As the Charlotte area sees increase in COVID-19 cases, it's not all … – WFAE

Right before the holidays, Isael Mejia noticed he felt tired — really tired. He works early mornings and late nights as a union organizer. So at first, he chalked it up to his long hours.
“I felt like I was just not getting enough sleep and maybe had a cold at the most, but really it wasn’t serious at all,” Mejia said.
But that fatigue wouldn’t go away. And with an upcoming trip to Mexico to see family, Mejia and his fiancé figured they should take a test just to make sure. He figured the test would come back negative and it was just his allergies acting up or a cold from a recent gathering.
“It’s fair to say that if we hadn’t taken the tests proactively, I don’t think I would have realized I had COVID,” Mejia said.
That’s what makes this wave of COVID-19 tricky, says Dr. David Priest with Novant Health. The latest variants can easily present as a cold, flu, or allergies, which is why you should stay home if you feel sick.
“You have people who can be asymptomatically infected all the way toward being in the ICU. So a wide range of severity and then symptoms that overlap a lot of other viruses,” Priest said. “That’s always the diagnostic challenge.”
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Counties in the high-level category include Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Union, Catawba and Iredell. Gaston and Lincoln are in the medium level.
Priest points out that people in vulnerable populations like the elderly, those with underlying health conditions like diabetes, and people not up to date with the coronavirus vaccine can have more severe symptoms and need intervention. Which is being reflected in hospitalization numbers.
“We are currently caring for about 260 COVID patients in the hospital across our health care system,” he told reporters this week. “It’s a combination of those who have active, positive, COVID infection and those who are recovering and who are no longer contagious. The last time we spoke in early December we had a little over 100 patients so it’s been a steady increase over the last several weeks.”
This wave was expected, Priest says. Health care workers have been bracing for an uptick in numbers after holiday gatherings.
Atrium Health epidemiologist Dr. Katie Passaretti points out respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, and flu numbers are going down just as COVID-19 numbers are picking up. The good news is COVID-19 hospitalizations at Atrium are nowhere near as bad as they’ve been in the past.
“Our hospitalization numbers are increased, but certainly not increased to the level that we saw last year,” Passaretti said at a news conference this week. “We’re about 35-40% of where we were this time last year, just for context. And there is smaller ICU numbers. So a mix of active COVID in there and recovery.”
The latest variants of COVID-19 are still in the omicron variant. Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington says you can think of the variant family tree like this: “There’s a combination of offspring, cousin and sibling, I think, circling at the moment. Of course, the one of most concern is XBB.1.5, which has been getting a lot of national and global attention because of its ability to try to transmit from person to person pretty efficiently.”
Washington says XBB.1.5 has been found in Mecklenburg County. Those in vulnerable populations should consider masking when in large groups and the county is continuing to work on vaccination education and outreach specifically in the senior citizen population.
“Completing the initial dose … that number has not changed dramatically over the last 12 months. In fact, it’s gone up very, very, very small, less than a percentage point on a continual basis. And it’s right around 70% of folks have completed the initial series,” Washington said. “Booster uptake has been much lower, though, with less than a third of folks of being up to date on their booster doses.”
Washington added if you haven’t gotten COVID-19 yet — or even if you have but it’s been a while, these latest variants may be hard to outrun.
“If you haven’t had an infection previously, you know, with or without vaccination, certainly you are more vulnerable,” Washington said. “And that’s just basic infectious disease epidemiology. It’s the way it works, like it’s looking for folks to be a host and it’s more likely to be able to infect a new person than not. And that’s really any infection.”
The silver lining to all of this is that these latest variants could be a sign that we are moving from a pandemic to an endemic phase. Priest says that means COVID-19 could become more seasonal and manageable.
“The more people that have kind of common cold-like symptoms, I think the more of that we see and the evolution of those viruses toward more of a common cold symptom like virus, the better,” Priest said.
When Mejia tested positive for COVID-19 in December, it wasn’t his first time with the virus. Both he and his fiancé tested positive in 2020 before there was a vaccine. Neither dance with COVID-19 was a fun one, but this most recent spin wasn’t nearly as bad, especially he says, post-vaccine.
“It almost was shocking to get a positive test because I was like, wow, I almost forgot about COVID,” Mejia said.
Easy to forget for a moment. But as Mejia found, the two thin positive lines on a COVID-19 test will serve as a reminder — we still have a ways to go.