By NC Health News staff
Governor kicks search for alternative care sites into high gear
As North Carolina enters a phase in which the number of hospitalizations of people infected with COVID-19 is increasing rapidly, Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday that he has started the process of scouting out places across the state that might be used as alternate hospitals.
The announcement came the same day Cooper issued an order to ban disconnections of water and power, as well as restrict evictions during this stage of the coronavirus pandemic that has resulted in 300,000 layoffs in the past two weeks.
“We know this virus is going to be with us a while,” Cooper said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference. “We know we’re going to have to establish a new normal. I know that North Carolinians want to get back to a normal life, but for right now we’ve got to make sure that our hospitals are not overwhelmed.”
Cooper said he has engaged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and activated some National Guard members who are experts in engineering to scout and analyze places such as arenas and hospitals that have been closed.
He wants to put North Carolina in the position that if one of those places has to be activated, the equipment and personnel to staff the site have been identified ahead of time
“I want to be ready to turn the key whenever we need to in any part of North Carolina,” Cooper said.— Anne Blythe
Utility shut-offs banned in NC
Cooper said he worked with the state’s attorney general Josh Stein to develop the order banning utilities from cutting off access to water and power before the first of April.
“I know that’s a date that many families fear when they can’t make ends meet,” Cooper said. “Today’s action orders that electric, gas, water and wastewater services cannot be cut off for the next 60 days.”
The order also strongly urges telecommunication companies to follow the same rules. Banks, too, are encouraged not to charge customers late fees, overdraft charges and other penalties during an economic time that few could have predicted just a month ago.
After 60 days, Cooper said the state would be able to better see where North Carolina is in the arc of the pandemic to determine whether protections would need to be further extended.
“These protections will help families stay in their homes and keep vital services, like electricity, water and communications going,” Stein said.
The closing of bars, restaurants and other non-essential businesses has brought a mountain of new unemployment claims.
This past Sunday, alone, more than 20,000 North Carolinians filed for unemployment benefits.
“During the last two weeks, this insidious virus has forced North Carolina businesses to lay off more than 300,000 people,” Stein said at the news conference. “Just think about that number. It is massive. It is orders of magnitude greater than any two week period during the Great Recession. These are the people who serve us at restaurants. They fly us on airplanes and greet us at hotels. They produce and sell our clothing. They manufacture the products and machines we use every day. They do these things and so much more. They are our neighbors and they need our help.”
Stein stressed that Cooper’s action was necessary to bring uniformity and clarity at a time when hand-washing and keeping people in their homes are important to protect the public’s health. — Anne Blythe
Cooper calls for a stronger national strategy
North Carolina reported that lab results on Tuesday morning showed positive results for 1,498 cases of COVID-19 spread across 77 counties. The median age was 47, though that number changes nearly daily.
The number of hospitalizations had risen to 157 by Tuesday morning and eight deaths now have been reported in North Carolina.
More than 23,000 tests have been conducted across North Carolina, according to Mandy Cohen, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, with results for 8,000 pending.
With 84 percent of the hospitals across North Carolina reporting in, the state has 17,000 in-patient hospital beds with 7,000 empty as of Tuesday morning.
There were 3,000 intensive-care beds with 793, or about 20 percent, empty
Cooper was asked if he was worried that the number of cases and deaths happening in South Carolina, a neighboring state with a lower population but a different strategy for attacking the virus, could spell problems for North Carolina as people cross borders.
“We’re concerned not only with North Carolina but surrounding states because we know people travel pretty freely with state lines,” Cooper said. “I would encourage every governor in the country to put in interventions that will help slow the spread of this virus. I think it would be important too for us to have a stronger national strategy on this because this clearly is affecting every part of our country.
“It’s going to affect every part of North Carolina.” — Anne Blythe
In an update to state lawmakers today, N.C. Department of Public Safety officials reported that about 100 prison inmates have been tested for COVID-19. None have come back positive yet. However, prison staff has tested positive for the virus across various parts of the prison system, officials said.
“We’re anticipating dealing with a significant number of sick offenders,” Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee told state lawmakers during a meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19, Continuity of State Operations working group held among legislators Tuesday afternoon.
