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Though COVID hospitalizations have been declining, health officials concerned with uptick in deaths

On Sept. 2, about two months into the current wave of infections due to the delta variant, Stanly County had 39 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, according to health department data, the highest single-day total since January.

Hospitalizations have gradually been decreasing since that peak point. The health department recorded 25 cases as of Thursday, a 36 percent decrease from the total at the beginning of the month.

It’s been 10 days since the county last had at least 30 people in the hospital, which occurred Sept. 14.

The decrease in hospitalizations is not confined to just Stanly. Across the Metrolina Healthcare Preparedness Coalition, which comprises 13 counties including Stanly, 845 people were hospitalized as of Wednesday, a 16 percent decrease from the beginning of September, when there were 1,000 patients.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in North Carolina fell to 3,231 Thursday, its lowest level in more than a month, according to state health data.

But it's still hard to make any solid projections going forward because such a large contingent of the population is still unvaccinated and therefore vulnerable to the virus, health officials said. Only 37 percent of residents are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the state, and 41 percent have received at least one dose, according to state data.

"With the low vaccination rate, there are plenty of people out there just unprotected," Stanly County Health Director David Jenkins said.

There have been many past examples of COVID metrics, such as hospitalizations, temporarily decreasing before spiking up again.

Hospitalizations have likely decreased not just because patients have been recovering but because the county has been experiencing an uptick in COVID-19-related deaths. There were seven deaths this week as of Thursday, bringing the monthly total to 18. That accounts for roughly 10 percent of all deaths (175) since the pandemic began last spring. In comparison, there were 13 deaths in August.

Health department officials were blunt in an interview with the Stanly News & Press this week when discussing their worries about the rise in deaths along with a large portion of the population still susceptible to getting infected and sick.

"You're either going to get well and go home or you're going to go to your eternal home," said public health specialist Wendy Growcock, noting the county is dealing with a "sustained high level of transmission."

"We would love for the next couple of weeks to see those numbers go down, but we're just still kind of riding out a flattened out plateau that's still really high," she added.

New cases have also been on the rise. Stanly County reported 474 new cases last week, the highest total during the current wave of infections that began in July. That amounts to a daily average of about 68 cases.

So far this week, which has run from Saturday through Thursday, there have been 306 cases, which comes to an average of about 51 cases per day.

Pediatric cases, which have been on the rise during this wave, have now accounted for roughly 27 percent of all cases since July. Only 18 percent of children 12 to 17 have been fully vaccinated in Stanly.

Since hospitalizations are a so-called lagging indicator which tend to increase after spikes in cases, Jenkins said it's too early to make any determinations about the current COVID climate in the county.

"Have we seen the worst? We don't know. Hopefully, but with our low vaccination rates, there's no guarantees," Jenkins said.

One bit of potentially promising news is that the county's percent positive rate, which is the percentage of all coronavirus tests performed that are actually positive, has begun to decline in recent weeks. After the rate reached 16.6 percent on Sept. 7, it has fallen about four percentage points since and now stands at 12.5 percent.

If the rate eventually falls below 7.9 percent, the school board has given Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis the go-ahead to make face masks optional in schools.

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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