This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch

With cases of COVID-19 declining and the risk of transmission low across much of the state, Governor Roy Cooper said North Carolina is ready to move to the next phase of the pandemic.

“It’s time to chart the new course. This virus will still be with us, but it won’t disrupt us,” Cooper said during a Thursday press conference.

The governor noted with vaccines, testing, treatment, and other tools widely available the state will shift its focus to individual responsibility and preparedness.

Kody Kinsley, secretary for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), said unimaginable progress has been made over the last two years.

“While COVID is a threat we can manage, it has not disappeared.”

The state’s health secretary said moving forward North Carolina will update the key metrics used to guide the state’s response, focusing on seven indicators:

• Wastewater surveillance

• COVID-like illness

• Hospital admissions

• Cases

• Booster rates

• Prevalence of variants

• CDC’s COVID-19 community level metric

Kinsley said North Carolina was among the first states in the nation to partner with the CDC in wastewater surveillance.

“Wastewater has pieces of the COVID-19 virus four to six days before the first cases are reported in the community,” he explained.

Hospital admissions for COVID-19 will continue to be tracked to determine the strain on the state’s healthcare facilities.

Why North Carolina is not ending its State of Emergency

Even with improving numbers and this step into this next phase, North Carolina will remain under its state of emergency.

The order gives needed flexibility to healthcare workers to help with surges, as well as helping with vaccine distribution and treatment.

Republican lawmakers have repeatedly pressed the governor and NCDHHS as to when that emergency order would be lifted.

“It’s a legal tool we are using to provide the flexibility that’s needed,” Cooper responded. “And when the legislature passes a law to give that flexibility that’s needed, then we’ll do away with it.”

Move to new phase comes amid new variants

This step forward for North Carolina comes at the same time a new BA.2 variant appears to be spreading quickly in other states.

Kinsley said for that reason preparedness is critical.

“Right now only 53% of people fully vaccinated are up-to-date and have had that booster shot. It’s an important way to stay ahead of the variants we are seeing in Europe and other variants that will come.”

Kinsley said while the BA.2 variant appears to be 30% more transmissible, the immunity from past omicron infections and vaccines remains very protective.

“This is an important part of the personal responsibility we are talking about,” said Cooper in stressing the need for North Carolinians to follow through and get their booster shots.

How likely is a fourth shot?

For those who received their COVID vaccine and booster months ago and may be worried about waning immunity, the CDC is measuring that monthly, according to Kinsley.

“A second consideration is not just the waning immunity, but when is the right moment for another booster, if at all,” added Kinsley. “You would want it on the eve of when there is likely a risk of higher exposure because of increased transmission. Those are the conversations happening right now.”

This week both Moderna and Pfizer requested the Food and Drug Administration consider approval of an additional booster shot.

Future federal funding crucial

Kinsley said he is most concerned about continued federal funding and the state’s ability to have stockpiles of tests and other supplies on hand in the event of a surge or a future pandemic.

“I hope that we will see that funding come. This is not the time to take a step back.”

NCDHHS Dr. Susan Kansagra echoed that assessment.

“We know things like vaccine allocations, purchases of anti-viral, those things need to happen in advance with manufacturers to make sure there is enough supply. And we are already aware that will result in a reduction in monoclonal antibody availability by 30% starting next week,” Kansagra explained.

Cooper said it’s crucial Congress works out that funding stream and quickly.

Federal investments keep the production of tests and treatments high, he added.

“If we’ve learned any lesson, we have to be prepared.”

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