National state of emergency

Today, President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency to deal with the coronavirus outbreak that is sweeping the U.S. and the globe.

In the wake of widespread outbreaks in China, Iran and South Korea and now most countries of Western Europe, the administration doubled down on the decision to suspend entry for foreign nationals who have been to Europe in the last 14 days. U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and their families coming from Europe will be subject to extra screening.

Trump also announced a vast increase of testing capability by about 1.4 million tests, driven primarily by the efforts of private sector lab companies Quest and North Carolina-based LabCorp, along with the pharmaceutical giant Roche, which is rolling out a new test that was approved by federal agencies in “record time.”

A centerpiece of his plan included tapping retail giants Walmart and Target, which have agreed to allow for setting up drive-through testing sites in their parking lots.

Other abilities created by the emergency declaration:

  • Waiver of restrictions on providing telehealth services to patients
  • Waiver of requirements that limit critical access hospitals to 25 beds
  • Made it easier to bring on board retired or non-practicing physicians
  • Waived rules to restrict where hospitals can provide care for patients, which will allow for surge capacity, treating patients in tents, etc. if necessary.

Trump also urged the passage of a massive multi-billion dollar economic stimulus package.

Although Trump claimed  tech giant Google was in the process of creating a nationwide screening website to help people find the nearest drive-through site for testing, it turns out that’s not the case.

“We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing,” said a statement from Verily, one of the smaller companies under Google’s parent organization, Alphabet, issued after the press conference ended.

“Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time. We appreciate the support of government officials and industry partners and thank the Google engineers who have volunteered to be part of this effort.”

a woman stands at a podium, talking about coronavirus
Dr. Deborah Birx detailed the testing website being created by Google to help people find coronavirus testing during a press conference held by Pres. Donald Trump on Friday afternoon. Later, the company issued a press release  clarifying that Google was not creating the website. Photo capture of C Span broadcast.

Closer to home in North Carolina

As of Friday evening, there are now 15 cases of coronavirus identified in the state. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the State Laboratory of Public Health has enough material to test about 680 patients and has completed 101 total tests. But the department notes that as commercial labs such as LabCorp or Quest come online with testing, state health leaders say the lab will continue to work with others to verify positive results.

Private labs are required to report the positive tests to the states, but not the negative ones, DHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen said Friday afternoon. So it’s difficult to know just how many tests have been done in the state.

A press conference for COVID-19 has three people at a table, they are North Carolina officials.
From left, NCDHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen, Elizabeth Tilson, state health director and DHHS chief medical officer and NC Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry at a COVID-19 press conference Friday. Photo credit: Liora Engel-Smith.

Even if commercial labs provide testing, they’ll be working with DHHS and local health departments to contact people who have tested positive and determine how many people in a community are diagnosed with COVID-19.

State health leaders say they’ll be providing testing for “underserved populations who may not have access to commercial testing.”

The N.C. Courts

The state court system will postpone many of its hearings for 30-days starting Monday. So you probably should call to see if you still have jury duty if you got a notice.

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley said the decision was not made lightly, but she tried to balance the need to protect the public from potential exposure to COVID-19 with due process and constitutional rights. That means the courts will be juggling a backlog of cases in the coming months.

Some cases, particularly important to criminal defendants, such as first appearances before a judge, bond hearings, probable cause hearings to determine if there is enough evidence to proceed with charges and domestic violence, child custody and commitment proceedings do not fall under the umbrella. Trials with juries empaneled are not subject to the delay.

Today’s order will allow us to drastically reduce the exposure caused by crowded sessions of court, which often bring hundreds of people at a time into our courthouses,” Beasley said in a statement.

Duke University

The school, which extended its spring break earlier this week took even more steps to restrict the number of people on campus.

Though the university and Duke Health remain open, President Vincent Price has canceled all campus events. That includes services at Duke Chapel, admission tours, and events at the Nasher Museum and Duke Gardens.

Earlier this month, spring break was extended for all students and classes will be held online. Now Duke is telling its students not to return to campus to collect clothes and anything else they might have left in campus residence halls.

“We are working to develop a plan to ship students their essential belongings required for continued learning and safety, likely to include: current academic materials required for remote learning, laptops, medical supplies and certain items required for self-care,” Provost Sally Kornbluth said in a note to students posted on the Duke student coronavirus response website.

School closures begin

While some states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland have shut down schools across their states to slow the spread of COVID-19, that’s not the case in North Carolina, which has 115 separate public school districts.

But in the Triangle, Durham, Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County public schools systems will be closed to students starting Monday. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools announced they will close schools starting Thursday, March 17.

The districts were scrambling to address what the closures will mean for some of its most vulnerable students, many of whom depend on schools for breakfast and lunch. Durham Public Schools offices were meeting Friday afternoon to figure out what to do but had not yet made any final decisions. They are debating having school bus drivers deliver meals, according to WRAL. In the Chapel Hill area, the local non-profit TABLE, which provides low-income school children with food through the year, is planning to drop off bags of food at the homes of 747 children in need on a weekly basis for as long as possible.  The group is also seeking financial donations as well as contributions of food, through Amazon.

To track closures around the country, Education Week has this interactive map.

Leaders of the the biggest school district in the state —  Wake County Public Schools — have not made a decision about closing school doors as of Friday afternoon.

However, Sec. Cohen doubled down Friday afternoon on the state’s recommendation not to preemptively close schools at this time. She said the outbreak is evolving and that guidance coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could change.

“It is not a black and white situation, and so I’d say, continue to check back with us as we try to take all these inputs [from superintendents and others] as we try to make good decisions for people in North Carolina.”

Festival canceled

For all those who love traditional Appalachian music and were looking forward to a break from all the social distancing toward the end of April, MerleFest just got crossed off the list of possibilities for a big get-together in Wilkes County.

“In response to directives from North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and growing concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Wilkes County officials have canceled all mass gatherings of more than 100 people in Wilkes County through the end of April,” a note on the festival site states.

“Therefore, MerleFest 2020 has been canceled. While this decision is disappointing for all of us, we fully support the directive from our county officials. The health, safety, and well-being of all involved with MerleFest is, and always will be, our primary concern.”

Correction: The President’s stimulus package was originally written as “hundreds of millions.”

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