He said he anticipates that a number of staff will become sick too. Because of that, DPS officials asked lawmakers to allow the prisons to contract with private security to help fill staffing gaps as needed.
NC Health News reported last week that there are no ventilators to treat inmates who contract COVID-19 at the state’s two correctional medical facilities, located at Central Prison and North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, both in Raleigh.
The prison work release program was suspended on March 24, and in-person community college courses for inmates were suspended on March 23. Visitation and volunteer activities were suspended on March 16.
DPS officials told lawmakers that special precautions are being taken for inmates in the high-risk categories for coronavirus, such as those over age 65 or who have underlying health conditions. When asked about medical release for very sick or elderly inmates, DPS officials said, “the medical release statutory guidelines are pretty tight.” But they are being reviewed every day.
Inmates who show respiratory or flu-like symptoms are examined by medical staff, and COVID-19 tests are given to those who test negative for flu. Inmates waiting for test results — which takes about seven days — are kept in medical quarantine, according to DPS officials.
Inmates coming in from county jails are kept in 14-day quarantine before entering the regular prison population to prevent the spread of the virus, officials said.
DPS has enough personal protective equipment supplies, such as gloves and masks, for corrections staff right now, Ishee told lawmakers. Touchless thermometers were sent out today to all prisons to take the temperature of everyone going in and out of the facilities.
Correction Enterprises is making soap and non-alcohol-based hand cleanser for the prison system, producing 150,000 bars of soap a week and 13,000 bottles of cleanser daily. – Taylor Knopf
Shirt factory shifts to make protective gear
The Brooks Brothers Garland Shirt Factory in Sampson County has a new mandate. Instead of turning out bespoke menswear, the 200 factory workers will start cranking out PPE during the coronavirus crisis. Factories in New York and Massachusetts will also move from suits, shirts, and ties to masks and gowns. “In addition to producing up to 150,000 masks per day, Brooks Brothers expects to soon begin production on protective gowns,” the company said in a news release.
“We hope to be operational by end of this week (fingers crossed),” wrote company spokeswoman Arielle Patrick. – Melba Newsome
Charlotte group gathers donations of protective gear
A group of health care workers in Charlotte have started an initiative to gather personal protective equipment from the community.
“We got together with a group of doctors who are the front line workers and we have been hearing for the past few weeks that they do not have enough masks, gowns gloves, anything you can think of really that can support our front line workers,” said Liz Winer, from the Winer Family Foundation, who has been helping with the effort.
Winer said the group, calling itself CLTgivePPE has been asking people who may have had N95 masks in their houses or workplaces that they’ve been holding onto to pass them along for health care workers.
One difference in their effort is that most drives for donated PPE have been to donate full boxes of supplies, rather than a handful that may be in someone’s workshop, never used.
- Goodwill Opportunity Campus
- 5301 Wilkerson Blvd.
- Goodwill Ballantyne
- 16025 Lancaster Highway
“We think it’s construction companies,” she said. “Maybe they have a lot of different types of masks. And so, we are hoping that people will say, ‘Okay, I have 10 [masks]. It’s not perfect, it’s not the thousands or millions we need.
“But it’s something that the community can do to help.”
Until now the group has been gathering supplies in bins in several of the doctors’ front yards. But starting April 2, Goodwill will open two of its Charlotte locations for donation drop offs on Thursdays and Saturdays, from noon – 4 p.m. – Rose Hoban
African Americans in Mecklenburg County hit harder by COVID-19
African Americans in the Charlotte area appear to be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 illness, according to data released by Mecklenburg County officials on Monday.
Of the first 303 people who tested positive for the coronavirus through Saturday, African Americans accounted for 43.9 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases, while making up only 32.9 percent of Mecklenburg County’s population. White residents made up 42.2 percent of cases, with Hispanics at 7 percent, Asians at 2.6 percent.
The county initially released demographic data on March 22 when 80 people had tested positive for COVID-19. At that time, 35 percent of positive cases were black. However, Public Health Director Gibbie Harris continued to assert that the spread in Mecklenburg County aligned with the county’s demographics.
This latest data undermines those claims.
