By North Carolina Health News staff

State unemployment system stretched thin

The state’s unemployment system has been swamped with thousands of claims, an official from the Department of Commerce said Thursday afternoon.

Social distancing measures, including the closures of salons, massage parlors, and bars and the prohibition on eating out, have taken an economic toll. Since the crisis began in mid-March, the state commerce department has received more than 335,000 claims related to COVID-19, said Lockhart Taylor, assistant secretary of the Division of Employment Security, during a press briefing held remotely from the state emergency operations center.

Before the crisis, he said, the department received 3,000 claims a week.

The state already paid $8.2 million in unemployment claims, he added, and that figure is expected to “increase exponentially” in the coming days. The swell in unemployment claims has strained the system, Taylor said, and the department has hired additional staff and made some technology upgrades to the phone system and website system to accommodate the sharp rise.

“We know our job is just beginning and we will not rest until we’ve processed every claim [and] answered every question and every phone call,” he said. – Liora Engel-Smith.

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to DHHS’ data as of Thursday morning:

  • 16 people, total in North Carolina, have died of COVID-19.
  • 1,857 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 184 are in the hospital.
  • More than 28,000 tests have been completed thus far, though not all labs report their negative results to the state, so the actual number of completed COVID-19 tests is likely higher.
  • Most of the cases (42 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 20 percent percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 75 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
  • Nine outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 2,818 ventilators in hospitals across the state, and 624 ventilators are in use, not just for COVID-19 cases but for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

Protective equipment for health care workers first

Mike Sprayberry, director of emergency management, said the state received a third shipment of protective equipment from the Strategic National Stockpile. With the three shipments, the state has received:

  • Almost half of the N95 masks requested,
  • More than 100 percent of the surgical masks requested,
  • 92 percent of gloves requested,
  • No hair covers, shoe covers or goggles requested by the state.

Sprayberry said the state also placed orders of protective equipment that amount to more than $100 million, but much of those supplies have not yet arrived. Amidst these shortages, NCDHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen said the state will continue to prioritize providing equipment to health care providers and first responders.

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering recommending the public use masks, Cohen didn’t rule out moving to a similar recommendation, but only after more protective equipment is available.

“We still do not have the protective equipment we need to protect our health care workers and our other first responders,” Cohen added. “That is our first priority, to make sure we can protect those who are treating COVID-19 patients.” – Liora Engel-Smith

NC puts a COVID-19 request to FEMA

Sprayberry said North Carolina officials approached FEMA with a request to help cover the cost of providing thousands of rooms for people who are affected by COVID-19 but aren’t sick enough to be in the hospital. If approved, the request would reimburse the state for 75 percent of the cost of reserving hotel rooms and dormitories across North Carolina for COVID-19 housing response, Sprayberry said, with the state bearing the remainder of the cost.

The rooms would also be used to help people who are at risk for COVID-19, those who are symptomatic and those who are awaiting test results, he added.

“If we’re going to have a big surge of patients that need assistance or folks that need to be kept in a place that does not necessarily have to be a hospital or a part of the health care system, this would be a good solution,” Sprayberry said.  – Liora Engel-Smith

First NC prisoners test positive for COVID-19 

A male inmate in his 60s at the Caledonia Correctional Complex in Tillery was the first North Carolina prisoner to test positive for coronavirus on Wednesday.

This afternoon, Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee announced that three more inmates tested positive, as well as four corrections staff members. The inmates are located at Caledonia, Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, and Johnston Correctional Institution near Smithfield. The staff members who tested positive work at Raleigh’s Central Prison, Johnston and Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County.

“We’ve prepared long and hard for this day. This was not a surprise to us,” Ishee said during the daily press conference with state officials.

Just Tuesday, prison officials told state lawmakers that about 100 prisoners had been tested with no positive results at the time.

The first inmate started showing symptoms on March 24 and was isolated from the rest of the population and tested for the virus the following day, according to a Department of Public Safety press release.

The inmate’s positive test came back on April 1, and officials report that he is in stable condition.

Prison officials have identified other people the inmate had contact with prior to his quarantine. They are being monitored and tested based on symptoms. The housing unit of the inmate who tested positive is on lockdown, meaning inmates are eating meals in their cells and only coming out for recreation time.

All inmates and staff were given masks to wear and there has been increased sanitation of the housing area, according to the DPS release. –Taylor Knopf

Seven NC long-term care facilities see COVID-19 outbreaks

North Carolina outbreaks of COVID-19 have taken place in four nursing homes, three residential care facilities, one correctional institution and one at an unidentified location, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported Wednesday.

The department declined a request from North Carolina Health News to identify the locations, means of transmission and circumstances of the incidents in residential care homes. However, three adult care homes have been identified in press or corporate reports as having had incidents of the virus: Sunrise Senior Center in Cary, Woodland Terrace in Cary, and Pine Forest Rest Home in Northampton County. At Pine Forest, the number of cases rose from one to 24 within a week.

