99 NC counties fall in CDC’s ‘red zones’ under new school-opening guidance


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — More than 99 percent of children in North Carolina live in a county considered a red zone with the highest levels of COVID-19 transmission under school opening thresholds established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a CBS17.com analysis of state data found.

With students returning to classrooms across the state, the CDC recently issued new guidance for school openings to help keep children, teachers and staff safe.

The CDC considers a county red — or with high transmission — if it had at least 100 new cases for every 100,000 people or if at least 10 percent of tests came back positive during the past seven days.

According to state Department of Health and Human Services data updated Wednesday, all but one of the state’s 100 counties — home to more than 2.2 million children — live in a county that added least 100 cases per capita over the past week. 

Only the western mountain county of Graham — home to about 1,670 children under the age of 18, according to U.S. Census estimates — did not meet that definition. Graham County had 59 cases per capita during the past week.

DHHS does not publish countywide test positivity rates for a seven-day period — its publicly available data is a county’s 14-day average.

But those guidelines are just that — guidelines — and they do nothing to stop a county from reopening. 

Rather, they emphasize that decisions are best left to local and state leaders and recommend they be guided by “school-specific factors” such as mitigation strategies in place, local needs and the number of cases reported by students, teachers and staff. 

And they emphasize that schools that remain open while in red zone should “consider further strengthening mitigation strategies” and monitoring cases to reassess those decisions.

“I think what the CDC guidelines do is, they’ve kind of created, for all of society, some general guidelines for what may or may not be safe at the community level,” said Dr. Mike Smith, a Duke University pediatrician and member of the ABC Science Collaborative.

A recent study from that group found “extremely limited” secondary spread of COVID-19 in schools that adhered to mask use and other mitigation strategies. State leaders referred to the study earlier this month when they pushed districts to give students the option to return to in-person instruction.

“Of course, our group has shown that that really should not be the question,” Smith said. “Our group feels, regardless of what the CDC guidelines say, that if you follow those three Ws, you can open schools safely.”

The CDC urges schools to practice five key mitigation moves — universal mask use, physical distancing, hand-washing, cleaning and contact tracing along with isolation and quarantine.

Those recommendations mostly align with those released by NCDHHS earlier this month, with one exception.

The CDC says physical distancing of at least 6 feet “should be maximized to the greatest extent possible.”

But under the state’s recommendation, K-5 schools do not need to follow those 6-foot distancing guidelines.

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