diagram shows the structure of coronavirus
3D medical animation still shot showing the structure of a coronavirus. The symptoms of coronavirus infection vary between animals, birds, and humans. According to WHO, the time from exposure to onset of symptoms is estimated at 2 to 10 days. Those infected with coronavirus may be asymptomatic or may have mild or severe symptoms. Image courtesy: Scientific Animations

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By Sarah Ovaska

Wake County health authorities attempted Wednesday to tamp down any public jitters in the wake of their announcement of North Carolina’s first identified case of coronavirus. The man, who had been exposed at a senior facility in Washington state, traveled home to Wake County, passing through Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

In a county with more than a million people, the director of Wake County’s division of public health Chris Kippes stressed that the public’s energy would be better spent on prevention methods than panicking about any potential contamination from the man who tested positive for COVID-19.

“We really want to continue to spread facts, not fear,” Kippes said.

According to state health and human services Secretary Mandy Cohen, the man is isolated at home, along with his family, in Wake County. He only developed symptoms three days after returning to North Carolina.

“We do expect more cases,” Cohen told WRAL news. “I want folks to know we expect more cases, which should not be a surprise.”

Cohen called for people to take precautions such as washing hands, disinfecting surfaces and staying home when sick. She also said that people who think they may be exposed to coronavirus – or the flu, which is still circulating – should call their doctor.

Even as Cohen and Kippes called for people to remain calm, schools and families have begun beefing up their contingency plans.

Schools dust off contingency plans

Even though initial findings point to children exhibiting less severe complications from COVID-19 infections than older adults, the close quarters in school settings and questionable hygiene habits of the very young prime those places for spreading germs of all sorts, including the flu and the newcomer coronavirus.

In North Carolina, decisions about school closures are made at the local level, said Graham Wilson, a spokesman from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, the state agency that oversees the 115 public school systems and additional charter schools in the state.

“If the schools decide they need to close, we’d support them with whatever resources they need,” Wilson said. “That’s going to be a local decision.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has guidance for schools and school districts on preparing for widespread outbreaks of coronavirus. 

While state law requires public schools to be in session 180 days a year, that could be untenable if parts of the state experience extended school closures due to coronavirus. In that case, the state legislature would need to grant exemptions retroactively, similar to what happens in the wake of natural disasters such as hurricanes, Wilson said.

At the local level, school districts are beginning to envision what disruptions might look like while still maintaining that there’s no reason for alarm or panic at the moment, given the state has only seen one case so far.

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School system, which serves 55,000 in 80 schools, is one of many districts sending out notices to families encouraging them to be aware. WS/FCS school officials told parents this week the school system was monitoring the situation and reiterating the public health measures being encouraged by the CDC and others; wash hands frequency, disinfect surfaces, cover any coughs or sneezes and, most important, stay home when sick.

Administrators are starting to talk about how to allow for remote teaching, a challenge given that the school system doesn’t necessarily have enough devices for each student and not every household will have Wi-Fi available, said Brent Campbell, a spokesman for WS/FCS.

The school has a food truck and a fleet of vans it uses during the summer months to deliver hot, prepared meals to neighborhoods with high populations of its poorer students. Those could be tapped to deliver needed food in the event of an extended closure of a school, he said.

Isolation would be burdensome

Some families are also weighing what might happen if someone in their household gets sick and they have to be quarantined for several weeks. There are also considerations to be made if their child’s school or day care center closes unexpectedly.

Some are already altering their plans, such as Carey Rudell, a Cary mother of three, ages 7, 5 and 2.

Rudell has already started thinking about what her home life would be like if coronavirus spreads, by stocking up on food and essentials and talking with her husband about how both she and her husband would need to work from home should they find themselves all at home in the event of school or workplace closures.

“We are really going to want to socially distance ourselves,” she said.

Rudell also went so far as to cancel her daughter’s upcoming birthday party, which was to be held at a local kids activity center, out of fear the virus spreading there.

“While I want to support local businesses, I also don’t want to expose my family,” she said.

“Gig” economy a barrier

The possibility of extended closures of public school systems, as well as childcare centers, could push additional challenges into the laps of middle and low-income families, some child and family advocates worried.

Seven in 10 full-time workers have paid sick leave, according to statistics compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation. But in an economy increasingly marked by “gig work,” only about a quarter of part-time workers have paid sick time.

“The majority of folks do not have access to the support they need to do that, whether it’s paid sick days or adequate child care,” said Tina Sherman, a campaign director with MomsRising NC , an advocacy group in favor of expanded paid medical leave access. “Families are struggling on a day-to-day basis to have those basics.”

Data, image courtesy: Kaiser Family Foundation

She also emphasizes the need to have better safety nets, including paid medical leave.

Nearly 1.6 million North Carolinians, or 38 percent of the workforce, don’t have access to paid sick time, according to an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Having more paid sick time allows people to deal with their personal illnesses; it also keeps communities safer, Sherman said.  She pointed to a 2018 analysis by European researchers that found the flu rate dropped by 40 percent in communities that mandate sick leave policies.

Only 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, have passed legislation mandating paid sick leave. In addition, a handful of municipalities have passed local ordinances granting workers sick time.

Sarah Ovaska

Sarah Ovaska is a freelance writer based in Orange County, who has called North Carolina home for well over a decade. She’s reported on criminal justice, education, health and government issues at publications...