”We do not release names of facilities or information on specific residents,” Kelly Haight Connor, a DHHS spokeswoman, said in an email.

North Carolina Health News did not request the names of individual residents. The names of adult care homes and nursing homes that are the subject of investigations have been released for decades as part of reports by county adult home specialists whose work is made public and shared with state and federal regulators.

The listing of outbreaks at correctional institutions does not include every penal institution that has had a case of COVID-19, as the department counts an outbreak as two or more diagnoses by a laboratory.

State correctional officials said Thursday that new cases of inmate diagnoses took place at Caledonia Correctional Institution in Halifax County, Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, and Johnston Correctional Institution near Smithfield. The staff members who tested positive work at Raleigh’s Central Prison, Johnston and Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County.  –Thomas Goldsmith and Taylor Knopf

Insurer waives costs for COVID-related care

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, the state’s largest health insurer, announced Wednesday it would waive all out-of-pocket costs for members – including deductibles, co-payments and coinsurance – for treatments related to COVID-19 for people who are diagnosed with the virus.

“This is a public health emergency that is requiring everyone in the health care community to do their part, and we’ll continue to respond and determine how to best serve our members in the face of COVID-19,” said Gerald Petkau, chief operating officer and interim CEO at Blue Cross NC, in a press release.

These moves come on top of other measures intended to cushion those with BCBSNC insurance from some of the costs related to the coronavirus, including expanded coverage for telehealth visits, waiving out of pocket costs for COVID-19 testing and making it easier for members to get three-month supplies of their medications.

The company also encouraged out of network providers to accept BCBSNC’s payments, rather than bill members for additional costs. – Rose Hoban

UNCC is swamped by student needs

The University of North Carolina system approved partial room-and-board refunds for many students but it may not come soon enough for students in need.  UNC Charlotte stepped forward to help by establishing the Student Emergency Relief Fund to provide a one-time $500 grant to students impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The fund had almost $264,000 on hand after the first week but received more than $400,000 in applications from students in need. While some UNC Charlotte students could go home, that was not an option for some international students and others who depended on the university for housing, work study or a meal plan.

The Jamil Niner Student Pantry will remain open to assist UNC Charlotte students who struggle with food insecurity, university officials said. To avoid shopping and maintain social distancing, students can use an online order form which is fulfilled by a staff member. -Melba Newsome

Carolina steps up to help students

On Thursday, UNC Chapel Hill launched the COVID-19 Student Care Hub, a one-stop shop for guidance and information about available resources on everything from academics to financial aid to wellness. A dedicated team will be tracking emails, routing inquiries, and finding solutions for students who write in with issues.

In addition, UNC established the Carolina Student Impact Fund to help undergraduate, graduate and professional school students who may have lost a job, housing or food plan because of the pandemic. The fund will also help students who incur extra expenses because of canceled or shortened study abroad and exchange programs. -Melba Newsome

I/DD advocates worry about group home outbreaks 

State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said during meetings Thursday that three residential care/group facilities in the state have had a COVID-positive person in them, along with a facility listed in the “other” category on the state’s coronavirus case-count web page.

This is a big concern for Julia Adams-Scheurich who lobbies on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the legislature.

“We understand the need to prioritize our hospitals and first responders to access PPE, but we also have a genuine concern that we have congregate living centers for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that are community based, and house some of our most medically fragile people,” she said. “They need to be prioritized also to avoid spread that we are seeing in other states in similar facilities.”

These facilities are places where residents live full time, and they frequently come and go to community centers, events, the gym, etc., Adams-Scheurich said. She said they’re asking everyone to stay home. Even though there’s a stay-at-home order, there are federal regulations about their rights to come and go, and so it’s difficult for facility management to keep people in their rooms or in the facility.

“We need really clear guidance on protecting those two priorities,” Adams-Scheurich said. “Staying home, we support it, but we really need to know how to proceed.”

Adams-Scheurich said the I/DD advocacy community has been trying to work with DHHS, but she also said that their staff is overwhelmed and she fears this population will not have their needs addressed before it becomes a critical emergency.

According to the state Division of Health Service Regulation, there are 2,247 licensed group homes in the state which house people with mental health and intellectual disabilities. In addition, the state has about 700 intermediate care facilities which serve people with I/DD who are also medically complex. Some of these residents require extensive hands on care for bathing, dressing, and managing their medications and medical devices. -Rose Hoban

Mental health moment: Yoga flow, live in your living room

A Charlotte-based yoga studio is holding lunchtime flow sessions on Zoom. Starting next week, Yoga Dude Fitness will hold sessions from noon-1 p.m. Monday to Thursday. Sessions are free, but organizers said they welcome donations. Classes are open to all levels, and the instructor will share modifications for beginners. For information on how to attend and donate, visit the Facebook event page-Liora Engel-Smith

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