Early this week, Wilkes was among counties nationwide listed in the red (most at risk) in the Harvard Global Health Institute’s “Key Metrics for COVID Suppression” initiative.

The assessment listed Wilkes with an average of 25.5 new confirmed cases per 100,000 people and averaging 17.4 actual confirmed cases on Tuesday. That’s an improvement from Saturday, when it was 31.7 new cases per 100,000 and 21 actual new cases.

The risk level of a county or state in the assessment is based on its seven-day “rolling” average of new confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. Rolling means the seven-day average is updated every few days. As of Tuesday, it was the average for the week ending Sunday.

Wilkes has 299 new confirmed COVID-19 cases already in October, compared to 218 in September and 303 in August. Wilkes had 425 new cases in May, mostly due to an outbreak at the Tyson Foods Inc. chicken processing complex in Wilkesboro.

Community spread

Wilkes County Health Director Rachel Willard said the daily increase in new COVID-19 cases in Wilkes has ranged from 10-40 in recent weeks, mostly due to community spread.

The increase is accompanied by a rise in the number of COVID-19-related deaths locally. The latest Wilkes victim was a person in his/her 60s with underlying health issues who died Oct. 16 at Wilkes Medical Center. The Wilkes Health Department reported that this was the 36th COVID-19-related death of a Wilkes resident.

Willard said the increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases was anticipated and generally is occurring statewide. “People are struggling to know where they are getting the virus,” she said, referencing the prevalence of community spread in Wilkes.

“The community has COVID fatigue and because of that people are not wearing their masks in public and they aren’t observing social distancing,” said Willard. “If just 35% of the population would wear masks (in public), the virus could be controlled.”

She cited small informal gatherings of relatives and friends as a primary factor. There are also reports of the virus being spread at church-related gatherings.

Although the rise in confirmed cases in Wilkes is across the board age-wise, Willard said the largest increase is among people 24 and younger.

New cases are still being confirmed in the Wilkes schools, but Willard said the return to in-person learning locally doesn’t appear to be a major contributing factor.

Most students in Wilkes County’s 13 elementary schools returned to full-time in-person learning on Tuesday. The county’s four middle schools and five high schools are still alternating between in-person learning one day and remote learning the next. Parents still have the option of full-time remote learning for their children.

Willard said Wilkes Health & Rehabilitation on Brickyard Road, North Wilkesboro, the latest local congregate living facility with a COVID-19 outbreak, now has 10 confirmed cases.

More on Harvard assessment

The Harvard assessment puts counties and states in one of four risk levels: red, for those averaging more than 25 new confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people per day for the seven days; orange, averaging 10 to 24.9 new cases per day per 100,000 people; yellow, one to 9.9 new cases; and green, less than one new case.

According to a narrative with the assessment, red counties are at the “tipping point” and need stay at home orders and green counties are “on track for containment.” There were no green counties in North Carolina on Tuesday.

Wilkes ranked 38th among 40 North Carolina counties in the red Tuesday in average numbers of new cases per day per 100,000 people. Avery County, among N.C. counties with no confirmed COVID-19 cases in early stages of the pandemic, ranked at the top with a daily average of 82.2 cases per 100,000 people.

Others in the top 40 included Alexander, eighth with 41.5; Caldwell, 18th, with 33.7; and Watauga, 37th with 25.9. Watauga’s high ranking, which actually is considerably lower than just a few weeks ago, is largely due to cases at Appalachian State University.

North Carolina, ranking 24th among the 50 states, was in the orange with 19.8.

Public health officials say new COVID-19 cases have reached their highest levels since August nationwide.

Nancy Krieger, a professor of social epidemiology at Harvard who led research on areas of the nation with high COVID-19 case numbers, reported that “red” counties that lean Republican have had the largest increases and “blue” counties that lean Democratic have tended to be flat.

William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology, speculated that this is because Republican-leaning communities have been less inclined to follow public health guidance about mask-wearing and social distancing.

Harvard Global Health Institute, Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Rockefeller Foundation and other entities worked together to launch this initiative. It includes an interactive COVID Risk Level map and COVID suppression guidance for policy makers and the public.

The goal is to provide clear, accessible guidance to policy makers and the public on how to target and suppress COVID-19 more effectively.

The map and more details are at https://globalepidemics.org/key-metrics-for-covid-suppression.

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