GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - The BA.2 subvariant of omicron has risen to make up nearly 25-percent of the country’s COVID infections and the CDC is using household wastewater to track the disease.
Using this method, data can be collected without the variables of patient access to healthcare, seeking healthcare when ill, or the availability of COVID testing.
The World Health Organization labeled the BA.2 variant as the dominant variant across the globe. With mask guidelines more relaxed, eyes turn to the U.S. to make it through the summer without a repeat of sky-high case numbers.
For a while, researchers at East Carolina University were taking samples in Greenville.
"That gave us a target to say, ‘COVID was in this dorm, but not this dorm,’” said ECU’s Director of National Security Initiatives, Jim Menke. “There was a threshold and once it hit that threshold there was enough COVID in the wastewater to say there’s someone sick in that dorm.”
While the university has ended that initiative and opted for other means of COVID tracking, the state is participating in the Centers for Disease Control’s nationwide wastewater surveillance program.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says 24 sampling sites are currently part of the program and 12 more will be added soon.
“We believe it’s in the community. It’s always here,” said Menke. “It’s going to continue to develop variations of that virus.”
This kind of sampling evens the playing field when it comes to detection.
Wastewater measurements include everyone in a community, regardless of whether they have been tested, and can be completed at a fraction of the cost of clinical COVID-19 testing.
This method of disease tracking has been around for decades. In the 1940s it was instrumental in tracking and containing outbreaks of Polio.
Just last month the Associated Press reported 73-percent of the U.S. was considered immune from omicron.
The question that remains is: will that immunity be enough to stop another surge as mask regulations diminish?
Health experts stand strong behind vaccination as the most effective tool to fight COVID-19.
Since the beginning of the year, the number of fully vaccinated Americans increased just over two percent.
GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - The National Center for Health Statistics reports pregnancy related deaths in the United States have increased, continuing a climbing trend that resulted in an overall average of 24 deaths per 100,000 births during the first year of the pandemic.
Looking further into the trend’s history, maternal mortality has more than tripled in the past 35 years.
For black mothers, the maternal death rate was almost triple the amount of that for white mothers.
“It’s very distressing,” said Vidant Medical Center OBGYN Dr. James DeVente. “I think a lot of us always try to look for one thing that we can fix to make it all go away and we realize, it’s not just one thing.”
After spending time with their own son in the NICU, the Seyler Family created a nonprofit called Cameron’s Care Packages and Houses driven to increase education and opportunity for struggling mothers across ENC.
“As parents, we’ve been there,” said John Seyler. “If you don’t know where your next meal is going to be or your next place to sleep, how are you going to be able to care for this child and be successful?”
861 pregnancy-related deaths were recorded in the United States in 2020.
While there is no cure-all currently known to prevent the mortality rate of mothers during pregnancy, childbirth, or one year after birth, DeVente says Vidant Medical Center is working on a long term platform to decrease some of the contributing factors.
“What we have to do instead of trying to find a silver bullet that’s going to make this all go away is to basically have a multi-fork plan that will kind of capture all the things that we know are involved,” said Devente.
Addressing rising rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease is all included in the plan of attack to lower birth risks.
The hospital network is focusing on how to integrate education, collaboration, and standardization in every visit.
“I want to be able to the moms provide healthy meals for them and their babies,” said Lynn Seyler. “We’ll be transporting the moms to doctor’s appointments to make sure they get there and then to school and work.”
The Seyler Family follows suit to keep their community supported.
Researchers are looking into the wide reach the pandemic could have on this data.
Not only could COVID infection play a role in the trend directly, but at the start of the pandemic, mothers across the country felt hesitancy going into their doctors’ offices, trying to avoid infection.
Health professionals now work to rewrite that thought by encouraging expecting mothers to be seen by their doctors early and often.
Preventative prenatal care can help decrease birth mortality. At Vidant doctors have decreased the preterm delivery rate by more than 20 percent for infants born before 37 weeks within the last 10 years.
GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - A Greenville renter says she has been told to move out of her apartment complex next month because she received financial assistance on her rental payments.
