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By Anne Blythe

North Carolina reported its first deaths related to COVID-19 on Wednesday, nearly three weeks after the first person in this state tested positive for the extremely contagious virus.

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.

Additionally, a man in his 60s from Virginia who was traveling through North Carolina also died from the novel coronavirus that has turned the world upside down in recent months.

The deaths came as North Carolina reported 504 cases of the virus across 53 counties. Labs have completed 12,000 tests and have almost 15,000 collected samples pending, according to Gov. Roy Cooper.

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“It’s with a heavy heart that I must tell you that these will not be our last [deaths],” Cooper said Wednesday during an afternoon news conference. “We know today that a number of patients who are currently hospitalized are seriously ill and some in critical condition.

“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 extended his deepest sympathies to the family. He reminded people why he has closed schools and many businesses and issued calls for people to stay home and not gather in clusters that can become quick breeding grounds for the virus, known as COVID-19.

‘Stark reminder’ of contagiousness

“Today is a stark reminder that we must take this disease seriously,” Cooper added.

The news comes as North Carolina and many of the larger cities and counties shift their attack plans while watching how the virus has overwhelmed health care systems in New York City and around the globe.

The first known North Carolina case was reported on March 3 by Cooper and state health officials. The virus has moved swiftly around the globe and across the United States since the initial detection in northern China late last year.

According to Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, the department initially had tested potential cases since late January without finding any positives.

Virus spread over three weeks

The first case, when it finally came, was described by health officials as an isolated one in Wake County, a man who had traveled from Washington state and a nursing home where an outbreak was reported after his return to North Carolina.

A second case was reported in Chatham County several days later. In that case, the man had been in northern Italy, where an outbreak occurred.

Both men were in isolation in their homes with their families subject to quarantines.

Cohen said at the time she expected more cases. But North Carolina’s efforts to ramp up testing was slowed by problems with contaminated testing materials sent out to states by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When the first cases in North Carolina were finally identified, the state only had enough testing materials to screen 150 patients until the CDC finally began disseminating more materials by the second week of March.

The governor and public health leaders continue to lament about needing more supplies from the federal government.

In addition to asking people to wash their hands and cover their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing, health officials also have encouraged social distancing, particularly for those with compromised immune systems.

But there is no medication to treat the swift and devastating pneumonia caused by the disease, and the world is at least a year away from an effective vaccine to curb the spread of COVID-19.

More social distancing coming

The governor this week closed all public schools until mid-May and closed barber shops, salons, gyms, sweepstake lounges and other businesses across the state to try to keep more people at home.

On Wednesday, he said more restrictions will be coming as public health officials look at different modeling and try to gauge how best to protect this state from some of the problems that have occurred across the country when outbreak clusters take on vicious lives of their own.

“It is a day of mourning for North Carolina and I want us to remember these families as they are having a difficult time right now, say a prayer for those families who are having to wait outside of a hospital room when a person is critically ill in the bed because of this contagious disease,” Cooper said, closing his Wednesday afternoon news conference. “Let’s all do our part to reduce the spread of this virus, to help our neighbor. As North Carolinians, we can depend on each other and we can get through this.”

Anne Blythe

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.