By Anne Blythe

Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in North Carolina on Tuesday to respond to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus spreading around the world and across the country.

The announcement came a week after North Carolina reported its first case of the novel virus and the day after public health officials reported that five people who had been at a conference in Boston in late February had tested positive for the pathogen.

North Carolina, as of midday Tuesday, had seven people in isolation, all of whom live in the Triangle, after state lab tests showed the presence of COVID-19, a new strain of the virus that was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December.

man at podium beside woman and sign language interpreter. They are talking about COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.
Gov. Roy Cooper declares state of emergency to respond to the novel corornavirus  in North Carolina. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

Both Cooper and Mandy Cohen, the secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said at a news conference that they expected more cases.

“While we expect more cases,” Cooper said, “we can limit the number of people who get seriously ill.”

Declaring a state of emergency gives the state the flexibility to respond to the health care crisis more swiftly with hopes of blunting the spread of infection.

Though Cooper has declared states of emergency in extreme weather events, he said this one is different in that it could go on for weeks and perhaps months.

In addition to providing more spending and response flexibility, the declaration gives the state more tools to fight price gouging.

“The state of emergency can help speed supplies and gives health care and emergency managers more flexibility,” Cooper said. “…It encourages insurers to make testing available for little or no cost and it expands the ability to use more health professionals who are working to respond to this virus.”

Public health officials are advising people who are 65 and older, a segment of the population considered to be at higher risk for severe complications from COVID-19, to avoid large gatherings.

Because so many cases are in the Triangle, Cooper, Cohen and other emergency workers urged companies in the region and the state, one of the larger employers, to encourage telecommuting, staggered work shifts and developing plans that might lead to giving employees who are sick paid leave.

In a state where college basketball is big business and big entertainment, Cooper acknowledged that he was issuing such guidance within hours of the start of the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament.

Cooper, a sports fan who frequently attends college basketball and Carolina Hurricanes games, said he and state health officials have talked with John Swofford, the ACC commissioner, about the event in Greensboro this week. What they’ve suggested is that while encouraging older people to distance themselves socially from large events, they do not, at this point, recommend mass cancellations.

graphic including an image of the novel coronavirus(COVID-19)

“I would plan to go to sporting events and mass gatherings myself not being in the high-risk category,” Cooper said. “I think people need to make their own decisions about that and remember that these recommendations may be evolving as we see more and more about what’s happening. We’re making no recommendations about canceling anything. We’re just talking to the public at large about the steps that we want taken for the mass gatherings we have. We’re not making recommendations of cancelling.”

Assisted living facilities, nursing homes and other residential facilities with vulnerable populations are being asked to increase cleaning and restrict visitors.

“I am very concerned about our long-term facilities,” Cohen told state lawmakers after the news conference.

Cohen displayed more visible urgency this week than last when talking about the rapidly unfolding situation.

“The fact that we had our next five cases still in the same Triangle area, the fact that … we haven’t been testing to the level that I would like to see testing at this point, and I see what is happening in some of the other states around the country that we want to take the proactive steps,” she said. “This is serious, we want people to be aware, and start to take these steps because if we can do them thoroughly, my hope is we can… protect people’s health.

“So yes, you are seeing a different posture from us today.”

Rose Hoban contributed reporting to this story.

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.