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North Carolina Health News staff

Note: North Carolina Health News has chosen to report the official daily DHHS tallies of positive tests hospitalizations and deaths. We are using our limited resources to bring you in-depth stories about the impact of COVID-19 rather than spending our days chasing numbers that individual municipalities release.

North Carolina reported its first COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday and Gov. Roy Cooper said “it was with a heavy heart” that he must tell the state that he expected to see more as the battle against the highly contagious virus continues.

A Cabarrus County man in his late 70s with several underlying medical conditions died on Tuesday, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

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Additionally, a man in his 60s from Virginia who was traveling through North Carolina also died, according to state officials.

North Carolina now has 504 cases of the virus spread across 53 counties, according to state officials. Labs have completed 12,000 tests and have almost 15,000 additional collected samples in the queue for testing, Cooper added at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.

“It is a day of mourning for North Carolina,” Cooper said, extending his condolences to the families who lost their loved ones.

Cooper said others afflicted with COVID-19 are hospitalized and seriously ill, some in critical care units.

“They are fighting for their lives and it’s awful for their families who know their loved ones are suffering, but because of this cruel and contagious sickness, they cannot even be with them,” Cooper said, referring to newly enacted hospital policies limiting or restricting visitors to keep them from becoming infected.

“Today is a stark reminder that we must take this disease seriously,” Cooper added. “All of us. Young and old. Employers and employees. This virus can be deadly and that’s why our daily lives have had to change so dramatically. I know it’s hard, but it’s necessary.”

Hints of more statewide limits coming

Cooper reeled off actions he has taken in recent weeks to try to slow the spread of the virus. He has closed schools and businesses. He has restricted how many people can gather, which pushed many churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship to online services. He limited visits to nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

“We know that further action to protect our state will be necessary. We’re in the process of working on additional statewide guidance that we will be announcing soon,” Cooper said.

“It’s imperative that we keep North Carolinians safe while at the same time doing everything that we can to limit the economic impact of this virus on businesses, workers and their families. These are difficult, deliberate decisions and it is important that we get them right.”

Cities, counties and towns with stay-at-home orders

As calls for a statewide order for all North Carolinians to shelter in place increase, many larger counties and cities are proceeding on their own with orders to restrict their residents.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel issued a stay-at-home order for the city’s residents that will go into effect at 6 p.m. Thursday.

At the time of his announcement, Durham County had 74 cases of COVID-19, only eight of which were community spread.

Schewel said he has been in talks with other county, city and town leaders across the state who have worked together to develop orders that can serve as a patchwork of barricades to further spread while the governor mulls the possibility of a statewide measure.

Durham follows Mecklenburg County, which issued an order of its own earlier this week.

Across the state, communities have taken different tacks, ranging from issuing stay at home recommendations, as is the case with Madison County, to full-out orders like the one enacted in Mecklenburg County.

“We want people to stay home and local communities are doing what they think is right and I understand that,” Cooper said.

With each municipality taking its own action, limits on gathering differ from county to county and even within cities of the same county.

Pitt County’s order, for example, covers only the unincorporated areas of the county, leaving incorporated areas, such as the city of Greenville, to pass their own proclamations. Pitt County’s order went into effect at 5 p.m. today and will last until April 8, 2020. The county’s order prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people and limits travel, except for providing or accessing essential services. Ayden, an incorporated town of roughly 5,000 in Pitt County, has also approved its own shelter-in-place proclamation today. The proclamation will go into effect at 5 p.m. Thursday. Meanwhile, the city of Greenville is mulling its own stay-at-home order.

Beaufort, a town of roughly 4,200 in Carteret County, has issued a stay at home proclamation that went into effect this morning and will remain in place until April 22. But a county spokesman said on Wednesday that Carteret isn’t currently planning a shelter-in-place order of its own.

Other large municipalities, including Wake County, are weighing their own orders.  Orange County said in a news release today that they too are working on a stay home order, with details being announced later.

Meanwhile, Buncombe County, another densely populated area in Western North Carolina, has issued a stay at home declaration that also goes into effect Thursday.

Calling all Durham poets and musicians

Durham’s mayor acknowledged the toll that social distancing, whether mandatory or recommended, was having on the city he leads.

