Wilkes and other rural counties are leading North Carolina’s COVID-19 case growth per 100,000 people as the virus continues to surge across the state and nation, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Thirty-one new cases were reported Monday and 16 Tuesday in Wilkes, giving the county a total of 2,297 Tuesday. Among the 2,297 cases, 259 were “active cases” and a record (for Wilkes) 25 of the 259 were hospitalized.

Eleven of the current active cases are residents (10) and staff (one) at Rose Glen Manor, an assisted living facility in North Wilkesboro with a current COVID-19 outbreak, said Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard.

Willard also reported the county’s 44th confirmed COVID-19-related death Tuesday, a person in his/her 70s who died Friday in Wilkes.

She said that among COVID-19 tests given in Wilkes in the 24 hours before Tuesday, 14.6% tested positive. The test rate for Wilkes for the entire pandemic is 10%. Both rates are well above 5%, the rate generally considered acceptable.

Wilkes ranked sixth among the state’s 100 counties in total new cases per 100,000 people in the last 14 days with 576 on Monday. (Wilkes actually added 394 cases in the last two weeks, but calculating each county’s number per 100,000 people allows an equal comparison regardless of county population.)

Mitchell County had the most with 1,049 per 100,000, followed by Alexander with 893, Columbus with 730, Catawba with 596 and Greene with 593. The other two counties with 501 or more per 100,000 people were Sampson with 535 and Ashe with 504. Wilkes has ranked among the top 10 for at least a week.

Per 100,000 totals for the last 14 days for other adjoining counties were Surry, 492; Caldwell, 425; Yadkin, 388; Alleghany, 368; Iredell, 321; and Watauga, 258.

Nearly twice as many of the state’s new COVID-19 cases since September were in rural counties, according to a DHHS report released Nov. 12. Most of the rural cases were in the white population and among people are 49 or younger.

The report said the increase in rural counties is fueled by community spread of the virus rather than by cases in congregate living settings like nursing homes or jails.

Willard attributed the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Wilkes to community spread when Eddie Settle, chairman of the county commissioners, asked about the status of the virus at the board’s Nov. 5 meeting.

“People can’t tell us where they’re getting it from. It’s from work, home, church,” said Willard, as well as from family and other small gatherings. It’s just all out there…. People aren’t washing their hands, they’re not wearing masks and not taking other precautions.” She said she’s worried about the holidays.

Willard said a vaccine for COVID-19 is expected to be available in late November or early December. It will first be offered to people working at health care and long-term care facilities, plus people 65 or older with two or more health conditions.

Also on Monday, Wilkes was among nearly half of North Carolina’s 100 counties shown in the red zone (highest COVID-19 risk level) on a Harvard University map with all counties nationwide. This was based on average number of new cases per day for the seven-day period ending Saturday. Red indicates an average of more than 25 new cases per 100,000 people for seven-day periods. Ashe, Surry, Yadkin and Alexander counties also were in the red Monday.

For the first time since the pandemic started, state officials are suggesting that people get tested if they plan to travel for the holidays, even if they don’t have symptoms or aren’t in a high-risk group.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said people traveling for the holidays should consider getting a coronavirus test three or four days in advance.

It was announced at the Nov. 12 press conference that Gov. Roy Cooper’s office is supplying college and universities with 74,470 rapid tests, paid for by the federal government, for students to use before leaving campus for the holidays.

Holiday gatherings, where people who don’t usually live together sit side-by-side indoors, are conditions where the coronavirus spreads easily.

“We have to approach those traditions very carefully,” Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett, director of Infection Prevention at UNC Medical Center, said during a UNC Health news conference on Nov. 12. “COVID transmission won’t halt for the holidays.”

Sickbert-Bennett said even people who test negative before traveling should still practice all the other safety precautions.

“A negative test only gives you information about a single point in time. It does not mean you will remain negative after that test. This can be very worrisome,” she said.

They’ve seen instances in the community and the hospital were testing has given people a false sense of security, leading them to dismiss COVID-19 symptoms because they had recently tested negative, she said.

“Don’t use that as a substitute for any other prevention measures,” she said.

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