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By North Carolina Health News staff

As more stay-at-home orders are issued across the state and all this physical distancing pushes many people into a whole new world online, grandparents and other gray-tops aren’t the only ones struggling to adapt to different styles of communicating.

This week, state lawmakers gathered for a meeting of the new House Select Committee on COVID-19, but they did it virtually, and some members had difficulty joining the conversation, delaying the start of the meeting by 20-some minutes. Working group chairwoman Donna White was unable to contribute to the discussion for nearly an hour of the committee meeting, while other lawmakers, mostly from rural burgs, used their smartphones to connect to the meeting.

Got a question about COVID-19? You can ask us and we’ll try to find an answer! Click here.

Gov. Roy Cooper and state public health and emergency management leaders have shifted their daily briefings with the media to online access only, and a technical glitch made it impossible for all but one reporter to ask a question on Thursday.

After sitting in front of the camera streaming the news conference for nearly two minutes with no questions coming through from reporters, Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, the state health director, and Mike Sprayberry, state director of emergency management, acknowledged that the technical glitches they were experiencing probably were happening elsewhere.

“I apologize,” Tilson said. “We appear to be having some technical difficulties and unfortunately director Sprayberry and I are not able to hear the questions at present so we do apologize for technical difficulties. As we’re all trying to walk the walk of social distancing, we have to think through the technical application of them.” – Anne Blythe, Rose Hoban

How many cases? How many beds?

North Carolina had 636 cases of COVID-19 with two deaths as of Thursday morning. Fifty people were hospitalized with the virus.

Across the state, at least 15,399 tests have been completed with results pending for 15,000 additional tests. Tilson said not all labs are reporting their negative results to the state.

The average age of people in North Carolina who have tested positive for COVID-19 is 41.

As the virus spreads through community contact, state health leaders are trying to keep a count on available beds.

There are 10,000 beds across the state for in-patients, Tilson said, and about half of those are empty now. Those numbers, she said, do not include the beds that can be used if there is a swift surge in patients with the virus needing hospitalization and are based on 75 percent of the hospitals reporting.

About 18 percent of the beds available for intensive care were empty on Thursday.

Tilson continued to advocate for social, or physical distancing, as many are now calling for measures adopted to slow community spread.

“Stay home, save lives,” Tilson said. – Anne Blythe

Federal disaster relief on the way

North Carolina on Wednesday received the federal disaster declaration that Gov. Roy Cooper asked the White House to grant for the pandemic.

That declaration opens up public assistance for all 100 North Carolina counties so that local governments, state agencies and eligible non-profits can be reimbursed for some of the costs accumulated through responding to the outbreak.

Ninety-five counties and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians have declared local states of emergency, according to Sprayberry. Forty-eight counties have their local emergency operation centers activated.

“This is good news for cities, towns and counties that are incurring expenses as their public health providers, first responders and emergency managers work to protect communities from COVID-19,” Cooper said in a statement. “We know this response will be costly and this federal assistance will help cover them.”

Sprayberry said Thursday that North Carolina is still waiting for additional assistance that Cooper requested. That includes disaster unemployment assistance, crisis counseling, disaster case management and other items. They remain under review and could be granted as the COVID-19 situation evolves.

“We will continue working with FEMA as they review our request for more benefits for people impacted by this pandemic,” Cooper added in his statement released on Wednesday. – Anne Blythe

Wake and Orange counties issue stay at home orders

Wake County issued a stay-at-home order on Thursday that goes into effect Friday, at 5 p.m. and will last until April 17. This order applies to all the towns within the county and the state’s capital city. County leadership said the order was a difficult decision but will ultimately curb further negative consequences of the virus outbreak.

There are 100 positive cases of COVID-19 in Wake County as of Thursday afternoon.

Grocery stores, restaurant take-out, hardware stores, the greenway, doctors’ offices, pharmacies and other essential businesses will remain open. The order bans all gatherings of any size outside of immediate family. Other exemptions can be found in the order here.

Orange County issued an order, too, that also takes effect on Friday, but at 6 p.m. – Taylor Knopf

Fort Bragg increases health threat to “Charlie”

Fort Bragg and all other Army installations around the world are now operating under Health Protection Condition Charlie — the third highest of four levels — in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision to increase the threat level on Fort Bragg was made by Lt. Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, a statement on the Fayetteville post’s Facebook page says. The order took effect at noon Wednesday.

A separate statement by the U.S. Army says all installations are now under the “Charlie” health protection level.

The Charlie designation means “there is a substantial threat of the disease for personnel due to an epidemic outbreak,” according to the Army.

