Pitt County’s public health director said clusters of new COVID-19 cases among returning East Carolina students are inevitable but overall risk from the virus remains low.
Dr. John Silvernail answered questions Wednesday as East Carolina University began welcoming the final wave of students moving into residence halls. Also on Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper extended Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, maintaining limits on gatherings, bar closures, the mask mandate and other measures through Labor Day.
Pitt County Health Department officials have had conversations with ECU about possibly offering antibody testing on campus through Student Health, Sivernail said, which would help determine how many students have already had the virus.
Health officials believe that antibodies produced by human immune systems to fight virus will offer some protection to students who have already had it, he said.
It is still not clear if someone can contract COVID-19 more than once, he said. In most cases when someone contracts a virus for a second time the disease is much milder and shorter, he said.
“With COVID-19 we think there are protective antibodies for at least three months,” he said.
ECU students head back to class, in person and virtually, on Monday, school officials said. As of Wednesday, 28,578 students have enrolled for the fall, including 4,269 freshmen, 5,050 graduate students and 1,893 transfer students.
Additionally, 346 students are enrolled in the Brody School of Medicine and 209 in the School of Dental Medicine, a news release said. Official enrollment numbers will be available after census day.
Nearly 3,600 students dropped off their belongings and set up their rooms during drop-off periods over the previous two weeks; about 1,900 more living on campus this semester had designated move-in times Wednesday and today. Students who participated in the early drop-off periods will return this weekend.
The university is encouraging the student body and the rest of the campus community to wear a mask, social distance where possible, wash hands often and avoid large gatherings, the news release said. Everyone coming to campus is asked to complete daily self-screenings using a link provided by text, email and signage.
The majority of people infected in Pitt County have been between the ages of 25-29, Silvernail said. The age range may shift a little as students return, he said.
“I certainly expect that there will be some clusters and some cases among the ECU students,” Silvernail said.
He said it’s probable Pitt County Schools will see outbreaks as well when students start back a week later. On any given day about 30 percent of their normal student body will be present, he said. If students are able to maintain masking, hygiene and social distancing, the risk of contracting the virus is very low.
“I do expect that we will see some clusters in schools,” he said. “Whether or not we will have to close them down depends on the particulars of that situation, and myself or my staff will work closely with the school district when a case is identified to make those decisions.”
Cooper announced during a news conference in Raleigh that the state will remain in the Safer At Home Phase 2 for another five weeks. He said the decision doubles down on efforts to decrease COVID-19 numbers as students and staff return to schools, colleges and universities.
“Other states that lifted restrictions quickly have had to go backward as their hospital capacity ran dangerously low and their cases jumped higher. We will not make that mistake in North Carolina,” Cooper said. “In keeping with our dimmer switch approach with schools opening, and in order to push for decreasing numbers which will keep people healthier and boost our economy, North Carolina will remain paused.”
Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services said that while some of the state’s numbers have mostly leveled, any progress is fragile.
“While overall we are seeing signs of stability, we still have much work to do. Our recent trends show us what is possible when we commit to slowing the spread by wearing face coverings and following those simple but powerful 3Ws,” Cohen said.
The state reported 1,127 new cases of the virus on Wednesday, the sixth day of new cases have been below 2,000. Pitt County saw 31 new cases, a jump from seven the day before. Hurricane Isaias and other factors have slowed testing, which contributes to lower numbers, officials said.
Pitt County has had seen about 50 new cases a day consistently since active testing began in July, Silvernail said. Testing was halted locally Monday through Wednesday.
“I suspect that our numbers will go back up tomorrow when we resume our testing program, but remember that is active case finding, we are out looking for cases,” Silvernail said.
Most of the COVID-19 testing sites are at schools, which reopen on Aug. 17. The health department is developing a plan for new sites, which will include its offices four days a week and popup testing.
The department also plans to do school immunizations in the community and will combine testing activity with immunization, Silvernail said.
Many medical practices throughout the county are offering testing as well and Vidant Health is partnering with the state to offer testing to underserved populations at pop-up clinics in the area.
He said the amount of test returning positive remains at 7 percent in the county. He said COVID-19 will be here for a long time to come.
“COVID-19 is going to be part of the microbiome, the collection of microorganisms that share the environment with us, for a long time to come,” he said.