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LUMBERTON — As the delta variant of the novel coronavirus continues to spread locally, statewide and nationally, new COVID-19 cases are up 37% in Robeson County in the past week.

The Robeson County Health Department reported 331 new cases from July 20 to Monday, up from the 241 cases reported from July 13 to July 19. This comes after the county’s case count was consistently under 100 per week from mid-May through June. The county’s pandemic case total is now 18,193.

The county’s death toll, based on North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services data, increased by two to 279 deaths between July 20 and Monday. The county continues to attempt to reconcile the number of deaths reported by the state and the number of death certificates in its possession to make the statistics more clear, county Health Department Director Bill Smith said.

Of the 266 new cases in which race was disclosed, 115 are in American Indian individuals, compared to 65 in African Americans and 43 in white individuals, according to Smith.

The county’s testing positivity rate over the past week was 11.4%, according to Smith. That’s more than double the stated goal of 5%.

There have been 38,300 first doses and 34,624 second doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in Robeson County, according to NCDHHS data as of Tuesday. The first-dose figure is an increase of 1,101 from July 20, the most first doses given in one week since the last week of March.

This comes as some employers begin to require vaccination, including UNC Health Southeastern, who announced Tuesday it will require its employees to be vaccinated by Sept. 21.

“Until the variant is under some level of control, which can only happen when more people are vaccinated, we are going to see renewed interest in mandating control measures, which will affect everyone,” Smith said.

Among the areas most affected by cases in the past week are long-term care and institutional care facilities, Smith said.

“When the virus was in these facilities over a year ago, it became very tragic very quickly,” Smith said.

Robeson County remains categorized as yellow, for significant impact, in the latest report of the state’s County Alert System, which was last updated Thursday. The county was downgraded to yellow on July 8 after it had been categorized as light yellow, for moderate impact, since March 30.

Cumberland and Hoke counties are categorized as orange, for substantial impact, and Scotland, Bladen and Columbus counties are yellow. This is an improvement for Bladen County, which was the state’s lone red county, for critical impact, in the July 8 report.

Statewide, only Richmond County is in the red category. There are 12 orange counties, up from one on July 8; 41 counties are yellow and 41 are light yellow. Five counties are categorized as green, for low impact. All five of those counties are in the far western part of the state.

NCDHHS reported 13,150 new cases statewide between July 21 and Tuesday, a 120% increase from the 5,988 reported from July 14 to July 20. There have been 1,038,976 reported cases in North Carolina during the pandemic.

There were 55 virus-related deaths reported in the state between July 21 and Tuesday, up from 32 for the period July 14-20, bringing the state’s total pandemic death toll to 13,590.

There were 1,031 virus-related hospitalizations in the state as of Tuesday, up from 612 on July 20 and 400 on July 2.

There have been 4,844,523 first doses and 4,531,178 second doses of the vaccine administered in North Carolina as of Tuesday. NCDHHS says 50% of the population is partially vaccinated and 47% is fully vaccinated.

In other virus-related news, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed course Tuesday on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the United States where the delta variant of the coronavirus is fueling infection surges.

Citing new information about the variant’s ability to spread among vaccinated people, the CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools nationwide, regardless of vaccination status.

In other developments, President Joe Biden said his administration was considering requiring all federal workers to get vaccinated. His comments came a day after the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to require its health care workers receive the vaccine.

Biden dismissed concerns that the new masking guidance from the CDC could invite confusion, saying Americans who remain unvaccinated are the ones who are “sowing enormous confusion.”

“The more we learn about this virus and the delta variation, the more we have to be worried and concerned. And there’s only one thing we know for sure — if those other 100 million people got vaccinated, we’d be in a very different world,” he said.

The White House quickly pivoted on its own masking guidance, asking all staff and reporters to wear masks indoors because the latest CDC data shows that Washington faces a substantial level of coronavirus transmission.

The CDC’s new mask policy follows recent decisions in Los Angeles and St. Louis to revert to indoor mask mandates amid a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that have been especially bad in the South. The nation is averaging more than 57,000 cases a day and 24,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

The guidance on masks in indoor public places applies in parts of the U.S. with at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people in the past week. That includes 60% of U.S. counties, officials said.

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