Mecklenburg expects August surge in cases, asks residents to keep social distancing

Mecklenburg officials say there could be a surge in COVID-19 cases in the county in August and September as the state reopens – signaling the latest revision to projections that previously suggested local hospitals would experience their greatest demand on resources in mid-July.

County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said in a news conference Friday that not enough Mecklenburg residents are continuing to wear masks and practice social distancing. She urged residents to comply with health guidelines to avoid any “significant acceleration or spikes in our curve.”

“The one point I do want to make is that I don’t believe we’re moving into a second wave,” Harris said. “We slowed – almost stopped – our first wave with our social distancing, with our stay-at-home order. We are in the process of resuming that wave.”

Using models to predict the trajectory of cases within two to three months is “challenging,” Harris said.

Current coronavirus analyses — including what’s known as the CHIME model from the University of Pennsylvania — for Mecklenburg predict “significant increases” in COVID-19 cases in mid- to late August and into September, Harris said. Still, those models can be “quite volatile,” she said.

The health department has not released specific details about modeling since mid-May, after a Penn Medicine data scientist said Mecklenburg was consulting a model that’s “no longer appropriate” due to the county’s increasing case trajectory, WFAE reported at the time.

A different coronavirus model from the University of Washington suggests North Carolina’s infection rate will spike in late August and into the fall.

Harris did not disclose how many ICU beds and ventilators the region’s acute care facilities may require in late summer. Atrium Health and Novant Health continue to have adequate surge capacity, Harris assured county commissioners on Tuesday.

‘COVID-19 is still here’

Coronavirus models could also change depending on social distancing, Harris emphasized Friday.

If social distancing, measured through mobility data, continues to decrease at the current rate, Harris said the county will return to “baseline” levels of social distancing.

“Before long, we will be back at where we were when we put the stay-at-home order in place,” Harris said.

Harris said it’s still critical for Mecklenburg residents to practice social distancing.

“What I want to make sure that people understand is that we have many people in our community who are still very susceptible to this infection,” Harris said. “We do not have a cure. We do not have a vaccine. And so it will continue to spread. … The bottom line is: COVID-19 is still here.”

Mecklenburg COVID-19 trends have increased steadily as the state has eased coronavirus restrictions, but Harris said the increases are not a “second wave” — and the first wave shows no sign of “tapering off.”

Health officials expected to see a rise in COVID-19 infections after reopening, Harris said.

The county’s goal is to make sure hospitals can handle the number of patients infected. Right now, Mecklenburg is meeting that goal, she said.

County reopening plans

In the meantime, the county is working on a plan to reopen its doors. The county government has a three-stage plan to reopen starting in mid-July, county manager Dena Diorio said Friday.

“It’s time to start bringing our employees back in some kind of staggered, staged phase,” Diorio said.

The county will continue providing services virtually and will update the community on its staged plan.

Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation will reopen its baseball fields in July, allowing the public to reserve them for baseball or softball practice only.

And county commissioners recently established a COVID-19 recovery and renewal task force. The county is taking applications for the task force’s 23 members online.

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