death in Moore County and across the state has remained low “thanks to vaccination and previous infections.”
Data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services showed that 55,860 adults in Moore County, or about 70 percent of the population, had received their initial vaccine series as of Jan. 4. At least 350 COVID-19 infections recorded locally since the start of the pandemic, or about 1.1 percent, have been fatal.
While Omicron remains the dominant strand of COVID-19 in North Carolina, Garner noted that cases involving the newer XBB.1.5 variant are “rising quickly.”
“Early indications show that the XBB.1.5 variant may be even more contagious than previous ones,” he said. “However, symptoms and the period of contagiousness appear to be the same and not any more or less severe.”
Citing research from infectious diseases specialists, Garner said it’s a “good sign that for the last year, all of the variants that have emerged have been descendants of Omicron.” That shared lineage, he said, could mean that the virus “won’t evolve much further past the protections against serious disease that nearly everyone now has from vaccinations and previous infection.”
Earlier on Monday, Garner briefed the health board on his department’s response to last month’s electric substation attacks that left more than 45,000 homes and businesses in the county without power for days. The Health Department’s staff, he said, was directly involved with the operation of the emergency shelter at the Moore County Sports Complex in Carthage
“For any shelter event, the Health Department works in concert with Moore County DSS to provide staffing for the shelter,” Garner said. “Our nurses and support staff worked in 12-hour shifts at the shelter, both day and night, and did a wonderful job.”
He went on to praise Melissa Fraley, the department’s director of nursing, for “coordinating the shelter’s scheduling while also maintaining our regular, daily clinic schedule.”
“We really didn’t miss a beat that week despite all the challenges that we experienced,” Garner said of the shelter operation, which housed 54 individuals at its peak on Dec. 6. “Throughout those five days (of the blackout) the shelter did have lots of traffic, both in and out, as many residents stopped in temporarily to get warm, take a shower, charge their devices or have a meal.”
Garner also singled out the agency’s environmental health staff for their work during the crisis. Those employees, he said, “worked diligently to coordinate” with over 600 local food establishments that lost power after the attacks.
The Health Department temporarily suspended operational permits for local restaurants that lost electricity following the attacks. Those establishments were required to verify that they regained power and disposed of any unrefrigerated food items before their permits were reinstated.
“Anytime there is an extended loss of power we must take extra care to ensure that our restaurants and food services establishments are following emergency procedures for safe food storage and handling,” Garner said. “This includes having a means to refrigerate food items, discarding any food items that may have experienced temperature excursion and access to water for cleaning and sanitization and hygiene.”