COVID vaccines are working. It's time to go back to normal in North Carolina

Gov. Roy Cooper is finally doing the right thing on COVID

Gov. Roy Cooper has misstepped time and again during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He rushed to shut down businesses without planning for how to handle the wave of unemployed people that would create. He seized unilateral executive power with no plans for ceding it. He kept playgrounds, gyms, bowling alleys, and movie theaters shut down for months longer than other states, long after evidence showed they could be open safely. He kept schools shuttered far longer than necessary. He stoked fear and panic when the state needed hope.

But this time, he’s actually doing the right thing.

As Democrat governors and mayors across the country rush to re-implement mask mandates and consider lockdowns, Cooper allowed North Carolina’s mask mandate to lapse this past Friday. And in the face of a media desperate for more mandates and lockdowns, the governor stood his ground.

“You just pointed to a skyrocketing of cases and hospitalizations. You’ve repeatedly said you’re making data driven decisions. At a time when all metrics are showing the worst metrics in months, why end this statewide mask mandate?” asked Associated Press reporter Bryan Anderson at a press conference on Thursday.

“Because schools know what to do. Businesses know what to do. People know what to do,” Cooper responded. “We are encouraging everyone to wear masks as per the CDC guidelines. But we know the real way out of this is vaccines.”

The vaccines are working in North Carolina

He’s right. As breathless as the Delta variant headlines have been, the comfort is this: People who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 face virtually no risk of serious harm from the virus.

Breakthrough infection data is extremely encouraging.

Across North Carolina, only 4,660 breakthrough cases have been reported through mid-July, according to WFAE’s Clare Donnelly. Of those, 321 were hospitalized and 61 died.

That means vaccinated people accounted for less than 1% of the 479,191 cases reported since January, and 1% of the 5,577 deaths. Out of 4.6 million people fully vaccinated in North Carolina:

  • Only 0.1% tested positive for COVID.

  • 0.007% had a serious case requiring hospitalization.

  • A stunningly low 0.001% died.

The number hold true in Charlotte. Mecklenburg County has reportedly only 376 breakthrough COVID infections, out of more than 536,000 fully vaccinated people and more than 18,000 cases. That means about 2% of recent cases were in vaccinated people, and only 0.07% of vaccinated people came down with COVID. Virtually none of these cases were serious.

The success of COVID vaccines in North Carolina also shows up in the overall trendlines.

The Cooper administration’s COVID dashboard makes it hard to compare cases, deaths and hospitalizations. But thankfully, they do provide a way to download data. Here’s a comparison of COVID cases and deaths in North Carolina since the beginning of the pandemic.

Because the death rate from COVID has always been so amazingly low, it’s impossible to tell trends on this chart. So I took death numbers and multiplied them by 100 to produce this chart.

For more than a year, the volume of cases and deaths largely mirrored each other. Those two metrics have completely decoupled in the past few weeks, as the Delta variant spreads. Let’s zoom in to see.

A similar story can be told about hospitalizations, a useful measure of serious cases. Remember, you need to look at new hospitalizations instead of the rolling hospitilization numbers that the Cooper administration talks about. That’s because daily case counts are unique cases, while the same person will be counted multiple times in the hospitalization data if they remain under care for multiple days. The cumulative number is useful for evaluating hospital capacity, which has never been in jeopardy in North Carolina.

Luckily, we have new hospitalization data from the state.

Here it is zoomed in on the last few months. New hospitalizations have risen, but not nearly as fast as the case rate. This is another testament to the efficacy of the vaccines.

You can see that trend better when looking at daily case counts vs. total people in the hospital, but it is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

The bottom line: COVID cases now are almost exclusively among unvaccinated people. But even in this population, there is extremely low levels of serious cases requiring hospitalization and even lower rates of death.

It’s time to go back to normal in North Carolina

None of this is to minimize the individual suffering in families across our state. It is troubling and sad that cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising among unvaccinated people. And the 61 COVID deaths among vaccinated people are truly 61 tragedies.

Daily life is a balancing act. We unconsciously weigh our risk tolerance for everything we do. There’s a risk inherent in getting into your car and driving to the grocery. There’s a risk in playing sports, in going to work, in going on vacation. Without thinking about it, we assume these risks willingly despite the possibility of death.

The availablity of data and unending press coverage of the COVID virus has forced us to think more critically about our risk tolerances when it comes to communicable disease. Naturally, the level of risk people are willing to take on drops significantly when they are forced to actually consider it. But at some point, we all must accept risks and live our lives. The same holds true for COVID. At some point, it must become one more risk in the background we all must live with.

What is that level of acceptable risk? It’s not for the scientific community to determine. They can craft plans to reach a level of acceptable risk, but not define what that is. That’s for elected officials, and the public at large.

With highly effective vaccines now widely available, we’ve reached that level of acceptable risk. It’s time for people to live their lives normally.

That’s why Gov. Cooper is taking the correct approach. He is focusing almost exclusively on encouraging more people to vaccinate themselves against the coronavirus and not creating more mandates and restrictions. Cooper should have gotten to this point months ago, to be sure, but it is encouraging that we are there now.

The vaccines have turned COVID from a potent virus to something more akin to the flu. It’s about time we treated it as such.

3 Things of Note

1) School districts split on mask mandates. I wrote a piece for Carolina Journal this week detailing the decisions different school districts are making on requiring masks for the upcoming school year. Suburban and rural districts are largely leaving them optional. Urban districts are making them mandatory. The split isn’t surprising, but it is disappointing. All teachers have had the opportunity to get the vaccine, and we’ve known for more than a year that young children are not susceptible to the virus. In fact, the flu is significantly more dangerous to them. What’s unclear still are the long-term effects of prolonged mask wearing among young children, both physical and psychological. It’s damaging to society to treat all other people as vectors of disease intead of human beings. And children learn so much through facial expressions. Do we really want our children to not know what their teachers and friends look like? Florida is banning mask mandates. It would be nice if North Carolina could do the same.

2) Nondiscrimination ordinance back on the table in Charlotte. The last time the city of Charlotte passed such an ordinance, the result was House Bill 2. This time, the nondiscrimination ordinance being considered is much different — and much less likely to necessitate a response from the General Assembly. Basically, the ordinance being proposed would add sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and natural hair into the city’s prohibitions in discrimination in public accommodations. Much of this exists already, as dictated by federal court rulings. The ordinance would also newly prohibit employment discrimination against those same classes of people, but only for businesses of 14 or fewer employees. The city says that employees in larger companies are already subject to discrimination protections. The proposal specifically states that the ordinance does not attempt to regulate bathroom, locker room or shower facilities. It also does not apply to religious institutions.

On the whole, this iteration of the nondiscriminantion ordinance is largely symbolic. Because it doesn’t make many changes to the status quo and eliminates the most controversial aspects of the 2016 version, I don’t expect this ordinance to get much attention at the state level.

3) Karl Rove tells Rep. Cawthorn to pay more attention to his district. The former Republican strategist and presidential advisor reportedly said Congressman Madison Cawthorn should spend less time campaigning nationally and more time in western North Carolina. This advice, however, presupposes that the 25-year-old Cawthorn isn’t doing what his constituents want. I think he’s doing exactly what they want. I suspect they want a Congressman who appears on Fox News to vigorusly defend patriotism and conservativism. They want a Congressman who campaigns against politicians who oppose Donald Trump. We’ll find out for sure in March.