North Carolina’s COVID-19 numbers have started to inch back up, state health officials said this week. They cite the rapid spread of the delta variant, particularly in counties with low vaccination rates, as the reason for the increase.
The delta variant, which is more contagious and could cause more serious illness, is “rapidly replacing” all of the other SARS-CoV-2 virus strains in North Carolina, said State Epidemiologist Zack Moore.
“Unless we get some new, even more infectious variant, delta will be pretty much the only SARS-CoV-2 virus going around within the next few weeks,” Moore said.
That has led to increases in the state’s coronavirus trends, including the number of people appearing at the emergency room with COVID-19-like symptoms, which officials view as an early indicator of future cases and hospitalizations.
It’s not clear exactly how prevalent the delta variant currently is in North Carolina. For the week ending on June 19, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that delta comprised roughly 30% of COVID-19 cases in the state, Moore said.
But, according to Moore, people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to panic.
“Generally, what we’ve seen, particularly out of the United Kingdom, is very high vaccine effectiveness against the delta variant from the data they have,” Moore said. “And then there’s more recently some data that came out of Israel that showed slightly lower protection against the delta variant — but still highly protective.”
State health officials, including Moore, have said that more than 99% of North Carolina’s new COVID-19 cases have been recorded in people who are not fully vaccinated, and urged those who have not yet received a shot to get one.
Labs across the state continue to monitor for emerging variants — and widespread variants like delta — using a process called sequencing. The North Carolina State Laboratory for Public Health, LabCorp and others use chemicals and specialized equipment to essentially unspool the genetic material from positive COVID-19 samples. Then they compare it to genetic material from other virus samples and search for mutations.
“We can assess how … the viruses (have) changed over time,” said Scott Shone, head of the state’s public health lab. “That’s where we can identify if something has truly emerged as a variant — and ultimately might be a public health consequence — or if it’s a small change that doesn’t actually result in any public health concern.”
The hope, both Shone and Moore said, is that by sharing findings across labs, health officials can develop a clearer picture of emerging variants.
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