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COVID-19NC: Case Speculation & The J&J Pause


COVID-19 cases in North Carolina continue a “rolling simmer” with the 7-day average of new confirmed cases now hovering around 2,000.  At least 1,096 people are hospitalized, up from 1,064 from Friday. Meantime, state and local health officials are grappling with how to keep up  vaccine enthusiasm – just a few of the topics BPR’s Helen Chickering and NC Health News editor Rose Hoban tackle in their weekly coronavirus check-in.  

HC: So, before we talk vaccines, let's check in on trends. We're not seeing spikes so much more stable with bumps up. I see we have one County in the red critical zone again on NC COVID-19 county alert system map. That's Edgecombe in the eastern part of the state.

RH:  We're starting to see hospitalizations tick up and there's about 250 people in ICU. The thing that's different, you know, substantially different is the level of death is way down. It's like six, eight, 10 people a day. So, we're down much, much lower.  What that tells us,  and you can see it in the stats, is that the people who are getting sick now are younger, they're extensively healthier. So, they're more likely to survive, but there are still people who are getting sick enough to end up in the hospital.

HC: I'm thinking with solid numbers of people over 65 being vaccinated, and now vaccines are open to everyone, but it doesn't feel like the younger set is scrambling as much.

RH: It was interesting. I was listening to an interview this morning with Nataline Dean, an epidemiologist biostatistician from Florida.  She was talking about the fact that  there are so many fudge factors when you figure out like, where's the pandemic going?  Factor in vaccinations, you can factor in all the people who've gotten the disease, and so have some immunity.   We don't know what kind of immunity they have, because we haven't really had a long time to study it. You can factor in whether  we can get outside. Now maybe part of the reason why Michigan is really surging is cause it's still snowing up there. So, people can't get outside. All these fudge factors that you have to put into any statistical model of what's going to happen. You know, is this a fourth wave or not? So, there's all these counters now that make it really, really, hard to predict what's going to happen next.

HC: It's a brain scrambler and it gets into my next question about the potential impact of one of those factors, which is this week's headline story. Federal officials pushing the pause button on the Johnson and Johnson vaccine after rare cases of blood clots were reported.

RH: Pretty much every public health person I know said, “ughhhhh” because they all get it. The messaging from the public health folks has been very clear, very consistent. This pause should give people reassurance that there is scrupulous attention being paid to how well these vaccines are performing and any type of side effects that they may be producing. The flip side of that is how many people are going to go like,  “Oh, well.”   That is exactly what I'm writing about for early next week. I think we're seeing peak vaccination rates right around now. We're right at around 45% now. So, I think those early eager and willing, we're starting to exhaust them. And now we're going to be moving into more contentious populations - vaccinating children, vaccinating teens. I had one local health director say, you know, 50%. Yeah, we're going to get that. And then the next 20% is going to be hard. And the last 30% is going to be like hand-to-hand combat.

HC: You know, this is a big reminder that the scientific process is always in progress. We just don't pay that much attention to

RH: What people don't understand is that there's post-release studies. I mean, Vioxx think about Vioxx, right? They did big clinical trials, but we only found the problems with Vioxx and Celebrex after it was released to the public or let's talk about hormone replacement therapy. So, these were all things that we found out the data once they were released to the public, right? So, you study 30,000 people. You're going to find a lot of stuff. When you've got 6 million people, you're going to find other stuff, but literally this blood clot thing, if it was a one in a million incidence, and that one in a million incidence is not going to show up in a study sample size of 30,000.

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.