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'Vaccines save lives' | North Carolina leaders urge COVID-19 vaccinations as cases climb

All 100 counties in North Carolina are labeled as areas of high transmission of the virus.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper provided an update on the state's response to COVID-19 as more cities statewide, including Charlotte, implement mask mandates in public spaces

Cooper spoke at 3 p.m. Wednesday, the same time Mecklenburg County commissioners met to vote on a mask mandate. The city of Charlotte's mandate also took effect Wednesday, requiring masks in all public, indoor spaces for everyone, regardless of vaccination status.

Cooper began the briefing first by noting emergency declarations were made in two western North Carolina counties after the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred rolled through, leading to some people missing and several road closures in the mountain region. The governor said his office was working with local agencies to provide support resources.

Cooper opened the meeting with an overview of COVID-19 metrics in the state. As of Tuesday, almost 14,000 North Carolinians had passed away because of the virus, and cases still were climbing.

The governor also introduced the final winner of the $1 million vaccine drawing: Lilly Fowler, a senior at North Carolina State University from East Bend. Fowler urged people on the fence to do their research and get the vaccine. She also said she planned on being frugal with her prize money, but wanted to take her sister on a nice vacation.

Breland Dean, a rising high school junior, also won the scholarship prize. She also urged people to get the shot and said she planned to attend UNC-Chapel Hill for college.

Cooper took the podium again, saying while the drawings were over, getting protected against COVID-19 was important to protect others. He briefly reviewed the state cabinet requirement for agencies to share employee vaccination status and said he was pleased with how private sector companies responded with similar reporting requirements on their own accord.

Jeanine Benson, with Live Nation, was invited to speak to discuss how the live event company planned to bring back concerts. Benson said Live Nation was working to make sure everyone involved in concerts, from attendees to crew members, would stay safe. She said 90% of fans that attended Lollapalooza in Chicago showed proof of vaccination.

Cooper then took the mic back, noting some colleges and school districts across the state have chosen to reverse course on mask requirements. He applauded these decisions as a way to keep students and staff safe. Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, was then called on to discuss the surge in COVID-19 cases.

Cohen had a warning: the state was seeing the fastest increase in cases seen since January 2021, and that the surge happening now was on par with the original surge. Cohen says the delta variant of the virus spurred the surge as it is more contagious, and that more younger adults are coming down with the virus.

Cohen continued to sound the alarm, saying hospital beds were becoming less available. Her next slide in her presentation showed all 100 of North Carolina's counties were in the red for high transmission of COVID-19. She continued to urge school districts to re-think a mask-optional approach for the school year.

On a more optimistic note, Cohen said more than 10 million COVID-19 vaccines have been given statewide. 85% of all adults aged 65 and older are fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, and more younger people were getting the shot. Still, most new hospital admissions for the virus involved children and unvaccinated people.

"To weather the storm, vax up, mask up, and urge others to do the same," Cohen said.

Answering questions from news media, Cooper said "all options are on the table" when asked about mask mandates. However, he said having vaccine options put the state at a different point in the pandemic than before, and he said government energy will be focused on vaccinations. Still, he pledged to put the health and safety of North Carolinians, and said more people will buy into health guidance at the local level instead of from the state level.

When asked about third shots for immunocompromised people and booster COVID-19 shots, Dr. Cohen said the state is ready. Immunocompromised citizens can go get their third shots now, and there will likely be expanded availability of third shots in September. Cohen said state leaders have been coordinating with vaccine providers for this, but still expressed worry as hospital metrics continued to worsen.

Cooper was asked about ire from parents who felt that school districts requiring masks infringed on their freedom to choose, and the possibility those parents would pull their students from public schools. He urged those parents to listen to guidance from health experts and doctors.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all 100 counties in North Carolina have high levels of virus transmission. On Tuesday, North Carolina health officials reported 2,828 hospitalizations related to COVID-19. Over the past two weeks, North Carolina's COVID-19 positivity rate is 11.7%.

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Meanwhile, hospitalizations in the Carolinas continue to reach levels last seen at the pandemic's height in January. Doctors at Novant Health's Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte said the number of patients has doubled in the last week. Overall, Novant said 90% of its hospitalized COVID-19 patients aren't vaccinated, and they're seeing younger people need serious care. 

RELATED: Hospital beds in the Carolinas are filling up, see which counties are struggling

"The ER here and throughout our community, all of them have been quite crowded and busy," said Dr. Josh Hughes, the assistant director of Presbyterian's emergency department. 

Tuesday's report of 3,500 new cases is a 20% increase than last week and the state's two-week daily average case count is around 4,800. 

Last week, Cooper and state health leaders sent a letter to school districts that haven't yet made masks mandatory for students and staff, urging them to do so.

RELATED: 'Reconsider and make them mandatory': Cooper sends letter to schools pushing mask mandates

"The science is clear that children learn better when they attend school in person and the science is also clear that masks reduce COVID infections so we can keep them there," Cooper said. "The delta variant is moving fast and I strongly urge school leaders who have made masks optional to reconsider and make them mandatory."

RELATED: LIST: K-12 schools in Charlotte-area districts mask, vaccine and remote learning decisions

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