Chatham County health officials revise approach in new era of pandemic

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Increased access to vaccines, new treatments, lower case numbers and other factors have led to a shift in the response to the pandemic, according to Chatham health officials.
Increased access to vaccines, new treatments, lower case numbers and other factors have led to a shift in the response to the pandemic, according to Chatham health officials.
Staff photo by Peyton Sickles

Gov. Roy Cooper addressed the state last Thursday with some updates regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in North Carolina. His message: We’re entering a new phase in combating the virus, a phase working toward what existed before COVID-19.

“Two years ago, the world stopped because of an extraordinary contagious virus we knew nothing about,” Cooper said. “We can go forward with the belief that the worst is behind us, and as we look ahead, it’s important to take stock of how far we have come.”

North Carolina and Chatham County have taken on the pandemic by using various mitigation tools — such as vaccinations, accessibility to testing and lowered isolation periods for COVID positive patients — and are now shifting focus on learning to live with COVID-19, rather than complete eradication of the virus.

Chatham health officials have voiced optimism, saying community spread has decreased, vaccination rates are steady and hospitalizations have decreased after the wave of Omicron cases.

Public Health Director Mike Zelek said COVID metrics for Chatham County have been “trending in the right direction for a long time.”

“In mid-January, we saw case rates that we hadn’t seen before in the pandemic,” Zelek said. “We were eager for those case counts to come back down to reasonable levels, and these days they have.”

During the Omicron surge, Chatham County experienced a stark increase in both cases and hospitalizations, according to Eric Wolak, Chatham Hospital’s chief operations officer. He said after the peak in January, hospitalizations have shifted downward — and as of this week, Wolak said he wasn’t aware of any COVID patients currently being treated at the hospital.

“The hospitalization (rates) exceeded what it was the previous winter,” he said. “That peak ended in January and has gone down since then.”

NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley announced a new metric system and guidance for how local entities should respond to the threat of COVID-19 in their own communities. Kinsley focused on four new principles for the state’s shift in its COVID response: empowering individuals, maintaining health system capacity, collaborating with local partners and prioritizing equity.

Focusing on these four goals, he said, will “ensure a fast and fair response that improves the health, safety and well-being of all North Carolinians.”

“People want to return to their normal routines, which they can do because of free and effective vaccines, boosters and other tools that help manage our risk,” Kinsley said. “We worked hard to get to this moment — we are now prepared in ways that could not have been two years ago.”

In response to the new state guidance, Zelek said vaccinations and community exposure to COVID have led to phasing in loosened restrictions.

“What we expected was as the Omicron surge passed, we were going to be treating this pandemic differently,” Zelek said. “It was a staged approach to where we are now, which is saying we’ve had vaccines for 15 months or so, we’ve gone through several waves of pandemic, we’ve learned a lot over the last two years, and we’re at a point with cases now have come back down to levels where we really should be looking at this differently.”

The “phases” Zelek referred to included the recent end to mask mandates, the updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shortening the isolation and quarantine period for COVID-positive persons and the increased accessibility to testing across the county and state.

But Zelek still maintains people should be mindful of the environment before they decide to permanently abandon masks or social distancing.

“(Protective measures) may look different depending on settings,” he said. “In your higher risk settings, your congregate living and long-term care facilities — where the virus spreads more easily and where the population is often more vulnerable — you put in place different strategies and maybe in a broader community setting, your gatherings and things like that.”

Wolak also aired similar concerns as Zelek, warning residents to not be too care-free when it comes to COVID protective measures. He said during the latest surge, community spread directly impacted the hospital’s ability to provide care, particularly due to staffing shortages due to COVID related absences.

“Employees of ours would get COVID, and even if they had a very mild form of COVID, they would be out for 10 days, making staffing very challenging,” Wolak said. “We were up to about 15 people (absent) at one time, which would represent about 10% of our workforce.”

From the hospital’s perspective, Wolak said he wants Chatham residents to be cautious — while not panicked — as restrictions continue to be loosened or done away with.

“I totally understand the trajectory we’re in, and I also appreciate that COVID numbers are decreasing,” he said. “There’s normalcy returning, and I’m thankful for that. However, I do think there needs to be caution with that.”

Both Zelek and Wolak are also looking out for the subvariant of Omicron, known as BA.2, which could lead to another surge in Chatham County.

According to health experts, this new variant is 1.5 times more transmissible than the Omicron variant and has already made its way into the United States, particularly in some parts of New York, according to the CDC.

Zelek said research indicates vaccines are still providing high levels of protection against the BA.2 variant, still proving to be the most effective tool in preventing severe illness and death.

“It (the variant) may have some ability to bypass some of our treatments, similar to what Omicron did in some of the monoclonal antibodies treatments,” he said. “To me, that’s just more impetus for making sure you’re up to date on your vaccinations because that protection on the front end is the most important.”

Chatham County’s vaccination rate is lingering around 64% for ages 5 and up, while the state rate is at 65% for the same age group. According to Wolak, the vaccination rate in the county and state need to increase even more to have the most effect on curbing future surges.

“Chatham County has a fairly low vaccination rate,” he said. “Ideally you would want something around 80 to 90%, but we’ve got a long way to go to get even close to that. Five and up here is only 64%, and we really need to be much, much higher to have a community benefit.”

As the pandemic continues to evolve and new variants continue to emerge, Zelek said he and the health department will continue to monitor community metrics to make sure Chatham County residents take the necessary steps to protect themselves and loved ones around them.

“We’ve been through change before with the pandemic because the pandemic has changed and our understanding of the virus has changed, and to me, that’s a good thing,” he said. “It can get very confusing and certainly public health at all levels could have done and continue to do a better job at communicating what that looks like, but I think just the changes and pivots are just reality and a necessity. That’s what public health should do is learn and then reflect that guidance in the clearest way possible.”

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at


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