RALEIGH, N.C. -- The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in North Carolina each day has crept up in the last two weeks, and some doctors worry it may be a sign of things to come.
The hospitalization numbers reported by the state Department of Health and Human Services fluctuate from day to day, but from mid-April to mid-May they mostly remained between 400 and 550.
But since May 25, Memorial Day, an average of 671 people a day have been hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide, with the number exceeding 700 four times and hitting a new high of 717 on Friday.
Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease physician at the UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, says new coronavirus cases can vary with the number of people tested and that counting people who end up in the hospital is a more straightforward measure of the outbreak.
"I think that's really the truest canary in the coal mine for us," Wohl said this week. "If we're seeing people get sick enough to be admitted to the hospital, that's telling you we have not flattened the curve. So this is the best indicator, I think, that we have of where we are with the pandemic. So it is concerning to me."
Wohl, who helps run a coronavirus diagnostic center at UNC Medical Center, said hospitalization numbers show the extent of the virus two to three weeks earlier, because it generally takes that long for an infected person to get sick enough to need hospital care. He worries the trend will continue upward because of what's happened since Memorial Day weekend.
"I think if we're going to see an uptick due to reopening, due to the protests that we're seeing, it's not going to be tomorrow, it's going to be another two to three weeks from now," he said.
Tracking the outbreak
The number of people hospitalized is one of four metrics that state public health officials use to track the course of the coronavirus outbreak over time.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, the DHHS secretary, says the most encouraging metric has been the percentage of people who visit emergency rooms with COVID-19 symptoms. That percentage has been declining, though state officials acknowledge that overall traffic to emergency rooms has increased, perhaps as people's fears about seeking treatment for non-COVID illnesses subsides.