Schewel, in his late 60s, pointed to his own gray hair and acknowledged that he was in a high-risk category for COVID-19. He encouraged others in his age group and above not to view themselves as victims as they were being encouraged to stay home. Instead, he suggested that they reach out to their grandchildren or younger people who might be struggling financially because of the shutdowns and help them if they were in a position to do so.

His message for the city’s younger residents was to reach out to older people if they were making a trip to the grocery store and ask if they could shop for them.

Schewel had a request for the city’s many artists and musicians.

He said he was waiting for a group of poets to start something up on Zoom or some other online site, maybe having readings every night at 7 p.m.

Then musicians could follow, he suggested, with virtual performances at 8 p.m.

“We need our artists,” Schewel said. “They can help feed our souls like no one else can.”

How much longer?

As North Carolinians stay at home, either by order, guidance or choice, questions linger without hard and fast answers.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said she and other public health officials are working with data scientists to try to gauge when North Carolina might see peaks of cases in health care facilities.

“As I keep saying, things are changing so rapidly,” Cohen responded at a news conference on Wednesday. “We’re trying to learn lessons from around the world and around this country to understand what trajectory North Carolina is in so that we know how to prepare for the exact kind of resources that we need and where we need them.”

With its first case reported on March 3, Cohen said, the state is not following some trajectories that have taken place elsewhere.

“North Carolina was later in the course of seeing our first case, later in the course of seeing our hundredth case, and a trajectory that is lower than we’re seeing in other states,” Cohen said. “We want to be modeling this out so that we can be best prepared, but these are data models with a lot of assumptions that are challenging to make with the limited information that we have.”

Cohen said the answers her team comes up with will help them know how to move resources around the state.

Charlotte Motor Speedway drive-thru testing

Atrium Health opened a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at the zMax Dragway in the Charlotte Motor Speedway complex, the hospital chain announced in a news release this week.

Atrium has already opened several other drive-thru testing sites across the region and is processing the results at the organization’s in-house lab. The health system said it can process approximately 1,000 samples per day, with test results being available in approximately 24 hours, the press release said.

Patients need a doctor’s approval to be tested and can learn more at Atrium’s coronavirus page or at 704-468-8888.

COVID-19 sickens state official

N.C. Treasurer Dale Folwell announced Thursday that he is among the North Carolinians to come down with COVID-19. Folwell, a Republican elected to the statewide office, is the first N.C. Council of State member known to be affected by the pathogen.

In a press release, Folwell said he was tested Monday by his doctor after a cough became worrisome. He received a positive diagnosis the following day. He’s currently in quarantine. He announced that only those workers necessary for continued business would remain working at the N.C. Department of State Treasurer building in Raleigh.

Need Child care?

The state launched a hotline this week for people in need of child care because of school and day care closures.  The hotline – 1-888-600-1685 – is for health care workers and others with children up to age 12 who are unable to work from home.

Staff from the state Department of Health and Human Services will match families with open child care facilities and will take calls from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Priorities will be to health care workers and other critical workers such as first responders, food service staff and assisted living home staff. Children involved in the child welfare system or who are homeless or facing housing insecurity will also have priority.

The child care won’t be subsidized by the state at this point, and families will need to pay their share or use existing child care subsidies, according to DHHS.

Health care providers ask the governor for tougher measures

In a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper sent today, physicians and physician assistants asked him to consider more stringent social distancing measures to arrest the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state.

“COVID-19 is a public health crisis,” reads the letter written by leaders of the North Carolina Medical Society. “Health care systems, physicians and their teams are at the front lines caring for our exposed and infected citizens. Already, many are working around the clock to limit community spread, infection and deaths of North Carolinians.”

The letter expresses concern about the lack of personal protective equipment, the masks, gloves and eye shields used to keep frontline health care workers from being infected with COVID-19.

The group also expressed concern about shortages of beds and ventilators, especially as the number of patients requiring hospitalization is projected to grow.

“Now is the time to take decisive action to limit the spread and preserve our precious resources to fight this pandemic,” they wrote. “If action is delayed, we fear we will not be able to handle the surge in the health care needs.”

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