By Nick Parker
The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Orange County has surpassed 1,000.
A month ago, the number of cumulative cases in the county was below 300. At the beginning of July, the count was 750.
The chair of the Board of Orange County Commissioners, Penny Rich, thinks the recent upward surge is due to a few factors.
“It feels as though, in some cases, we are letting our guard down,” she said. “Maybe because of the exhaustion from being in a state of emergency since March 13, or maybe because it’s summer … or because restaurants, hair salons and retail stores have been opening. I think it’s a combination of all of those things, although clearly our numbers are rising higher than we would like them.”
Compared to the first few months of the pandemic, when cases and hospitalizations were mostly confined to congregant living facilities in Orange County, more people have recently been contracting the virus from the wider community.
“We have communities that live in very close quarters,” said Rich. “It’s not congregated living, but it could certainly mask as congregated living, and if someone in that community or family gets sick they’re bringing that home to everybody. And if you have 10 or 12 people in a home, that entire pot is going to get sick.”
Rich added that this is especially true for lower income residents. Minimum wage workers rely heavily on the income their jobs provide, which in turns gives them less flexibility in avoiding high-risk working conditions. This trend is visible in data from across the state and country.
In an effort to stem the increase in cases, Orange County officials want all residents to wear masks. “That is the one thing everybody can do to beat this thing back,” said Todd McGee, Orange County’s community relations director.
Residents are required to wear masks when entering most private businesses and public buildings. However, despite the mandate, many residents are still choosing not to wear a mask.
“Even after when we started mandating masks,” said Rich, “that didn’t seem to slow the virus down.”
Businesses mostly have followed the new policy, McGee said. But to be sure, procedures are in place to respond to complaints about businesses who do not follow the mask mandate.
“Our environmental health department will try to reach out to them and educate them about why the mandate exists,” said McGee, “If we continue to get complaints the county could conceivably initiate some enforcement actions against them.”
Complicating the response to the uptick in positive cases of COVID-19 is the interconnected nature of Orange County and its neighbors. Durham and Alamance counties also have seen recent increases in positive test results, with around 5,000 and 1,700 cases, respectively.
While Orange County is in close cooperation with Durham and Chatham counties, Alamance has proven less responsive to coordinating response measures, officials say.
“People will go out to dinner in Durham or Alamance, or Chatham, then come home,” said Rich. “They’ll go shopping in Durham or Alamance and then come back to Orange County. That option of shutting down, unless all of our neighboring counties do the same, may not work. It may not be a solution.”
Data originally had showed positive cases leveling off by sometime in August. However, new models now suggest that won’t happen until at least mid-September.