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Mecklenburg health officials warn of risky New Year's parties and misuse of emergency rooms

 Incoming Mecklenburg County Health Director Raynard Washington speaks at a virutal news conference on Dec. 30, 2021.
Mecklenburg County
Incoming Mecklenburg County Health Director Raynard Washington speaks at a virutal news conference on Dec. 30, 2021.

With COVID-19 numbers rising in Mecklenburg County and statewide, local health officials Thursday called on people to scale back New Year’s parties and stay home when they’re sick.

Dr. Raynard Washington, deputy director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department, said in a news conference that cases and positivity rates are rising.

"In addition to that our hospitalizations are increasing," he said. "Our demand and strain on our emergency departments continues to be incredibly challenging for our health care systems."

Representatives of Atrium Health and Novant Health, the region’s two biggest healthcare providers, joined in asking for community help controlling the spread of the omicron variant. Novant's chief clinical officer, Dr. Sid Fletcher, said this weekend could be a bad time if people aren’t careful.

"Please rethink your New Year’s Eve plans," he said. "If you can, make it a smaller gathering, make it with your immediate family. If not, try to make it outside. Try to take advantage of this nice warm weather and be outside."

Fletcher and Washington urged people who aren’t sick to stop going to emergency departments for COVID-19 tests, saying that strains the staff and increases the risk of spreading disease.

Working on school safety

Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris says there are no plans to stop Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools from resuming in-person classes Tuesday. She spoke on her last day of work, before retiring and handing off the job to Washington.

"There are no plans at this point to delay the start of school," Harris said. "I know that many parents have been concerned about that. But we do want to do everything we can to help our children stay in school."

She said that means using the same precautions everyone should be taking: Getting vaccinated, wearing masks and staying home if you develop any symptoms that could be COVID-19.

Thursday afternoon North Carolina health officials updated their quarantine guidelines for schools to reflect new federal guidance. Unvaccinated students who have been exposed to COVID-19 without consistent mask use can now go back after five days if they have no symptoms. Before the winter break, seven to 10 days of quarantine were required.

Harris said she had just gotten that information and is working with CMS to provide more information to parents and employees over the weekend.

Trying for more testing

Washington also said the county is trying to open more testing sites and revive the distribution of at-home test kits at libraries.

But he said the county and all health care systems are facing challenges with staffing and finding enough tests. The county stopped distributing home testing kits last week because of shortages. Washington says he hopes to restart the program next week, but can’t make specific promises.

"We’re facing a number of supply-chain issues and shipping issues at this time and so our orders are being split up," he said.

He urged people who think they’ve been exposed but aren’t sick not to go to emergency rooms to seek testing — and also not to go out and expose others unless they’re sure they don’t have COVID-19.

"If you are sick and you have symptoms and they’re mild and manageable and you don’t want to wait in a four or five-hour line to get tested, you can always stay home and assume you have COVID and isolate," Washington said.

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.