Charlotte is moving in the direction of a return to the ‘normal’ on the COVID-19 front
Charlotte is moving in the direction of a return to the ‘normal’ on the COVID-19 front

Charlotte is moving in the direction of a return to the ‘normal’ on the COVID-19 front

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde / Axios

Mecklenburg County is preparing to loosen its mandate for the indoor mask. The number of cases of COVID-19 is declining. The demand for testing is declining. Customers eat indoors. And some large employers calling employees back to their bed stalls.

These recent shifts raise the question: Are we heading back to some kind of “normal”?

What happens: Last week, Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington that if trends continue to improve, he will recommend repealing the county-wide mask mandate at Wednesday’s board meeting of county commissioners.

  • “We are much better off where we are and we are certainly encouraged that the numbers continue to fall quite aggressively,” Washington told commissioners.

By the numbers: Washington says local COVID trends have improved markedly since the Omicron peak this winter:

  • The number of cases has fallen by about 65%.
  • The percentage positivity has fallen by about 45%.
  • Admissions have fallen by about 30%.

Demand for testing has also declined. StarMed administered about 6,000 tests across the state last week, down from 10,000 the previous week.

  • For the sake of comparison, in the week of January 9, around the top of the Omicron variant, StarMed tested 50,000 people, CEO Mike Estramonte tells Axios.
  • Over half of the total tests that StarMed administers are in Mecklenburg County, per. Estramonte.

Diagram: Axios Visuals, Data: StarMed

“Things feel like they’ve calmed down,” Estramonte says. “(But) we still have a high level of positivity among the people we test.”

In the week from February 8 to February 13, 17% of the tests administered by StarMed returned positive. It is well above the targeted positivity rate of 5% that local health officials say they would like to see, but better than the rates of 25-30% in early January.

Zoom out: Across the country, cities, counties and states are loosening COVID-19 restrictions. This is especially true among urban and democratic areas that have held tighter to pandemic restrictions.

Some most recent poll shows that as many as 70% of Americans believe it is “time to accept that COVID has come to stay and that we need to move on with our lives.”

But: Although trends are improving, hospitals are still treating a large number of COVID patients.

  • Last week, the NC National Guard deployed troops and pilots to Alamance Regional Medical Center in Burlington to support staff and hospital operations in dealing with the Omicron rise.
  • As of Monday, there was still a federal team that also supported surgeries at Atrium Health Pineville.

“Although COVID cases and hospitalizations have declined and are declining, we are still seeing high levels of positivity in society and hospitals are still very much filled with those still suffering from COVID-19 or the effects of the virus,” a statement to Axios from Atrium Health read.

  • Those at higher risk should continue to mask, the hospital system added. And anyone who has not done so should be vaccinated and boosted.

What’s more, Pfizer said recently it delays its application for vaccines for children between six months and four years. The move has left countless parents nationwide frustrated, especially as pandemic security measures are lifted.

  • Last week, the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board voted to renew its mask mandate, as reported by the WFAE. But the board said it would consider revoking the mandate following the county’s decision.

Note: Healthcare options like Atrium hospitals will still require masks, according to the hospital.

Businesses can also demand masks, even if the county lifts its mandate, as the Observer reported last week.

  • They are considered private property and may require face clothing just as they require customers to wear pants.

Some companies that currently need masks say they will wait to hear about the county’s decision before adjusting their own protocols. “Once we hear what their plans are, we will adjust our plans accordingly,” Blumenthal Performing Arts CEO Tom Gabbard told the Observer.

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