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COVID-19 metrics slowly rising again as health experts warn of possible winter surge

The percent positivity rate is rising in several local counties, and in Mecklenburg County it means the mask mandate will not be lifted yet.

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — Some parts of Europe are being hit with another surge in COVID-19 cases, while a handful of states across the country are seeing a rise in the number of people testing positive for the virus.

It’s the closest thing to a crystal ball.

“If you look and see what’s happening in other parts of the world like Europe where COVID rates are going up significantly and have been, a lot of times what happens there is going to happen here too,” Dr. Charles Bregier with Novant Health said.

In the Carolinas, metrics have been declining for weeks, but now it appears the data is starting to flatten out. 

In Mecklenburg County, the percent positivity rate has been rising slowly over the last week, and some health leaders are concerned another surge could be coming and the upcoming holidays add extra concern.

“We’re inside more, around people a lot more all those things is what’s caused severe flu seasons in the past and could cause another severe COVID season,” Bregier said. He added stagnant vaccination rates will play a role.

In North Carolina, 57% of everyone age 5 and older is fully vaccinated. In South Carolina, 56% of the eligible population is.

But vaccines aren’t perfect, and immunity is waning for those who got vaccinated early on in the rollout and still haven’t gotten a booster.

“I know we’re all really tired of COVID and this pandemic, we all are. It’s been going on for too long and it's wreaked havoc in our lives and we really want to get past it,” Bregier said. “But it’s not over yet.”

Recently, demand for testing has been down but because of lessons learned last holiday season, StarMed is preparing to ramp its efforts back up.

“We certainly are going to be ready for the holiday season so that again as people begin to travel or as family members come in from outside of the community, we have a testing capability for them,” Chris Dobbins with StarMed said.

In Mecklenburg County, the percent positivity rate is at 6%, too high to drop the mask mandate. It’s been inching up over the last week and is happening in surrounding counties too.

“We’ve started seeing a little bit of a stall and an uptick in our number cases, as well as our test positivity, has started to increase just a little bit,” Union County Health Director Dennis Joyner said. 

He said it's too soon to know if this trend will continue.

The percent positivity rate is an important metric to watch.

“It does give you an indication that you’ve got more transmission in the community,” Joyner said. “We were fortunate to see that drop down, the lowest we were at is 5.2 or something around there but today we’re back up to 6.5.”

The percent positivity rate holds a lot of weight in Mecklenburg County specifically. The indoor mask mandate will be dropped once it stays below 5% for seven days straight. New data shows it's only risen in the last week.

Rowan and Cabarrus counties have the lowest test positivity rate in the area, both at 5.2%. According to state data, Gaston, Lincoln, Iredell, Catawba, Anson and Stanly counties all have percent positivity rates higher than Mecklenburg County.

“We really can’t let our guard down yet. We need to get more people immunized,” Bregier said.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has partnered with multiple community groups to create family vaccination sites to make getting vaccinations easier. Family vaccination sites are located in Buncombe, Burke, Forsyth, Lenoir, Pasquotank, Robeson, Sampson, Vance and Wilson counties. More information on NCDHHS vaccine locations can be found on the department's vaccine finder website.

The Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris gave a COVID-19 update at Tuesday's Board of Commissioners meeting. During the update, as commissioners asked questions, Harris said increasing the number of children who are vaccinated will help get us to ending the mask mandate. 

"As we get more kids vaccinated -- the total number of people vaccinated goes up," she said. 

Harris said the state reported 10% of children 5 to 11 years old are partially in Mecklenburg County, as of Tuesday. 

However, there could be one problem in getting more kids vaccinated. 

"We have a lot of pediatricians who aren't interested in receiving the vaccines," Harris told commissioners. 

She said that's because of storage requirements and a complicated state system for reporting vaccines. 

Still, Harris says adults should lead by example. 

"The bigger challenge I think is going to be those adults that are not vaccinated," she said. 

Commissioners know what the community needs to do, and they're begging people to do their part. 

"If they really want the mask mandate to end -- then they need to participate on getting there," Commissioner George Dunlap said. 

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

Contact Hunter Sáenz at hsaenz@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.