Orange officials, businesses, residents 'all on the same page' to limit virus spread
Posted December 9, 2020 6:25 p.m. EST
Hillsborough, N.C. — Three weeks after state health officials started cataloging the spread of coronavirus in individual counties through a color-coded alert system, only 18 of North Carolina's 100 counties remain in the lowest "yellow" zone, including Orange County.
While nearly half of the state is now in the "red" zone, with critical levels of viral spread and another third are rated "orange" with substantial spread, Orange County and the others still shaded in yellow on the map have managed to maintain better control of the virus locally as the number of infections and hospitalizations soar statewide.
"We’re all on the same page," Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said Wednesday to explain the county's success. "Our community truly believes in science and data, and they’ve been very compliant. We worked with our business community and our chambers, the university. Everyone working together said this is the way we can beat this thing."
COVID-19 County Alert System
Hemminger, local business owners and residents all said few, if any, people are seen in public without masks. Businesses routinely turn customers away if their faces aren't covered.
"I think the businesses are very careful about how they enforce their social distancing, and people are spread out a lot more than most average places you go in," said Ricky Poe, who lives in Durham but works in Orange County.
"I think that they’re pretty strict about it in every location you go about wearing your mask. They’ve taken the dining stuff very seriously," agreed Carla Janney, who lives in neighboring Alamance County, which is among the 48 red-zone counties. "I don’t really go eat in Alamance as much as I do here because I feel more safe in Orange County than I do in Alamance."
"Even during workouts, people are still wearing their masks when they’re outside," local resident Ryan Dowling said. "I haven’t seen any misconduct. Everybody’s keeping their distance."
Orange County set up a hotline for people to report violations of pandemic-related regulations, and Hemminger said "folks do call it quite often." Communities and businesses also repeatedly push the "three W's" message of wearing masks, waiting at least 6 feet away from others and washing hands frequently.
"We have a lot of people who work in health care here. I think that helps as well, too, so they help spread the word," Hemminger said.
Brian Pearson, who owns Antonia’s restaurant in Hillsborough, said the message has gotten across. He said he's had no problems with diners refusing to follow the rules.
"We’re just aware of the problem and aware of the solution, so we’re trying to stick to the solution," Pearson said.
Patricia Cipriano, manager of the nearby Los Altos Mexican Restaurant, said they might even voluntarily close the dining room again for a while to ensure virus spread remains low in Hillsborough in the coming weeks.
"I talked to the owner about it. She told me that she wants to go back to takeout only, just for the safety of everyone," Cipriano said.
"We’re very proud of the community for responding the way they have," Hemminger said.
"I want to praise our Orange County residents and employees and encourage them to keep up the good work," agreed Renee Price, chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners.
Cumberland scrambles to get handle on virus
Meanwhile, Cumberland County and Fort Bragg officials said that they are concerned about the rising coronavirus numbers there.
Cumberland County is among the 34 orange-zone counties in North Carolina, and county health director Dr. Jennifer Green said another 100 infections were reported Wednesday.
During the past two weeks, 9.6 percent of coronavirus tests have come back positive in Cumberland County – nearly twice the state's target of 5 percent or lower, Green said.
"It is not an accident that, right now, after the Thanksgiving Day holiday, we hit an all-time high of hospitalized [COVID-19] patients, 60, and we expect that number to continue to grow," said Mike Nagowski, chief executive of Cape Fear Valley Health System. "In all honesty, we're holding our breath for the Christmas holiday."
Cape Fear Valley Health has enough hospital and intensive care beds for now for the influx of virus patients, Nagowski said, but the hospital system is feeling the pinch when it comes to making sure there are enough nurses and other hospital staff available to take care of them.
A report issued Tuesday by health experts at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill predicted that hospitals in the Fayetteville area have enough beds for almost seven weeks under current trends but will run out of ICU beds in less than four weeks.
Nagowski said Cape Fear Valley Health expects to initially get about 5,000 doses of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine, which could soon get emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and will begin vaccinating health care workers and others in high-risk categories.