Mecklenburg County has seen at least one outbreak of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19, including cases at a local homeless shelter, Deputy Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington told reporters Friday.
At least five cases of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Salvation Army Center of Hope, an emergency shelter for women and children, have been confirmed to be delta variant cases, Washington said.
That shelter has had 30 cases among residents, a data release from the county showed as of Wednesday. Just eight of those cases were sent for delta testing. No deaths have been reported in that outbreak.
The delta variant of COVID-19 is a strain of the coronavirus first identified in India that may be more transmissible than the original strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The county has partnered with StarMed Healthcare and UNC Charlotte to genetically sequence COVID-19 tests for the delta variant in Mecklenburg, surveillance that has previously not been available at the county level, Washington said.
Most new COVID-19 cases in Mecklenburg are among people who are not vaccinated, County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said. And COVID-19 cases are increasing in Mecklenburg, especially in young people.
“All of our numbers are going in the wrong direction,” Harris said Friday.
About 71% of COVID-19 cases in the past week have occurred in people younger than 30, Harris said, a dramatic change from the early days of the pandemic when the majority of cases occurred in senior adults.
And a quarter of Mecklenburg cases have occurred in people younger than 20, she said.
Fewer than 8% of Mecklenburg cases in the past week have occurred in people age 65 and older, Harris said. That’s because that age group is the most vaccinated population in the country, she said.
“The message here, is to get vaccinated,” Harris said. “That is what is going to get us out of this pandemic. And in the meantime, especially if you are not fully vaccinated, you should be wearing a mask when you’re in public.”
The delta variant of COVID-19 has worried local health officials for weeks, as cases of that variant spike across the U.S.
The delta variant now makes up more than half of the COVID-19 cases circulating in the U.S., recent CDC estimates show.
Sequencing for this variant began just several weeks ago and will be “scaled up,” Washington said. It can take up to 14 days to receive results.
But, Harris said, Mecklenburg can assume the variant is “pretty prevalent here.”
Non-vaccinated people are especially at risk of contracting that strain, Harris has said. Experts believe the existing vaccines provide protection against the delta variant, she told reporters in June.
“That’s why we really want people to get vaccinated,” Harris said at the time. “We do not want a resurgence of COVID in the fall.”
Mecklenburg COVID trends
Mecklenburg’s COVID-19 trends have already begun to climb in recent weeks.
The average percentage of positive COVID-19 test results in Mecklenburg crept past 5% in the past week, signaling worsening spread of the virus. Health experts have long relied on a 5% target to gauge if community transmission is under control.
Mecklenburg’s average positivity rate was 5.2% on Wednesday, the most recent date public health information was available, county officials said in a Friday release.
The positivity rate had dropped to as low as 1.8% on June 12, according to county public health data. It’s been slowly rising ever since, but still remains far below volumes last January — when the rate soared to 16%.
▪ As of Wednesday, Mecklenburg’s positivity rate is 30% higher than it was one week prior, according to a Charlotte Observer analysis.
▪ Compared to the last two weeks, the positivity rate increased by nearly 63%.
▪ And compared to a month ago, the rate jumped by 136%.
Michael Thompson, associate chair of the Public Health Sciences department at UNC Charlotte, said an elevated positivity rate was expected as more people began to attend in-person gatherings, especially around July 4th.
The delta variant is also partly to blame, although Thompson warned that unvaccinated individuals — and those who have received only their first vaccine shot — are at greater risk of getting sick.
“I’d be particularly concerned in neighborhoods where the vaccination rate is lower (and) lots of kids who may be unvaccinated could also be transmitting it,” Thompson said in an interview Friday morning. “We’re able, at a community level, to keep the outbreaks under control.”
Other COVID concerns
Other coronavirus metrics are also moving in the wrong direction, as vaccinations rate stall in and around Charlotte.
▪ The average number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 was 49 in the past week, compared to 37 on July 4, according to county public health data.
▪ The seven-day average of new coronavirus cases in Mecklenburg hit 93 on Friday, according to an Observer analysis of state public health data. That’s more than double the average logged at the start of the month.
In a positive development, the ratio of new cases to hospitalization has remained relatively stable, Thompson said. If the rate of hospitalizations starts to accelerate, Thompson said, that could indicate a more virulent coronavirus strain is taking hold.
Half of Mecklenburg residents are at least partially vaccinated and 46% are fully vaccinated, according to North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Harris applauded the 50% partial vaccine rate milestone, yet said it’s also “not good enough.”
Statewide, 48% of residents are at least partially vaccinated and 46% are fully vaccinated, according to N.C. DHHS.
Harris said 990 county residents have died of coronavirus-related complications.