The Wilmington region just entered Year Two
of the now not-so-novel coronavirus.
On March 14, 2020, Brunswick County officials announced the arrival of the first positive case of COVID-19 in the tri-county area, brought back home by an individual who developed symptoms in Louisiana.
Four days later, New Hanover County made a similar announcement, with Pender County falling in line on April 3.
So began a year’s worth of lockdowns
, social distancing, business failures, loss of income and, for all too many, the heartbreak of losing a loved one.
Over the past few weeks, anxiety across the region has started to abate, but with fingers crossed.
Hospitalizations and deaths are down, vaccine supplies are becoming more plentiful – but strained due to demand – and nursing homes are easing visitor restrictions after 12 months of family separations.
“We can share education and protective measures with the community all day every day, but it is up to individual compliance in order to really mitigate the spread,” summed up Jessica Loeper, chief communications officer for New Hanover County.
“Especially a year later, this compliance is much harder because people are fatigued,” she added.
But each new day offers an opportunity to move closer to achieving herd immunity.
While the onus for achieving that goal largely rests on the shoulders of individuals – wearing masks, washing hands, waiting 6 feet apart, avoiding large gatherings and since late December, registering to be vaccinated – it is government, businesses and nonprofits that have created new infrastructure to help individuals combat the virus.
Although a vaccine was nowhere in sight a year ago, the state and counties, health care providers, manufacturers and laboratories scrambled to develop safety protocols, disperse protective equipment, conduct public testing and track results.
From the start, the elderly and physically vulnerable at congregate living facilities were of special concern
With some exceptions, the moratorium on nursing home visits by family members was in place after March 13 of last year to help minimize the risk of spreading the virus, said Adam Sholar, president and CEO of the N.C. Health Care Facilities Association.
Nine months later, once Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were ready with vaccines
, CVS and Walgreens assumed responsibility for administering doses at nursing homes and other long-term care centers.
While the initiative took hold slowly due to shortages, Sholar believes oversight by the pharmacy giants allowed health departments and hospitals to focus more on the wider community, but with health departments continuing to offer guidance to the living facilities.
As of March 9, a total of 881 cumulative cases of COVID-19 were recorded as part of “ongoing outbreaks” at 10 nursing homes and five residential care facilities across the tri-county area, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ online dashboard, with a total of 58 deaths recorded as part of the same outbreaks.
N.C. DHHS defines an outbreak as two or more positive cases. If another case is detected after an outbreak is declared over, that outbreak is not reopened.
“It is our understanding that the majority of our community’s long-term care facilities have been vaccinated now, and we hope to see the number of outbreaks decrease over the coming weeks as immunity builds,” Loeper said.
Those rapidly improving trends in long-term care facilities, as well as new guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prompted state health officials on Friday to update their visitation guidance.
Indoor visitation now is allowed again for long-term care facility residents, N.C. DHHS announced, while still encouraging outdoor visitation when possible.
“This action shows that our vaccination efforts are already having benefits,” N.C. DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said in a statement. “I am grateful to all who have worked so hard to protect our most vulnerable residents and am so thankful that families and loved ones can be physically reunited.”
At mid-January, New Hanover Regional Medical Center experienced the highest peak of hospitalized patients since the start of the pandemic, caring for a weekly average of 85 patients with COVID-19. But numbers “steadily declined,” with the average falling to 20 for the week ending March 5, a hospital spokesman said.
January also represented New Hanover County’s peak month for total new cases.
“We are seeing a positive trend in New Hanover County that shows our COVID-19 cases, patients hospitalized from the virus and percent positivity rate are all decreasing, which is very promising,” said county Health and Human Services Director Donna Fayko in a Feb. 26 statement.
In Brunswick County, case counts, testing and vaccinations for its overall population continued to show improvement as of March 5, according to a news release.
But there, as elsewhere, demand for vaccine doses continues to outpace supply.
Nationally, a February survey by Pew Research Center found that 69% of 10,121 adults have already gotten vaccinated or will “definitely or probably” do so, up from the 60% who planned to do so in November.
“The key challenge we face now is having enough vaccine to meet the huge demand here, especially since a third of our population became eligible for vaccines all at once,” said Cris Harrelson, Brunswick County’s health services director.
Nonetheless, a variety of staging sites
continue to take hold across the region – mass vaccination sites like the one at Brunswick Community College; smaller community clinics that NHRMC is conducting alongside the three counties and nonprofits to reach underserved and marginalized populations; and in-store shots being managed separately by pharmacies and groceries as well as doses available at some physician offices.
Harrelson praised the state’s “receptiveness” to setting aside limited amounts of doses for temporary outreach events in places such as Navassa, many of whose residents grapple with poverty.
A new website, VaccineFinder.org
, is also making it easier to pinpoint providers with vaccine doses in stock by entering a zip code and exploring a map. About three dozen tri-county pharmacies, big-boxes and grocery stores are now taking appointments.
As deliveries of vaccine doses become more reliable, area health officials are becoming more optimistic that the region will turn the corner on COVID.
“The pandemic can be unpredictable, and while we hope the [case] numbers continue to stay lower, NHRMC remains prepared for a sudden or gradual increase,” said Philip Brown, its chief physician executive. “Our goal is to ensure the most equitable and efficient vaccine distribution possible, given the low supply and high demand.”
The past 12 months have stolen lives, erased jobs, triggered addictions and challenged families. But they have also deepened resolve, fostered charity, cast light on inequities and strengthened the bonds of community.
At area nursing homes, there is hope that loved ones will see one another soon.
“We are going to be able to welcome family members back into our facilities in the near future,” Sholar said. “And I think that is really a wonderful thing for so many reasons.”