For North Carolinians, a return to pre-pandemic normalcy looks closer than ever.
Average daily cases in North Carolina have dropped to 1,787, a four-month low for the state that comes among an increase in vaccinations. Nearly one in five residents is fully vaccinated, and with more vaccine doses on the way, public health and government officials are hopeful about further reopening the state.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday that he will ease many COVID-19 restrictions, including capacity limits at businesses such as restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and bars.
Schools are also feeling optimistic about the decline in cases. Durham elementary students returned to their classrooms on March 15, and middle and high school students are scheduled to return in-person on April 8. Durham Public Schools is even offering free rapid COVID-19 tests to students, families and community members.
Both Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, expressed optimism about the next phase of reopening.
“We’re in a promising place,” Cohen said during the Tuesday news conference where Cooper announced the easing of restrictions.
Statewide check-in: Cases down, vaccinations up
North Carolina reported an average of 1,787 cases per day over the last week, which is on par with the average from two weeks earlier, according to data analysis from the New York Times. Average daily cases have not been this low consistently since last fall in September and early October.
Already, more than 1.5 million North Carolinians are fully vaccinated, and the speed of vaccination is expected to increase quickly. The state is set to receive 27 million vaccine doses this week, which is 5 million more than the previous week. Additionally, four counties have already opened vaccine eligibility to anyone over the age of 18. College campuses are also ramping up vaccinations, as N.C. State’s “PackVax” clinic opened to students on Wednesday morning and Duke announced Thursday that all students in Durham would be vaccinated in the coming weeks.
Cooper’s new executive order, which eases many restrictions, goes into effect Friday at 5 p.m. Changes include allowing retail stores and salons to operate at 100% capacity and restaurants and fitness centers to open at 75% indoor capacity and 100% outdoor capacity.
Additionally, places like movie theaters, bars, gaming centers, conference centers, and music and sports venues can open at 50% capacity. Cooper also lifted the 11 p.m. alcohol sales curfew and increased the limit on large gatherings to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.
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The new executive order is set to expire at 5 p.m. April 30. North Carolina’s mask mandate is still in effect.
Cases spike in Durham County due to Duke outbreak, elementary students return to schools
Durham County reported fewer positive cases each week for five straight weeks in February and early March. But during the week of March 8, the county added 35 more cases than it had the week before. This was the same week that 218 Duke students tested positive for the virus, and the week preceding the stay-in-place order.
While Duke students had to hunker down in their dorms between March 13 and 20, Durham elementary students returned to their classrooms for in-person learning on March 15. One day later, though, four classrooms across two schools had to revert to online learning for 10 days after three students and one staffer tested positive for COVID-19. Anyone who rode a bus with one of the students who tested positive was also moved to online learning for 10 days.
"When the decision was made that Durham needed to open, and as the state legislature and the governor were making moves for schools to reopen, we recognized that we are still, even with vaccines, going to be living with COVID-19 in our communities for some time," said Chip Sudderth, spokesman for Durham Public Schools, in an interview with WRAL.
As of Tuesday, Durham’s seven-day moving average was 53 cases, according to data from the county’s tracker. This is down from an early-February high of 149 and the mid-March spike of 77, but still up from the low of 36 during the week of March 1.
The county’s vaccination trends also look promising, although they’re slightly behind the state overall. As of March 22, over 26% of county residents are partially vaccinated and over 17% are fully vaccinated, according to county data. More than 100,000 people have been vaccinated per day since March 6, and the pace will likely quicken as the state receives more vaccine doses and more people become eligible.