Cooper unveils system pinpointing viral hot spots, warns counties of further restrictions

NORTH CAROLINA — Gov. Roy Cooper and public health officials unveiled on Tuesday a new alert system that will encourage counties with high levels of coronavirus transmission to more aggressively enforce statewide health guidelines and punish non-compliant businesses.

Dangled over the counties' heads is a big stick: the possibility of the state placing greater restrictions on them.

Leaders in over half of the state’s counties, including 10 deemed to have “critical community spread,” are now being encouraged to pass ordinances levying fines against residents and businesses not complying with public health directives. They include the statewide mask mandate Cooper enacted months ago to combat COVID-19, as well as gathering limits.

>> NC County Alert System: See how your county is doing

The 10 “critical” counties, mainly in rural areas, and 44 others with “substantial” spread also are being asked to consider cutting off alcohol sales earlier than the current 11 p.m. deadline statewide. And churches in those counties are advised not to hold any indoor in-person gatherings of more than 10 people.

The system categorizes North Carolina’s 100 counties into three levels of community spread on a color-coded map. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said it’s another tool to help residents and local leaders understand how their counties are doing in the fight against COVID-19.

The Democratic governor warned of further restrictions if counties don’t heed the state’s advice.

“We may have to do more even on a statewide level or at a local level in some way,” Cooper said at a news conference. “That decision has not yet been made, but we are hoping that this effort can help us slow the spread.”

Cooper noted people are still able to travel freely throughout the state.

“We want to work with these counties to see if we could lower the spread with the recommendations that we have in place now,” Cooper said. “Right now, those recommendations don’t include travel restrictions.”

How it works

The new alert system assigns a color to counties based on the rate of cases, the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive and a score given based on how local hospitals are faring with COVID-19 patients and staffing shortages. Counties in yellow are seeing significant community spread, while those in orange are seeing substantial spread and those in red have critical spread.

The three levels of spread -- Significant Community Spread, Substantial Community Spread and Critical Community Spread -- are broken down into three colors: yellow, orange and red.

  • Yellow: Significant Community Spread
  • Orange: Substantial Community Spread
  • Red: Critical Community Spread

Because no single metric provides a complete picture, each level will be based on a combination of metrics, including the number of cases, percent of tests that are positive and hospital impact within the county. NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said the map will be updated every four weeks to give counties time to make necessary changes.


Mecklenburg County expands COVID-19 testing:

  • Bojangles' Coliseum: Starting Nov. 20, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (*Testing at Bojangles' Coliseum will not start Friday as originally planned due to a delay in receiving necessary equipment. COVID testing will start here on Nov. 23 and will be from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m. daily).
  • Target in University City: Nov. 20 through 22 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Extended hours at the Northwest Health Department: Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.


“It’s going to take all of us working together to avoid tightening restrictions like so many states are now doing,” Cohen said. “The COVID-19 County Alert System gives North Carolinians an easy way to see how their county is doing and know what they can do to protect their family and neighbors and slow the spread of this virus.”

>> Have questions about the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the Carolinas? We have an entire section dedicated to coverage of the outbreak -- CLICK HERE FOR MORE.

To be designated a red or orange level, a county must meet the threshold for case rate for that level AND the threshold for either percent positive or hospital impact.

  • Case Rate: The number of new cases in 14 days per 100,000 people
  • Percent Positive: The percent of tests that are positive over 14 days
  • Hospital Impact: A composite score based on the impact that COVID-19 has had on hospitals including percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations, COVID-19 related visits to the Emergency Department, staffed open hospital beds, and critical staffing shortages over 14 days

Counties that do not meet the criteria for red or orange are categorized as being in the yellow (significant community spread) and should continue to be vigilant to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

Breakdown of where counties stand in our area:

  • Red: Avery, Alexander and Gaston
  • Orange: Ashe, Cabarrus, Caldwell, Catawba, Cleveland, Iredell, Richmond and Rowan
  • Yellow: Anson, Burke, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, Stanly, Union and Watauga

Gaston County had 456.5 cases per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days. The percent-positive rate there is 8.7% percent.

Residents in the county said they are worried about the trend in COVID-19 cases.

“We don’t know where the virus is,” resident Sharon Traywick. “We don’t know anyone that we come in contact with could have it, and we just need to be concerned about our neighbors.”

The color-coded levels will also come with a series of actionable recommendations for residents and county governments, including ending alcohol sales after a certain hour or limiting indoor dining.

According to the NCDHHS, people should be taking action to slow the spread of the virus regardless of whether their county is currently in the yellow, orange or red. Those actions include the 3 W’s, avoiding large gatherings and getting tested if showing any COVID-19 symptoms.

“No matter the color of your county, there are critical actions we can all take to slow the spread, starting with everyone wearing a mask, whenever you’re leaving your home. But it doesn’t stop there. Everyone has a responsibility. Each North Carolinian each business. Each public official in each county, red and orange counties need to do even more to slow the spread of COVID-19 in their communities,” Cohen said.

>>Below is what the state says you should do if you live in a red or orange county

>> Below is what the state says businesses and community organizations should do if they operate in a red or orange county

>> Below is what the state says public officials should do if they govern in a red or orange county

Cooper said he hopes the system helps avoid statewide mandates by allowing regional leaders to make decisions on how to slow the spread in their areas.

The governor has said he does not plan to move the state back into more a restrictive phase, but warned Tuesday that the state could impose additional orders -- either at the local or state level -- if metrics continue to move in the wrong direction.

“By pinpointing counties with high virus transmission and asking people in those counties to work with us and do more right now to slow viral spread, we can succeed,” Cooper said. “It can help bring down case rates, keep their communities safer, save lives and keep their hospital systems working.”

The launch of the new system comes one week after Cooper announced the state will remain paused in Phase 3.

The state reported 3,288 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, with the percent positive rate of the new tests at 8.6%.

Up to this point, the strictest phase of restrictions was from March 30 through May 8 when North Carolinians were ordered to stay home.

On May 8, we reached Phase One -- most businesses, daycares and parks reopened. You could also have gatherings of up to 10 people outside in order to social distance. That phase lasted about two weeks.

Cooper lifted the “Safer at Home” order on May 22, under Phase Two, because the state’s numbers were trending in the right direction. He then moved the state into Phase 2.5, where gyms reopened at reduced capacity and 25 people could gather inside and 50 people outside.

North Carolina moved into Phase Three on Oct. 2, which is where we are now. This phase is scheduled to last until at least Dec. 4.

Last Friday, the governor issued new restrictions for gatherings of no more than 10 people ahead of Thanksgiving.

In the last 48 hours, states across the country have enacted new and stricter guidelines.

New Jersey, Washington and Michigan also restricted social gatherings. North Dakota and Iowa issued statewide mask mandates. The strictest restrictions came out of New Mexico and Oregon, where they initiated a two-week lockdown.

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