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Editorial: With worsening virus, state avoids return to shutdowns

The calculations are different this time around.

Even as COVID-19 has produced new records locally and across North Carolina, there has not been a return to the stay-at-home order from spring 2020, which was intended to help limit the spread of a virus that was still brand new and limit the strain on hospitals.

There have been 28 Rowan County deaths from COVID-19 in 2021 and a record for the most in a single day. The county also has seen records for positives reported in a single day and an higher-than-ever use on hospital resources. The fact that nearly all of the state’s counties fall in the “critical” category for community spread means North Carolina has reached previously unseen levels of the pandemic.

Last year, North Carolinians were reading and watching news about field hospitals being set up in New York City, but western N.C. is now home to such a facility. The 3-bed field hospital, in Lenoir, was erected by nonprofit Samaritans Purse because of a recent surge in cases.

Recent restrictions, meanwhile, have not been as wide-ranging as those that came before. Changes instead have been targeted at halting late-night gatherings, strengthening rules around mask-wearing requirements and other accountability measures. Even as Gov. Roy Cooper on Jan. 6 noted that the state was setting grim records and N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said the state was “in a very dangerous position,” the current restrictions were extended through Jan. 29.

So why no return to old restrictions?

Perhaps it’s a recognition that it’s most important for people to abide by current recommendations and that too many are not doing so now. Or maybe it’s a prediction that folks would ignore a return to old rules if they didn’t also see the situation as dire.

Vaccines are rolling out, and surely Cooper sees that as a reason to avoid too-harsh restrictions. But the reality is that most folks cannot receive the vaccine yet, either because of supply or that the state remains in its earliest phases. A tiny portion of the state has received the first dose — roughly 190,000 of the state’s 10.48 million residents — and an even smaller portion has received both doses — 28,978. In terms of viral spread, they should remain a non-factor when considering any new restrictions.

Whatever Cooper’s calculation, he’s right to avoid a return to stay-at-home orders unless health concerns necessitate it. Shutdowns last year proved to be most harmful to those in service jobs, which pay lower wages than white-collar professionals. A too-soon return to shutdowns would hurt those who are still trying to get back on their feet.

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