It’s a small consolation in this week’s news cycle: While North Carolina’s COVID map is mostly a sea of red—indicating critical rates of viral spread— the Triangle remains a small orange-and-yellow island of mid-level infection. 

Statewide, the picture is grim. Thursday set a new record for daily reported cases, with nearly 10,400 people testing positive for the virus. While the positive testing rate decreased to 13.5 percent yesterday, another 137 people have died, bringing the state’s death toll to more than 7,200 in less than a year.

Almost every county in North Carolina is in the “red” zone right now, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Out of North Carolina’s 100 counties, 84 are in the critical red zone, 12 are tier orange, and just four are tier yellow. 

Wake and Durham counties are among the dwindling orange holdouts, meaning there is substantial spread of the virus, while Orange County is yellow, with merely significant viral spread. Chatham County—which includes Pittsboro and Siler City—is the other yellow spot completing the Triangle’s island amid a sea of red.

So what have these counties been doing right? According to Wake County Board of Commissioners Chair Matt Calabria, it’s a combination of increased testing and outreach.

“We are now testing thousands of people every week, which enables people to know their status quickly—usually within less than 24 hours—and act accordingly,” Calabria told the INDY. “We are also doing a very good job and are continuing to augment our efforts to reach out to populations that have been disproportionally affected by the virus.”

That includes the Latinx community and other minority groups, which sometimes means thinking outside the box, according to Wake County’s associate medical director and director of epidemiology Dr. Nichole Mushonga. 

“We’ve translated our materials into some of the top 10 languages spoken in the county so we can reach a broad audience,” Mushonga told the INDY. “We’ve been just working really hard to look at different avenues and different ways to get the message out to people and also looking at different ways to do testing. We have testing sites that are in the communities, to bring the testing to people where they are.”

But don’t take off your mask just yet. While the vaccine rollout has begun—with healthcare workers and individuals over the age of 75 first in line—there’s concern about supply. That’s especially true in Wake County due to its sheer size, county spokesperson Leah Holdren told NC Health News.

“There is not enough vaccine supply yet to move into Phase 1b. However, we hope to move on very soon and are finalizing plans for Phase 1b vaccination,” Holdren wrote. “Wake County has the largest population in the state, and it will take longer to get through each phase than most other counties.”

Durham County is also still in the first phase of distributing the vaccine.

Officials have warned it may be several months before vaccines become more widely available to the general public. In the meantime, Governor Roy Cooper has extended his modified stay-at-home order through January 29, urging residents to avoid gatherings, continue to wear masks, and wash their hands frequently. 

The state’s color-coding system is based on several key metrics for tracking the virus—the percent of people testing positive, hospitalizations, and case rate—and Mushonga warned “we just can’t let our guard down.”

“We’re really close to joining those other counties,” Mushonga said.

If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s how quickly trends can change. In that context, it’s important to point out that the state’s map hasn’t been updated since January 2.

“Ultimately, what individuals and families do is going to always be the most important thing,” Calabria said. “This is going to be a fluid situation, and we and other counties may find ourselves in a situation where we are coded as red counties within the next couple of weeks, so we want to be mindful of that as we continue to get numbers in for the remainder of the holiday season.”

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