Columbus County has the highest COVID-19 transmission rate in North Carolina, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That has led to a significant increase in cases and hospitalizations in the last three weeks.
From July 26 to Aug. 1, the county case rate was 414.35 cases per 100,000 residents — or 0.41%, according to the CDC.
While that case rate is much lower than Columbus County’s peak rate, it’s a 49% increase from the previous week, which was a 295% increase from the week before that, according to the CDC. That’s a 344% increase since mid-July.
“We are in high transmission mode,” Health Director Kim Smith told The News Reporter last week.
The most recent spike in community transmission is due to the delta variant, which is more contagious, more likely to lead to hospitalization and more deadly, according to Smith.
CDC data shows that hospitalizations have increased by 185% in the last week and, the week before that, by 550%. That’s an increase of 735% since mid-July.
On Sunday, 20 Columbus Countians were in the hospital due to COVID-19, according to the CDC.
“Everyone hoped we would be past this by now, including me,” said Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday during a press conference. “This is the reality we have to confront.”
As a result, Cooper has asked counties with high transmission — like Columbus County — to follow recent CDC guidelines, which recommends that residents of areas with high and substantial COVID-19 transmission should wear masks indoors, even if they’re vaccinated.
The statewide mask mandate ended Friday.
Columbus County is currently experiencing four outbreaks, according to a document the health department submitted to the county commissioners. They’re at Goshen Medical in South Whiteville, Liberty Commons in Whiteville, Shoreland in Whiteville and Columbus Correctional Institution in Brunswick.
The state has not reported any of those outbreaks. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety shows three active cases and 435 recoveries at Tabor Correctional Institution (which has been stable for weeks), but zero active cases and 139 recoveries at Columbus Correctional.
The county health department, however, says that 10 offenders and one employee at Columbus Correctional have tested positive for COVID-19.
The health department is also saying that six Goshen employees, one resident and one staff member at Liberty Commons and one resident and one employee at Shoreland have tested positive.
Premier Living in Lake Waccamaw, which is not experiencing an outbreak, has paused indoor resident visitation. The Whiteville Police Department has also closed its lobby to the public due to COVID-19 spread.
Columbus County saw 47 cases on July 20, 33 on July 21, 38 on July 22, zero on July 23, nine on July 24, 10 on July 25, 68 on July 26, 45 on July 27 and 16 on July 28, according to NCDHHS, which says these numbers are subject to change. The total case count is now 6,903.
The state is also recording the total death count in Columbus County at 157 with the latest deaths on July 17, 23, 25 and 26. The county health department, however, says there have been 159.
‘Vaccines are our way out’
“Our trends have turned sharply in the wrong direction,” said Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday. “Unvaccinated people are driving this resurgence and getting themselves, and others, sick.”
Approximately 35% of Columbus County residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
“This moment requires action,” said NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen. “Vaccinations are our way out of this pandemic.”
As a result, on Thursday Cooper issued a new executive order: state government cabinet agencies must verify the vaccination statuses of their employees. Employees who are not vaccinated must undergo COVID-19 testing at least once a week and will be required to wear masks.
Cooper also encouraged other businesses to require vaccines of their employees. “We are at a crossroads in this pandemic, and we need the private sector to help us increase our vaccination rates. Our economy depends on it, in addition to our health,” he said.
Cooper added that the three COVID-19 vaccines are “safe, effective, free and available in every community.”
The Columbus County Health Department has not experienced a recent influx of calls requesting a vaccine, according to documentation submitted to the county commissioners.