As we approach the Labor Day holiday weekend comes the unsettling news that the risk level associated with becoming infected with COVID-19 is raging out of control.

“I know everyone just wants Covid to be over. Unfortunately, right now your chances of catching Covid in Brunswick county are higher than they have ever been,” stated Boiling Spring Lakes Family Medicine doctor Karen Wood M.D. “We have a record number of patients hospitalized with Covid right now and both Dosher and Novant hospitals have had patients in their 20’s and 30’s on ventilators and dying in the past two weeks.”

The numbers speak for themselves. Brunswick County is experiencing a high percentage of positive COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious Delta Variant. 

As of August 30, the Brunswick County Health Department reported 12,860 cases, and 183 deaths. On August 2, the county counted 10,128 confirmed and probable cases, including 139 new cases, 524 active cases, and 161 deaths.

“I encourage people to get tested for Covid when they feel sick to help prevent spreading it, and because we do have treatments available that can help you get better faster and stay out of the hospital,” said Dr. Wood. “We all need to wear our masks, avoid crowds, get Covid tested when sick and get the Covid vaccine so we can help save the lives of our families, friends and neighbors.”

One of the treatments she mentioned is monoclonal antibody infusion or therapy, which can be used only under certain circumstances.

“I think if you meet the criteria it is something that should be used. We also use Remdesivir, the antiviral drug,” said Joseph P. Hatem, MD who heads up Dosher Hospital’s ER.

The hospital has sent patients to clinics all over Brunswick County for treatment.

“From what I understand Novant Brunswick has been using the monoclonal antibodies and it is a very good treatment in blunting that inflammatory response from the virus,” he said.

Hatem confirmed hospitals are treating younger patients.

“What I’m seeing, and all the ER doctors around the country are seeing, is that the patients with COVID-19 in the ER are not vaccinated. The patients who have been vaccinated who get Covid; their symptoms have been mitigated by the inoculation, they are not as sick, they are able to either call or see their doctor or go to urgent care,” Hatem stated. “The patients we see in the ER, they come in with shortness of breath, they have trouble breathing from the inflammatory response in the lungs, pneumonia and that type of thing.”

COVID in the community

As numbers of COVID-19 escalate, the impact is being felt throughout the community.

Last week, West Brunswick High School announced its varsity football team was pausing all activities until further notice out of an abundance of caution due to COVID-19 impacts within the program.

Then on Tuesday, August 31, Brunswick County Schools announced the South Brunswick High School Varsity Volleyball team was taking similar action for the same reasons.

“The health and safety of all students and staff come first,’’ said Daniel Seamans, Chief Communications Officer for Brunswick County Schools. 

Also on Tuesday, the Brunswick County Health Department confirmed an outbreak of COVID-19 at Elmcroft of Southport.

“To date, 16 cases have been identified at this location (15 residents, one staff member). Based on our communication with this congregate living setting, everyone was fully vaccinated except for one resident,” the county offered, adding it conducts regular check-ins with the management at all congregate living settings experiencing an outbreak to track the outbreak, provide guidance on testing, discuss mitigation measures and supply needs, among other things.

Ann Worley, executive director of Elmcroft of Southport issued the following statement:

“First, our hearts go out to the families and friends of the residents who passed away at our community recently. These are difficult times, but our team is remaining focused and vigilant to help us all get through these times. Despite our ongoing implementation of US CDC recommended infection prevention and control protocols and ongoing efforts to encourage vaccination among residents and staff, the newest wave of COVID-19 has affected our community,” she stated. Worley went on to say the facility is being vigilant in its attempts to reduce the spread of the virus by encouraging vaccination.

“Currently 97% of our staff and 90% of our residents are fully vaccinated,” Worley said, adding that the facility continues to work closely with the health department to contain the virus and update residents and their families about positive test results and preventative measures to control the spread of infection.

“We deeply appreciate our heroes who work in our community every day, every shift caring for each senior. It is a true calling to help others, especially at times like these,” Worley said.

Charter school COVID cases

Classical Charter School-Southport, managed by the Roger Bacon Academy, declined to return calls on for comment about COVID-19 exposures in the school and what the school termed “inappropriate and precipitous actions” on the part of the Brunswick County Health Board and County Health and Human Services Director, Cris Harrelson. 

On August 6, the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office served four staff members with Control Measure Orders (CMO) that carried a threat of up to two years imprisonment for failure to comply.

