As COVID-19 metrics worsen, NCDHHS launches county alert system

SEEING RED: Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled a new county COVID-19 alert system designed to pinpoint emerging hotspots. Tiered rankings are determined by looking at case rates, the percent of positive tests and a county-level hospital impact score. Graphic courtesy of NCDHHS

With COVID-19 trends worsening across the state, Gov. Roy Cooper is worried. 

On Nov. 17, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported 3,288 new cases of COVID-19, the second-highest number of cases reported in a single day. At the same time 1,502 hospitalized COVID-19 patients marked a new state record. The percent of positive tests is up to 8.1% — significantly above the 5% threshold state health officials say represents a controllable level of new infections.

It’s not a surge yet, but heightened viral spread in local communities and across the country should act as a “canary in a coal mine” for what North Carolina could soon be facing, Cooper warned at a Nov. 17 press conference. 

In response, state health officials unveiled a new county COVID-19 alert system designed to pinpoint hot spots and offer targeted recommendations to reduce the spread of COVID-19. All 100 counties are assigned a color-coded tier to indicate areas where residents need to ratchet up protective measures, announced Cooper. 

The system uses metrics informed by the White House Coronavirus Task Force to place counties into three categories, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s secretary of health and human services: Yellow, where significant community spread is occurring; orange, with substantial community spread; and red, where viral spread has become critical. 

MEETING THE MARK: In order to be classified as orange or red, North Carolina counties must reach the thresholds delineated in this table. Graphic courtesy of NCDHHS

Currently, every North Carolina county is classified at least as yellow due to widespread and sustained viral spread in the community, Cohen explained. The system uses per-capita case rates, the percent of positive tests and a composite hospital score that takes into account hospitalization rates, staffing shortages and emergency room visits to determine a county’s classification. 

The alert system also includes additional health recommendations for individuals, business owners and public officials residing in orange and red counties. Suggestions include teleworking when possible, imposing civil penalties to enforce statewide executive orders, instituting limits on in-person community and religious gatherings and opening additional COVID-19 testing sites. Compliance with the recommendations is voluntary, Cooper said, but failure to slow viral spread will result in additional restrictions at the state and county level, he warned. 

As of Nov. 17, 43 North Carolina counties are in the orange zone, and 10 counties are red. Buncombe, which reported 329 new COVID-19 cases over the last seven days, currently falls in the yellow zone; Cherokee, Jackson, Madison and Swain counties all fall in the orange zone. Counties will be evaluated and reclassified every four weeks. 

“If officials, businesses, community and faith leaders and people who live in these orange and red counties can work with us to take action to bring down their numbers, we can protect our state’s hospital system and save lives,” Cooper said. “This can prevent us from having to move backward.”

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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One thought on “As COVID-19 metrics worsen, NCDHHS launches county alert system

  1. Charles

    “As COVID-19 metrics worsen, NCDHHS launches county alert system”. Great. Really comforting to know it will be updated monthly. I’d rather be reading “As COVID-19 metrics worsen, NC governor takes action to enforce stricter protocols”. It just seems like someone somewhere should be doing something?

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