While medical experts say no racial or ethnic group is at greater risk for COVID-19 infection, there appears to be a difference in impact. “Certainly, African Americans are disproportionately impacted, and I’d like to understand some of the ‘whys’ behind that,” said Mecklenburg County Commissioner Mark Jerrell. “I’m very concerned about that — it’s alarming, and it’s something we have to get under control immediately.”
The racial and ethnic breakdown of all infected residents remains unclear simply because of limited testing for people with or without symptoms. — Melba Newsome
Temporary increase to food stamps
Families who receive food stamps will get extra money in March and April, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced in a press release. Recipients will receive the maximum allotment for families based on household size, meaning that a family of four will receive $646 per month regardless of their current benefit size.
The food stamps program, known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, supports roughly 360,000 households in North Carolina. Recipients in the state and federally funded program receive support funds based on income thresholds and household size. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, SNAP beneficiaries in North Carolina got $103 on average in January 2018.
The temporary increase will appear on recipients’ accounts on April 1 and April 22, according to the release, but families who already received the maximum allotment for their size will not see an increase. – Liora Engel-Smith
Fayetteville invokes curfew
Fayetteville’s mayor invoked a curfew beginning Wednesday night that is meant largely to help stop the spread of the coronavirus by banning cookouts, parties and other gatherings in public or private places consisting of more than 10 people.
“This is a fast-moving situation that requires us to do things that we haven’t done,” Mayor Mitch Colvin said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “I do not have all of the answers to what we need to do as a community. What I will say is that the City Council, myself, are willing to do whatever we can that’s within our capability to slow the spread of this virus in our community.”
The curfew will be in force from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily through April 30. People who provide essential services will not be affected, Colvin said.
Colvin noted that a number of large gatherings were held last weekend at private homes and in city parks, specifically singling out one at an “all-terrain-vehicle park.”
“This is really an attempt by the local government to discourage large social gatherings,” he said. “Also private, public social gatherings are notated. This is, you know, a house party or house gathering, a cookout. Folks, all of that are things that we need to put on hold.”
Colvin said the curfew has the support of the Fayetteville City Council, though members did have questions and concerns. He said he did not think a curfew is extreme in light of the spread of COVID-19 in other parts of the state and the country. Cumberland County, with a population of 332,546 has 18 confirmed cases of the virus, compared with 419 cases in Mecklenburg County, which has a population of 1,077,000, according to figures from the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Colvin said he was unsure how police would enforce the curfew, saying it would be either by issuing criminal summons or civil citations.
Fayetteville is the largest city in the state to issue a curfew. The city of Lexington and the towns of Fairmont in Robeson County and Gibson in Scotland County have also issued them. – Greg Barnes
Mecklenburg County imposes restrictions on public recreation courts
The exceptional weekend weather proved to be a double-edge sword for Mecklenburg County residents. On the upside, many people participated in outdoor recreation. On the downside, too many people packed into area parks and greenways, causing county officials to make good on the threat to impose tougher restrictions on public spaces.
Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation announced that all public sports courts would be closed. That means no more basketball, volleyball, tennis, kickball or catch. – Melba Newsome
Distribution of COVID-19 cases reported to Mecklenburg County Public Health by ZIP code of patient’s residence (as of March 28, 2020)
Mental health moment: a virtual race to support breweries
Running has gone virtual. With spring races canceled because of the outbreak, several remote races are popping up to take their place. One of them, dubbed “Flatten the Curve,” after the common epidemiological refrain to reduce the spread of the virus by social distancing, is gearing up to raise money for some of North Carolina’s craft breweries. Organizers from the Tar River Running Company said breweries have taken a financial hit in recent weeks. Run clubs that gather in breweries have felt the social impact too, they said.
Proceeds from the race will support more than 20 establishments who supported the 2019 Chill Mill event, which raised money for the MS Society.
“They helped us raise money for the MS Society, and this is our way of helping them in a time of need,” organizers said on their site.
Runners can sign up to a 5k or 19k race and complete it where and whenever they want during the month of April. As long as runners maintain social distancing while racing, participating in the race does not violate Gov. Cooper’s stay-at-home order. Registration for either distance costs $20 plus a fee, and runners can pick up their swag — a t-shirt and a shot glass — at a participating craft brewery near them. -Liora Engel-Smith