“Installations will limit all access to essential personnel only and will limit the number of access points,” the Army’s statement says.

Fort Bragg’s statement on Facebook said the immediate impacts of the Charlie designation may not be readily apparent because the post was already meeting most of those requirements.

“The Commanding General is working with other commands and staffs on Fort Bragg now to decide what additional measures, if any, we need to take,” the statement said.

The Army also increased its health protection condition to Delta — the highest level — for contingency response forces, which are required to be ready to deploy anywhere in the world within 18 hours.

The Delta level means soldiers are expected to remain at home for extended periods, and movement in the community may be restricted, according to the Army. – Greg Barnes

A sign at one of the entrances to Fort Bragg. Photo credit: Blashfield Sign Company/ Wikimedia Commons

Gaston County issues stay-at-home directive

The number of COVID-19 cases in Gaston County more than doubled overnight, rising from five on Wednesday to 11 on Thursday. In at least some of the cases, community spread is being blamed for the transmission, meaning health officials are unable to track the source of the infection.

Gaston County residents are being asked to stay at home beginning Friday at 5 p.m., one day after such orders took effect in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties.

Unlike in those neighboring counties, Gaston county officials did not outline what constitutes an essential business. Instead, residents are being asked to decide if they really need to travel through the county. – Melba Newsome

Novant Health Foundation launches coronavirus support fund

The Winston-Salem based Novant Health Foundation established a new fund to support Novant Health’s response to the current COVID-19 pandemic and other critical needs. Contributions will help fund testing and medication to support patient care, as well as medical supplies and team member support to take care of those serving on the front lines of care.

“While most Americans are remaining home to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, health care workers are putting themselves in harm’s way to treat the sick and control spread of the virus,” said Ann Caulkins, senior vice president of Novant Health and president of Novant Health Foundation. “This fund provides an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people who are dedicated to keeping our communities safe and providing care during an unprecedented crisis.” – Melba Newsome

Paying more for at-risk Medicaid patients

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Medicaid division will temporarily pay long-term care providers and facilities more, in light of the additional steps needed to protect vulnerable patients from COVID-19.  Facilities are being asked to isolate residents who test positive for COVID-19, monitor staff for symptoms, and provide masks for any residents who have respiratory symptoms.

The 5 percent rate increase will go to skilled nursing facilities; hospice facilities; local health departments; home health and private duty nursing agencies; personal care services; and physical, occupational, speech and audiology therapies. Money will also go to special programs such as the Community Alternatives Program for Children (CAP/C) and for Disabled Adults (CAP/DA) and Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE).

The state’s local management entities/managed care organizations (LME-MCOs) that provide behavioral health and other specialized therapies to low-income people with disabilities will also increase their rates, according to a press release from the state agency. – Sarah Ovaska

Want more information about how N.C. Medicaid is dealing with COVID-19? Go here.

Duke researchers find a way to reuse N95 masks

Duke University medical researchers announced Thursday they’d found a way to decontaminate and reuse N95 respirators, a major concern as hospital systems around the country deal with low levels of personal protective equipment. The masks, which can block the water droplets in the air laden with COVID-19, can be decontaminated through a special process using vaporized hydrogen peroxide to kill off germs without harming the mask itself.

“We had never considered needing it for something like face masks,”  said Matthew Stiegel, Ph.D., director of the Occupational and Environmental Safety Office, according to a news release from Duke Health.  “But we’ve now proven that it works and will begin using the technology immediately in all three Duke Health hospitals.” – Sarah Ovaska

Mental health minute: Unbearable? Not for this neighborhood

Note to readers: We’ve added a lighthearted section to our daily roundups called, Mental Health Minute. Because we all need a mental health break. 

People in a Cumberland County neighborhood are putting bears on their porches or in their windows as a way to entertain children by way of a bear hunt. Photo credit: Greg Barnes.

Residents of a Cumberland County neighborhood are leaving stuffed bears in their windows, on their porches, even on top of flower vases as a way to have a little fun during these challenging times and to encourage children to get out and walk.

The Baywood ”bear hunt” started with a couple of neighbors on social media and has grown — like the bears — from there.

“One of my students just came by to see me so I told them about it and they did a quick run through and found 14!. She was so excited,” one resident wrote.

Another wrote: “I just had a family come by and they are on a bear hunt, 3 small kids. They got so excited when they spotted ours.” – Greg Barnes

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North Carolina Health News is an independent, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering health care in North Carolina employing the highest journalistic standards of fairness, accuracy...