The renter, Nandi Barton, says she has paid her rent in full and on time since she started renting from Legacy at Fire Tower in September of 2020.
At that time, Barton moved to Greenville looking for a fresh start.
“Being a woman of color, you have that fear, that internal fear,” Barton said. “I was just coming here for my children to have a better life.”
In August of 2021, Barton’s job asked her to transition out of a remote position and into in-person shifts, something she couldn’t accommodate. She lost her job.
Soon after, she got sick with COVID-19.
Barton says she remembered a note on her rental payment submission form in the past.
“I had seen the resources that said: If you are having struggles due to COVID-19, you can use this program,” Barton said.
She then applied for the HOPE Program funds, which were available to households impacted by the virus who were struggling with rent and utility payments.
Knowing her lease would soon be up, Barton says she reached out to the property to find out the terms of a renewal.
Later, she received a notice at her door saying her unit was undergoing a “management non-renewal due to receiving financial assistance.”
When asked why this was the reason for a non-renewal, Legacy at Firetower said, ”Ownership has discretion whether to renew a lease and they chose not to.”
Barton says she’s fortunate to have a good-paying job now, but not everyone that used those funds is in the same boat.
“If I was to hear that it was done to somebody else in this complex, I would still want to move,” Barton said.
She wonders who else may be displaced. That question could cause the same headache that Barton is experiencing for thousands of renters.
In North Carolina, the HOPE Program provided more than $745 million in rent and utility payments for those in need.
Across the country, at the height of the COVID-19 rental payment program, nearly half a million households received financial assistance each month.
According to the documents that Barton says she’s received from her apartment building, she has until March 27th to leave her apartment. However, she says her rent is paid through May.
The WITN team will continue to investigate these claims.
GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that consumer prices jumped 7.5% last month compared with a year earlier, affecting all goods and services.
Families are struggling with rising costs from diapers to snacks, and are making sacrifices to stay on budget.
“You definitely have to stretch a buck farther than you’ve expected,” James Trimble, a Pitt County father of two said.
From December 2020 to December 2021, the consumer price index rose for meat and eggs in the double digits, and it’s forecasted to rise even higher this year.
As Trimble shops for his family, he notices a rise in “meat, the pampers, clothes, everything. You have to budget stuff and you have to be on top of it.”
The inflation rate increase seen across the countries is the highest price jump seen in four decades.
Some parents are having to shift their spending to make ends meet.
“Snacks and stuff you can hold out on, maybe get a lower brand of this snack and stretch the buck,” Trimble said, “but you definitely have to have Pampers, wipes, and clothes.”
Trimble’s family saves money where they can by utilizing free resources like the playground at Town Common in Greenville, but more financial challenges loom on the horizon.
“I don’t think any family, no matter how well-off they are, could support one child educationally right now,” Lauren Freeman, a childcare provider and student said.
At the end of the day, Trimble says of his kids, “We’ll make sure they are taken care of first.”
Meanwhile, some economists see a chance to regulate the surge.
“At this point, I am cautiously optimistic that we will get this under control like we did in the past,” said Dr. Haiyong Liu, East Carolina University Economics Department chair said.
Eyes turn now to the federal government, which may decide to raise the key rate in March by one-half of a percentage point. Typically, it is a quarter-point hike.
GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - With cases of COVID-19 trending downward across the state, many wonder where we stand in the fight against the virus.
For some, this news is a breath of fresh air, but as health professionals explain, we aren’t to the end of the battle just yet.
“There is good news with these decreasing test numbers,” said infectious disease expert Dr. Paul Cook, “but we’re not at the end of the line yet. In fact, I think we have a long way to go.”
While it may seem like COVID has been around forever, Pitt County Public Health Director Dr. John Silvernail reminds us that COVID is a brand new disease.
“We’ve only had two years to study and understand things,” said Silvernail. “I’m sure many of the early studies with time will prove to be partially true, but not completely true.”
Cook understands that some may be confused by the daily changes in guidelines for dealing with the virus. However, “If people have this idea that medical knowledge is static, that’s wrong,” he said.
It’s helpful to zoom out and look at the way COVID has infected Pitt County since the very start.
