BREAKING: Key Covid figure hits new local low

Mecklenburg's test positivity rate falls to 4.9%, an indicator of 'minimal community spread'; PLUS: Finally, a med school for Charlotte.

Good afternoon! Today is Friday October 9, 2020, and we’re coming to you with 🔥 HOT BREAKING NEWS 🔥.

One of the most closely watched Covid numbers in Mecklenburg County hit a new low, the health department said today, with the percentage of positive tests falling below 5% for the first time since the county started releasing the figures in April.

Although the test positivity rate is just one of several numbers that indicate the severity of Covid in a community, its drop below 5% for the first time underscores how much Covid figures have improved since hitting peaks in July. According to figures from the health department released Friday:

  • Percent positivity is down 58% since July, to 4.9% over the last week (a drop of 6.9 percentage points).

  • Hospitalizations are down 60% since July, to an average of 86 over the last week.

  • New daily cases are down 73% since July, to an average of 85 a day in the last week.

Of course, the virus continues to spread, and nobody knows what will happen next. Some health experts have warned that numbers could worsen heading into the winter because of the arrival of flu season, and many other states have seen increases lately.

At a news conference on Friday, county health director Gibbie Harris made no special note of the 4.9% test positivity figure. She mentioned it alongside other Covid numbers and said the community needs to continue to be “vigilant”:

Right now, our numbers continue to be fairly stable. But we are seeing numbers throughout the state going up, and we want to keep ours stable here in Mecklenburg County, and that means all of us working together, doing the things we know we need to do to prevent the spread of this infection.

In the past, Harris has forecast increases that failed to materialize. County and hospital projections in the spring anticipated thousands of Covid patients straining the hospitals’ resources, but the actual number hospitalized never went much above 200 at one time. More recently, she forecast a spike in cases after Labor Day because of rampant three-day-weekend partying — but that didn’t happen, either, as the numbers stayed stable or fell. She has said several times that she has no “crystal ball.”

Test positivity dropping below 5% for a week is especially noteworthy, because officials in the past have said any number below 5% indicates a low level of community transmission of Covid. In the debate in July over reopening schools, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, recommended that schools consider opening unless they were in “hot spots” where the percentage of positive tests was 5% or higher.

Minimal spread marker: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has incorporated the below-5% figure in its guidelines for reopening and classified that number as indicating “minimal community spread.” On the advice of the health department, though, the district also included another measure related to the number of cases that is still in the “moderate community spread” zone. CMS students start returning to classes part-time on Nov. 2, though high school students won’t return for instruction until January.

Let’s look at the local numbers:

Mecklenburg percentage of positive tests:

(Ledger chart using health department numbers)

Mecklenburg hospitalizations:

Mecklenburg daily cases:

Charlotte med school on the way

The other big health news out today is that Atrium Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health announced they have “officially joined together as a single enterprise.”

This is big for Charlotte because it means the city at long last is on track to have a medical school here. Atrium and Wake announced last year that they planned to combine, so it is no huge surprise. On Friday, they provided no new details on the timing or location of a Charlotte campus but said med students now at Wake could start coming to Charlotte for rotations at Atrium as soon as the spring.

The combined Wake and Atrium campuses will have 3,500 students across 100 specialties. We’ll have a little more analysis of the significance on this for Charlotte in Monday’s newsletter.

For now, in honor of Charlotte’s new med school, let’s head into the weekend with a special med school edition of Loves Me Some Internet:

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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire; Reporting intern: David Griffith