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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

With Cases Slowing, Will Mecklenburg Need Field Hospital?

File photo
Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris provides an update.

In the last week, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Mecklenburg County has slowed dramatically, as the stay-at-home order enters its third week. 

Mecklenburg added 16 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, after adding 41 over the weekend. The daily growth rate for new cases is now averaging under 3% – after being consistently above 20% earlier in the outbreak.

Novant Health and Atrium Health have asked Mecklenburg County to help pay for a new field hospital. But is it still needed? 

Last Wednesday, Mecklenburg Health Director Gibbie Harris said things are going to get worse and the county will need extra hospital beds.

“Even with the current stay at home order and levels of social distancing, we will start to see our healthcare system start to become overwhelmed in early to mid-May,” Harris said. “Those are the projections at this time.”

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, however, says that North Carolina’s hospitals will be most stressed on Wednesday. If the April 15 peak day is correct, Mecklenburg County wouldn’t need a field hospital. 

The University of Washington forecast appears to have successfully forecast death peaks in places like Washington and New York.

The state last week released a forecast that was a collaboration of epidemiologists and public health experts, from the private and public sectors. 

That study projected 250,000 COVID-19 infections in the state by June 1, even with social distancing. It also said the state’s hospitals would be most stressed in the middle of May.

One of the people who worked on the study – Aaron McKethan, an assistant professor of population health sciences at Duke University – told WFAE that the 250,000 estimate could be revised downward based on fewer infections from places like Mecklenburg County, which has a reported 970 cases.

To reach 250,000 infections, the study projected an 8% daily growth rate in cases, which would mean cases would double every nine days. But most states and counties that have started aggressive social distancing have managed to drive through growth rates down far below 8%.

Having fewer cases could result in an earlier peak. But McKethan wrote in an email that he still believes in his “gut” that the peak will be mid-May.

Steven Limentani, the chief scientific officer at Novant Health, said modeling has been COVID-19 cases is difficult because it hasn’t happened before.

“Smart people who do this for a living have widely different views of how this is all going to play out,” he said. “And I think that tells you that we still need a lot more data to predict what is going to happen.”

Novant and Atrium had previously planned a 3,000-bed hospital at UNC Charlotte but scaled that back last week to a 600-bed hospital.

A Mecklenburg County spokesperson said the county manager may discuss the need for a hospital at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

Commissioner Pat Cotham said it was important to plan for a hospital, and she said it may still be needed. But she’s concerned about the county being asked to help pay for the hospital, even if it’s reimbursed by the federal government.

“I just don’t want our dollars going into a hospital,” she said. “We have so many services we have to supply to help our people. I think the hospitals need to worry about this, not the county.”

The county and the hospitals don’t release detailed data on how many people have recovered daily from COVID-19 and how many hospital beds are used. (Mecklenburg County does release broad percentages of people who have recovered from the disease.)

But the state does. Hospitalizations across North Carolina have dropped for two consecutive days.

There are now 313 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the state, down from 331 on Sunday. The University of Washington study said the state has been more than 7,100 hospital beds available.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.
Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.