“You can see the biggest week in Omicron we were almost 5,000 cases for that week,” said Silvernail. “So, we’ve dropped off in case numbers, but we’re still above the height of the Delta wave and really the height of last January.”
While staying realistic, Silvernail still celebrates the victories that come along the way.
“We have not had a death in Pitt County below the age of 25, so that case fatality rate in the 0-17-year-old and 18-24 year old age group is zero percent,” he said.
That isn’t the case for all age ranges in the county.
146 Pitt County residents have died since the beginning of the pandemic.
Moving forward, medical professionals say vaccination, mask-wearing, and testing to slow the spread are essential to making it out of this pandemic.
PITT COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) - Virtual learning has taken on a new meaning at H.B. Sugg Elementary School where one student is on wheels this school year.
EJ Lyles made his kindergarten debut using an innovative piece of technology: a VGO robot.
Social and emotional learning is an important skill in early education. This week, Lyle’s classmates are learning about emotions and feeling words.
Happiness and excitement were the dominating emotions and feelings shared by his new friends when Lyles dialed into his classroom.
“Having EJ return and him coming home, we knew that at Sugg/Bundy we needed to teach and take care of and love on him,” principal Ali Setser said.
In October, WITN first told Lyles’s story of a long road to recovery.
He underwent a series of traumas that left him hospitalized at Duke University Hospital.
Lyles had just been involved in a crash that seriously hurt his mom when he began exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Then, Lyles was diagnosed with a MRSA infection that caused several of his organs to begin failing.
Fast forward three months and Lyles’ heart and kidney functions are approaching normal levels.
“I do appreciate how willing and open the school has been just to really get him back on track,” Sophia Lyles, EJ Lyles’ mom said.
“That was one of our fears. When he did come home, how would school go?" said Sophia Lyles, EJ Lyles’ mom
Setser reached out to Karen Harrington, Pitt County Schools director of student services, for options and landed on the VGO robot.
EJ Lyles is able to see, hear, and interact with his classmates from the safety of his home.
The robot wears an #EJStrong t-shirt, something that one donor gifted all 800 students of the H.B. Sugg and Sam D. Bundy school.
Setser inducted the shirt into the school’s spirit day collection, making it uniform-approved on the special dress-down days.
While his classmates admired his shirt, EJ Lyles admired their masks.
“He was really excited about the one kid with the Spiderman mask,” Sophia Lyles said. “It really did enough for him because he’s been jumping off the walls ever since.”
At home, EJ Lyles has made great strides in his recovery, but he doesn’t get to spend much time with other children his age.
“I think it’s important that he’s around kids his age and he realizes, ‘Hey, I’ve been through this and I’ve made it through it and now I’m here.’ That’s a way for him to share what he’s been through and share that he’s just like anybody else,” Olivia Haley, EJ Lyles’ kindergarten teacher said.
Haley has worked with the Lyles family to craft a schedule that includes Lyles in group learning while working around his medical schedule.
Lyles completed a math lesson Wednesday in greater than and less than numbers. He was able to participate with a small group of students to identify the correct answers.
And when Lyles was ready, he would light up his robot to signal his hand being raised.
EJ Lyles will continue to be monitored by a team of doctors, but when he is able to make an in-person debut at school, the H.B. Sugg family is ready to embrace him.
GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - With a new plan rolling out from the federal government, free COVID-19 tests can soon be delivered to people’s doors.
The news comes as some Pitt County residents waited in lines for 10 hours at Vidant’s drive-up testing site in Greenville.
“I think I felt more sorry for all the cars with kids,” Sharon Kott said.
“There were so many people there and nobody was leaving.”
Sharon Kott, waited for 10 hours to test at Vidant.
Vidant sees around 700 patients a day for COVID testing. Recently, about 50% of its tests have been coming back positive.
For the healthcare workers administering the tests, the incoming weather system is adding to their stress.
“They are exposed to COVID every day,” Dr. Dave Harlow, Vidant Allied Health vice president said.
“Even if it’s a pretty day and it’s 24 degrees at 7 in the morning, that’s just not normal for most healthcare workers to work in those conditions," said Dr. Dave Harlow, Vidant Allied Health vice president.
