Cooper urges COVID-19 boosters, plans extension of mandate for state workers

Published 6:30 am Wednesday, January 5, 2022

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By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

With COVID-19-related hospitalizations surging amid the spread of the extremely contagious omicron variant, Gov. Roy Cooper urged North Carolina residents on Tuesday to get up to date on vaccinations for protection against the virus.

The latest state health data showed the number of patients with COVID-19 in North Carolina’s hospitals exceeded 3,000 on Monday — a more than 50% increase compared to a week earlier. Just over 600 of those patients were in intensive care units, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

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The number and percentage of positive tests for COVID-19 and testing totals also have soared in recent weeks, the result of the omicron variant and residents seeking to obtain results before or after holiday visits with family and friends. One-day increases in the number of positive cases recorded by the state broke records three times last week, reaching 19,620 on Saturday. The percentage of positive tests received from laboratory results in the state neared 30% on Monday.

Over 80% of the state’s positive tests are now forecast as attributed to the omicron variant, new Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley said at a state COVID-19 news conference.

More than 87% of the ICU patients are unvaccinated for the coronavirus, Kinsley said, reinforcing the need for residents to get vaccinated and ultimately boosted. Boosters have been found to increase immunity and reduce the risks of getting severely sick or dying from omicron compared to no vaccine, Kinsley added: “Vaccines are our way out of this.”

Cooper said he would extend later this week an executive order taking effect in September required state employees in Cabinet agencies to be fully vaccinated or tested regularly, or risk losing their jobs. The updated order would allow the Office of State Human Resources to include a booster shot in the definition of “fully vaccinated” once the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include boosters in its definition, Cooper said.

“We’ll keep our foot on the gas when it comes to getting more shots and more boosters administered,” Cooper said. “This virus and its variants will continue to be with us for a while, but we’re getting better and better at dealing and living with it.”

While there are still open hospital and ICU beds, Kinsley said, DHHS is keeping a close eye on hospital capacity and staffing, staying in close contact with hospital leaders. Kinsley acknowledged some challenges for the state with obtaining and distributing rapid COVID-19 tests to counties, but also pointed out that there were many other testing options, particularly through laboratory collection points and pharmacies.

About 19,500 COVID-19 patients have died since the start of the pandemic, according to DHHS data.

Tuesday’s news conference marked Kinsley’s first since being sworn in as department secretary. He succeeded Dr. Mandy Cohen, who served in the position for the first five years of the Cooper administration until she stepped down effective last week.