In a letter dated August 30 sent to the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, the school confirmed that on August 11 there were 32 active COVID cases at its Leland school and 11 active COVID cases at its Southport campus. The letter challenges “grossly over-reported true active cases” of COVID-19 alleged to have been stated in an email by Cris Harrelson.

The school further claims the actual numbers were recorded in shared logs between the school and the health department. The letter also addresses disparaging remarks about the schools on the part of county employees calling for contact tracing. 

Asked if there was any failure on the part of the school to inform parents of student exposure, the health department stated Tuesday, “Brunswick County Health Services is not aware of any failure on the part of school officials to inform parents of direct and indirect exposures to COVID-19.”

Also on Tuesday, the school’s Facebook page addressed parents with the following statement: 

“Extensive discussions have been held with the Brunswick County Health Department over the past month concerning masking protocols. We are ever mindful of the trust you have placed in us for the safety and education of your children, and we think it appropriate to provide you with additional information about how these discussions transpired for those of you, parents and staff, who may have an interest in this on-going topic.”

The school made available all of its past communication with the county on its website and Facebook page.

Latest COVID statistics

Last week the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) issued new data in its weekly “respirator surveillance report,” showing adult ICU patients hit record highs for the entire pandemic period.

The report shows unvaccinated people were more than 15 times, or 1,540-percent, more likely to die from COVID-19 during the four-week period ending August 21. The grim news preceded further statistics showing the state hit a pandemic high on August 26 with 912 adults hospitalized in ICU and 574 COVID-19 patients on ventilators, reaching a record high.

This report is the first to provide age-adjusted death rate data for COVID-19 to allow for fairer comparisons between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. The vaccinated population is older than the unvaccinated population, therefore older people are more likely to die from COVID-19. Data is subject to change as additional cases and deaths are reported.

“Breakthrough” cases made up 18% of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina the week ending August 14. The Brunswick County Health Department reported post-vaccination or local data on breakthrough cases or demographics is not currently available. Health Services is identifying some breakthrough cases, however the symptoms are usually mild. 

County health departments do not receive regular data from hospitals on residents affected with COVID-19. Instead, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services surveys hospitals across North Carolina daily to monitor their current hospitalizations due to COVID-19 and their current capacity.

NCDHHS provides hospitalization information both statewide and regionally on its COVID-19 Dashboard which includes:

• Number of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19

• Number of confirmed patients admitted in the last 24 hours

• Full and available adult intensive care unit (ICU) beds

• Number of staffed inpatient beds

• Number of patients on ventilators

• Number of available ventilators

• Demographic data (of newly admitted confirmed COVID-19 patients only)

When considering the total number of cases in Brunswick County, the age group hit hardest is the 25-49 year group which accounts for 33- percent of all cases. People age 65+ and older account for most deaths. Since July 1, the age breakdown of the 26 reported deaths is as follows:

30-39: 1

20-29: 3

50-59: 2

60+: 20

 “Vaccines continue to prove they protect individuals from becoming severely ill, and significantly reduce the likelihood of hospitalization and death,” the Brunswick County Health Department stated. The health department is administering additional third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna (mRNA) vaccine at its main vaccination clinic in Bolivia and pop-up vaccination clinics for moderately to severely immunocompromised people after an initial two-dose primary mRNA vaccine series only.

Booster vaccines for the general population are still pending further guidance from the FDA and CDC. 

Going into the holiday weekend

As retailers and businesses in Southport gear up for Labor Day weekend and an influx of visitors, Dr. Hatem said he and city officials have approached businesses to tell them they need to put up a sign to encourage mask wearing.

“Fortunately the crowds are mainly outdoors in Southport,” he said, adding masks are recommended indoors, especially when shopping.

The CDC recommends outdoor gatherings as the safer option when it comes to spending time with people outside of their household. The health department continues to advise people who feel unwell to stay home and consider getting a COVID-19 test, washing hands frequently and using hand sanitizer.

 As of Tuesday, August 31, the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the entire state of North Carolina since the beginning of the pandemic stood at 1,213,654 with 14,468 deaths recorded. The daily percentage of people testing positive is 14.5-percent. Sixty- percent of North Carolina’s adult population is now fully vaccinated, while 65-percent of the same population group have received at least one dose.

Also on Tuesday, Governor Cooper signed an executive order that would essentially allow the state’s health director to issue statewide orders for vaccination and testing.

“As our state COVID-19 metrics continue to move in the wrong direction, it is important that we continue to do all we can to get people tested and vaccinated,” said Gov. Cooper, who on Monday also signed a bill that would allow North Carolina schools to return to remote learning if a COVID-19 emergency deemed such a move necessary.