State News

As new COVID-19 cases continue to rise, deaths in NC may lag behind

Posted July 15, 2020 5:26 p.m. EDT
Updated July 15, 2020 5:59 p.m. EDT

— Despite a steady rise in new COVID-19 cases in North Carolina, the number of new deaths attributed to the disease has kept relatively steady in recent weeks.

But public health experts say they don't expect that trend to last.

As of the latest data July 15, the state Department of Health and Human Services reports 1,568 deaths from the disease. That's a 14% increase over July 1. But it's nowhere close to the 37% spike in COVID-19 cases the state saw in the same time period.

DHHS on Tuesday did post its highest single-day increase in reported deaths since health officials starting keeping track. But State Epidemiologist Dr. Zack Moore said that's largely an anomaly of reporting — there's sometimes a lag in the time it takes to get information on deaths from the county to the state.

When you look at the numbers by date of death, which state officials backfill as new information arrives, Moore said the overall trend looks more stable.

It may not stay that way.

"What we're worried about is that, having seen increases in cases of close to 2,000 every day for a while now, that we are going to see those numbers go up," Moore said. "If not right now, then in a couple of weeks."

Tracking the coronavirus curve in NC

New laboratory confirmed cases and deaths are based on daily reporting from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services via the agency's COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard started publishing case counts on March 13 and death counts on March 26. Because these case and death numbers can lag slightly based on the time it takes labs to process tests and health officials to confirm cases, we're also calculating a seven-day rolling average to show the curve of cases.

Source: N.C. DHHS
Graphic: Tyler Dukes, WRAL

Moore and other public experts call the count of deaths due to COVID-19 a "lagging indicator," meaning shifts can trail behind other measures like case counts and hospitalizations. Both have seen significant increases in North Carolina and other states over the past several weeks.

“Often, it's two or three weeks later you begin to see the big increase in deaths," Moore said. "That’s understandable if you think about it. Usually there's some time interval when somebody becomes infected, when they seek testing and go through whatever course of illness before dying."

Like other areas of the country, more cases of the virus have shifted into younger, less vulnerable populations. That might also be driving the mortality rate down.

"Time will tell how that bears out in terms of overall number of deaths that we see, but I think compared to if we were seeing big increases in people over 65, that's another reason why deaths aren't rising at the same rate as our cases," Moore said.

Judging by the surge of the disease in places like Texas and Florida, Moore said he does expect the rate of cases in this state to rise following our own growth in cases.

"There's nothing unique in North Carolina that would lead us to believe that we won't see those same patterns here," he said.

With the death tally four months into the pandemic approaching 1,600, the disease has now claimed more lives than the last 10 flu seasons combined.

That figure's continued climb, Moore said, should serve as an important reminder for everyone to take precautions: wash your hands, wear a mask in public and keep your distance from others to prevent the spread of the virus.

“We have plenty of evidence to tell us that this is a deadly disease, unfortunately, for many people," Moore said. "Although the percentage of people who are infected who die is low — and that's a wonderful thing — when you have a large number of people getting infected like you do right now, that still translates into a very large number of deaths."

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