A Pitt County resident died from complications related to COVID-19 over the weekend becoming the county’s first fatality from the virus, the health department reported.

The person was in their 70s, according to a department news release issued on Monday, the same day a team of researchers working for the state predicted that the number of virus cases will rise dramatically if North Carolina lifts social distancing requirements at the end of April.

The Pitt County resident had several underlying medical conditions, officials reported. They released no further information to protect the family’s privacy.

“I extend my heartfelt condolences to the family of this individual during this sad time,” Public Health Director Dr. John L. Silvernail said in the release. “It is difficult at any time to lose a precious family member or friend, however, the impact of COVID-19 on our normal daily lives makes this an even more difficult time to join together and grieve.”

As Pitt County’s COVID-19 cases continue to rise, additional deaths are expected locally, officials said. As of Monday afternoon, the county had 42 confirmed cases, up from 36 on Sunday. Statewide, confirmed cases Monday numbered 2,870, up 800 since Friday. There were 33 deaths, up 14 since Friday, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human resources.

Statewide, most people with the virus, 41 percent, are between 25-48; 8 percent are 18-24; 28 percent are 50-64; and 21 percent are 65 or older, DHHS reported. At least 270 people are hospitalized.

More people in the Greenville-area on Monday were wearing face coverings, falling in line with a federal recommendation issued last week. Still, the majority of shoppers outside several area stores visited Monday afternoon we not wearing protective covers.

“I thought it would be safer to wear a mask,” said Sue Hardy, 87, one of a few people wearing a mask outside the Piggly Wiggly in Greenville around 1 p.m.

Some stores are now limiting the number of people allowed inside to promote social distancing. Walmart stores had set up barricades at their entrances.

The study released Monday did not estimate deaths, but researchers set the probability at greater than 50 percent that the number of COVID-19 cases would outstrip acute care hospital beds by Memorial Day if distancing was lifted.

“From looking at other localities that are deeper into this outbreak, we know that if you run out of hospital beds and people cannot get access to hospital beds and the care that you need, you will have more deaths,” said Pia McDonald, a senior director and senior epidemiologist at RTI International and one of dozen researchers who crunched numbers over the weekend.

“So ... let’s make sure that people in North Carolina have access to the hospital care that they might need to avoid the situations that you see in Italy and other places like New York City.”

The study, conducted by experts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, RTI International, NoviSci and other research institutes, was akin to a weather forecast that could change as more data is gathered, researchers said.

It compiled results from three epidemiological modeling scenarios that utilized data specific to North Carolina, as opposed to a recent outside study that presented a more optimistic outlook for the state, they said.

It predicted roughly 750,000 North Carolinians could be infected by June 1 if social distancing is lifted April 30, when the current statewide state-at-home order expires. If effective social distancing remains in place through May, that number is lowered to about 250,000 people, the forecast predicted.

The researchers recognize the economic and lifestyle costs imposed by social distancing, said Aaron McKethan, CEO of NoviSci, who led Monday’s discussion on the policy brief during a telephone news conference.

“This brief is not recommending or suggesting that current policies can or necessarily should remain in place indefinitely,” he said. “What we’re doing is providing policymakers with weather-forecast-like information to help them make those important tradeoffs between taking care of the public’s health and doing so in way that allows the state to reopen very gradually, erring on the side of caution, to be sure that we protect as many lives as possible.”

State officials said in later news release that the report reinforced the need for limiting personal contact to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We have life-changing decisions before us, and North Carolina is fortunate to have world-class experts who can help our state as we continue battling the coronavirus,” Gov. Roy Cooper said. “Modeling is one tool that helps us prepare for this fight and it shows we will save lives if we stay home and keep our social distance right now.”

The modeling affirms that actions taken now will determine the impact of the virus in the weeks and months to come, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said.

“We need to continue to do everything in our power so that fewer people get sick at the same time, while also surging the capacity of our health care system so those that do need hospital care will have it. Please stay home now to save lives.”

Ginger Livingston and Deborah Griffin contributed to this report. Contact Bobby Burns at baburns@reflector.com and 329.9572.