Noticing the strain that the omicron variant has put on hospitals across the country, the Biden administration is rolling out four free at-home testing kits for each household.
The tests are rapid antigen tests meant to be taken three to five days from exposure.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Paul Cooks said, “They’re pretty good. They’re not great so if you get a positive, you’ve got an answer. If you get a negative, then you might have to say, ‘Well if I’m having symptoms, maybe I need to get another test.’”
If you have to go to Vidant or another medical provider for a PCR test, “be patient,” advises Harlow.
“We do split the line into four different pieces once you get in there. There are four different lanes that go through there, but even at that, it’s going to take time," said Harlow.
Vidant recently released that it will be closing the gates of its drive-up testing site on Friday, Jan. 21st due to the incoming weather system. Vidant is always closed on Saturdays.
Weather permitting, the site will reopen Sunday morning for more testing.
Anyone who would like to claim their household’s free, at-home testing kits should go here and enter their name and shipping information.
Tests are expected to ship out within 7 to 12 days of ordering.
KINSTON, N.C. (WITN) - A youth-led organization is hosting two COVID-19 vaccination clinics on Thursday and Gov. Roy Cooper stopped by for a tour.
Kinston Teens is hosting the clinics to give out first vaccination doses and booster shots. The event will also feature music, educational resources and mask and hand sanitizer giveaways. The events are happening at the following locations:
Cooper thanked the healthcare workers who he says are having to shoulder a lot of the burden of the pandemic.
“One of the reasons why I am here and one of the reasons we are working so hard is we want to keep people who catch COVID from getting severely ill, from having to go to the ICU, and from dying. It can be a real love letter to healthcare workers for people to get vaccinated and boosted," said Gov. Roy Cooper.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley also toured the clinic and spoke at the event. He said there have been more than 11,000 cases of COVID-19 in Lenoir County since the start of the pandemic and 600 in the last week alone.
“Unfortunately the omicron variant is incredibly contagious,” Kinsley said.
“We’re focused on doing three things. We want to save lives, we want to save hospital capacity for every emergency, and we want to keep our kids in the classroom. Seeing what we’re seeing here today is exactly how we do that," said Kody Kinsley, NCDHHS secretary.
Cooper echoed Kinsley’s thoughts on keeping children in schools. “Keeping children safely in the classroom is one of the most important things that we have to do,” Cooper said.
The governor also spoke of the importance of communities like Kinston that build up each other and work to keep each other safe, informed, and engaged in society.
One Lenoir County healthcare worker and caregiver got her booster shot at the event, and urged others to do the same.
“This is very serious, and everyone needs to be precautious,” said Tonia Hawkins. “Everyone needs to booster up if you haven’t gotten your booster yet.”
Kinston Teens, which focuses on empowering young people through service, leadership, and civic engagement, has been working to fight the pandemic since March of 2020.
CEO Chris Suggs says they plan to continue their work to support the community throughout the year.
“We’ve been working very hard as a community, here in Kinston, to navigate this crisis and we’ve done a lot of it because of the support and the investments of our state leadership,” said Suggs.
After Cooper visited the Holloway Community Center, the Kinston Teens team moved their PPE distribution to the Kinston-Lenoir County Public Library.
We are excited to continue making the COVID-19 vaccines available to our community, and be on the frontlines helping Kinston navigate this deadly pandemic. It is proven that vaccines and booster shots help prevent serious illness, death, and further mutations of the virus, and we want our neighbors to be protected," said Chasity Pate, coordinator of the organization’s COVID-19 response.
For more information, click here or call (252) 522-8012. Appointments or pre-registration are not required.
LENOIR COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) - COVID cases surge as thousands of students across Eastern North Carolina return to school this week after their winter break.
Students packed their backpacks and lunchboxes Wednesday morning and for Lenoir County students, they had the option of whether or not to also pack their mask.
The option comes after a school board meeting on Monday maintained, by a vote of 4-3, that masks be optional for students and faculty in school.
“I find a hard time understanding why this is being debated for this demographic of the population... children, and germs, and a close environment,” Hannah Perry, the mother of a third-grade student in Lenoir County Public Schools said.
