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COVID-19NC: Bars, Variants & Vaccines

"We Survived! Come Celebrate Today Until 11PM!" A Facebook post by The Odditorium in West Asheville announcing the bar's indoor re-opening.

Bars in North Carolina  welcomed back customers indoors over the weekend after almost a year of outdoor only cocktail service.  On Friday, the Governor Roy Cooper’s new executive order took effect, allowing indoor service at bars with 30% capacity,  lifting the 10 p.m. curfew and  easing capacity restrictions for a number of businesses and venues.  During Wednesday’s briefing the governor stressed that the new order was part of his continued “dimmer switch approach”  noting that key indicators used to guide decisions throughout pandemic show state’s trends are moving in the right direction.  On the same day the order went into effect, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that the country’s recent progress in slowing the coronavirus spread may be "stalling" as highly infectious new variants become more predominant.     BPR’s Helen Chickering discussed the new order and variants with NC Health News Editor Rose Hoban.

“Given the significant and sustained improvement in our COVID-19 metrics today,” Governor Roy Cooper announced on Wednesday, “I'm announcing that we will ease, but not lift restrictions in several areas with the new executive order that will go into effect this Friday, February the 26.”

HC: Let's talk about the new executive order. It lifts the 10 p.m. curfew, also loosens capacity restrictions on a number of businesses and venues  - too many to list right now. So, I want to get a sense of what pinged on your radar. I will say indoor bars and more people in gyms got my attention.

RH: Yeah. the indoor things hit my radar too. Especially since these variants are floating around, some of which are more easily transmitted. I was reading something this morning from some epidemiologists who were saying, if we could just hold on a couple more weeks and get like another 10 million -  20 million people vaccinated, then we could avoid a fourth wave.  But there are people with these variants, now there's a New York city variant, there's the South African variant. There's the British variant. They all slight. But they're saying that we could actually have a fourth wave because these variants, some of which elude the types of defenses mounted by our immune system, like the South African variant.

HC: So let's talk about COVID-19 variants, which is really interesting science,

RH: Fascinating! Viruses mutate and evolve. And there's this whole thing of antigen drift with viruses. They're always changing, but what's so fascinating about this COVID virus is this idea that like these variations are taking place in different parts of the world. And they're similar. It kind of tells me that there's only a relative handful  of ways that this virus can actually evolve.

HC: So, I'm coming from a complete lay perspective here, but for the scientists trying to figure it out, that seems like that would be a good thing if you had some common denominators across continents.

RH: Right. And  and part of the things that are changing is that spike protein, the little things that are sticking out from the surface of the virus and so that protein is sort of shifting shape.  And we've seen that with thesemRNA vaccines,  that you could upgrade these COVID vaccines pretty easily. And that's what the companies are saying about these mRNA vaccines is that you have this quote unquote platform and then it's sort of plug and play, right. And you stick in the protein that you're looking for and you added to the vaccine and then go, which is super fascinating to me.

HC: We are watching science in action during this pandemic. Back to vaccines, it sounds like the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is coming and  we're going to get some in North Carolina.

RH: It's a game changer and they're poised to have like 2 million like chipping next week. Dr. Cohen said that that means we're getting like 50,000 doses next week. So, we'll go from getting about 155,000 doses last week to having  more than 200,000 doses available next week. You know what that's going to do for availability. It's going to be huge.

HC: And it's going to be interesting to watch where I guess I'm wondering, is there a strategy and allocation strategy because it's a one dose vaccine?

RH: Well, part of me thinks the one shot would be really great for people who are, home bound. I also think about people with disabilities. Again, they'll have a limited ability to get around.  How about teachers? What if you just took that 50,000 doses and just targeted teachers, you have them at the gym of the school where you teach, everyone comes in, they get their shot. You could get all these people vaccinated, toot suite  -  which going back to your original question -  is why I'm a little bit surprised that Governor Cooper went for opening the bars now, instead of waiting like say two more weeks.

About Rose Hoban:

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News,as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992 but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees in public health policy and journalism. She's reported on science, health policy and research in NC since 2005. Contact: editor at northcarolinahealthnews.org

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.
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