Perry is pleased with the way the school system handles some aspects of its COVID precautions. “The custodial is amazing and they are amazing with their sanitation,” she said.
However, she is not so happy about other parts, like mask-wearing being optional.
As students enter the halls of schools across the district, Patrick Holmes, a spokesperson for the school system, said, “The first day of school in the new year looks a lot like the last day of school for the last year.”
He’s referring to the mask policy, in which the vote in December yielded the same optional mask-wearing result.
“The mask question is up to the board of education,” Holmes said. “That’s a policy decision that the board is going to make. They vote on it every month.”
The Lenoir County School Board isn’t the only board of education to have made this decision regarding masks. Face coverings are optional in Beaufort, Onslow, and Carteret counties’ schools. All four of these districts reaffirmed their rulings.
“We are taking a number of steps in schools,” Holmes said.
“From testing on request to the usual sanitation measures that we do, most of our students don’t eat in the cafeteria. They eat in the classroom. We keep groups as small as we can," said Holmes.
The school board has also partnered with Lenoir County Health Director Pam Brown.
“She was instrumental in working with our school board members and our district administrators in devising the current policy we have for optional face coverings,” Holmes said.
For Perry, making face coverings optional has the same ring to it as making hygiene optional.
She says if you saw someone leave the restroom without washing their hands, “you would almost want to encourage them to. I’ve encouraged my son and I bought a box of 100 masks for about $16 and it’s just such a low price to pay to keep him safe.”
As for the school district administration, they will keep an eye on the COVID numbers in the community and in their schools.
Holmes said, “I think we are doing all that we can and if the situation warrants it, we’ll adjust our practices.”
The school system administration urges parents to keep their children home if they are sick and to get them vaccinated as soon as they become eligible.
The district offers PCR testing upon request and has most of its students eat in the classroom in smaller groups to reduce outbreaks.
RALEIGH, N.C. (WITN) - North Carolina reported on Thursday the most COVID-19 cases in a single day since the pandemic began.
The state Department of Health and Human Services said there were 18,571 new confirmed cases.
The previous record for new cases was on January 9th at 11,708.
State health officials say since Tuesday cases across the state have been spiking. On Wednesday, there were 9,377 new cases.
Dr. Ron May, chief medical officer at CarolinaEast Medical, says the CDC anticipated this climb about a month ago.
“The numbers that we are seeing are worrisome, but not unexpected,” said Dr. May.
“We are concerned that even a very small proportion of these cases ending up in the hospital could overwhelm our hospital system and increase the loss of lives of those most vulnerable," said Kody Kinsley, DHHS secretary.
The number of people in the hospital with the virus also continues to climb. The latest figures from DHHS show 2,258 hospitalizations, nearly doubling since the beginning of December.
In Onslow County, testing numbers did not break record for the county, but lines were still full with individuals needing a COVID test.
“Our testing centers are at very high capacity and are really seeing a tremendous need in the community,” said Onslow County health director Kristen Hoover. “We expect that the rest of the week will probably follow much of the same.”
While waiting to be tested, Hoover says proper etiquette is important to ensure the safety of those getting tested as well as those performing the tests.
“Try to mask when you’re around others, try not to spread anything to anyone else, and isolate yourself,” Hoover said.
Daily case reports aren’t the only figure to have broken a state record today. The number of people visiting the emergency room for COVID-like illness sets a state-wide high at 4,171.
While the emergency room is a good place to go if you are in need of immediate medical attention, Hoover reminds the public that it is not the place to go for a COVID test saying, “We want the emergency rooms to have the capacity to take care of those health needs that we see every day.”
Ahead of New Year’s Eve, state health officials are warning people to avoid large gatherings, especially if they are unvaccinated.
Dr. May sites predictions on the spread of omicron expecting cases to double every two to three days.
“Just simple, basic arithmetic would tell you that it’s going to be a lot of people in a very short period of time,” said Dr. May.
Health officials say to keep gatherings for the New Year small and host them outside. If inside, consider wearing masks and have windows open for ventilation.