By North Carolina Health News staff

As Gov. Roy Cooper announced that North Carolina has gone beyond 2,000 cases of COVID-19 and lost 19 people to the highly contagious virus, he urged people to heed his stay-at-home order, especially as meteorologists forecast nice weather for the weekend.

“I know it’s tempting to get away from all this and gather with friends and extended family, especially when Friday means the end of the week,” Cooper said. “Don’t.”

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

North Carolina continues to be in an “acceleration phase” of the pandemic, meaning more people are expected to come down with the extremely contagious virus and the numbers of COVID-19 related hospitalizations are expected to continue to rise rapidly.

Before his statewide stay-at-home order took effect on Monday, many people crowded outdoor parks and recreation areas.

“Now is not the time for beach trips or neighborhood cookouts,” Cooper said. “If you must be with other people, please heed the order that bans gatherings of more than 10 and recommends staying six feet or more away from each other. It could save your life and prevent the spread of the virus to people that you care about.”

YouTube video

The virus has spread throughout the world while health care workers and scientists rush to develop treatments to help the illness, as well as develop a vaccine to prevent such virus spread in the future.

A vaccine, though, is unlikely to be available until next year because the science to develop one is much slower than the spread of the virus.

Cooper implored North Carolinians to wash their hands “like never before,” follow the order to avoid mass gatherings and encouraged people numerous times throughout his 30-minute news conference on Friday afternoon to stay at home.

“Stopping the spread is within our control.

“You are protecting yourselves, your families, your neighbors and our critical workers,” Cooper said. “You are saving lives.

“So now here we are,” Cooper continued. “The weekend is coming up. Lots of Tar Heel blue skies are in our forecasts. I know it’s hard but stay at home anyway. We are in a crucial time period for flattening the curve, and we still need you to step up. If we all do our part, we’ll get through this.”

– Anne Blythe

Fighting the pandemic on many fronts

Just as North Carolina expects a crush of hospitalizations, Cooper voiced his frustration with the lack of supplies coming from the federal government.

The state has received three shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile, and those shipments have contained only 33 percent of what has been requested.

“This is a bad situation folks,” Cooper said. “They told us not to expect more anytime soon.”

The state has looked to other providers and put in orders totaling some $100 million dollars. With the Strategic National Stockpile depleted, North Carolina is in the same position as many states across the country.

“Right now governments at all levels, hospitals, law enforcement and others are competing against each other for a scarce amount of personal protective equipment,” Cooper said. “That means our buyers are placing orders non-stop, but most of them are not getting filled. There simply is not enough on the market to go around.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to DHHS’ data as of Friday morning:

  • 19 people total in North Carolina have died of COVID-19.
  • 2,093 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 259 are in the hospital.
  • More than 31,000 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 (43 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 79 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
  • 11 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,014 ventilators in hospitals across the state, and 652 ventilators are in use, not just for COVID-19 cases but for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.This data reflect 87 percent of hospitals in the state who reported these statistics.

He related what was happening at the state level to what many experience on a personal level when they shop online and put wipes and disinfectants into their virtual carts.

“When it comes time to pay, the screen says the order can’t be filled and the item is out of stock,” Cooper said. “The state is seeing the same problem, but on a massive scale.”

Because supplies are short, Cooper has talked with manufacturers across the state to shift their production lines to create the masks, gloves and other materials that the state so desperately needs. Without revealing the names of the manufacturers, Cooper said, some have responded positively.

“I know the president has ordered some companies to ramp up production of ventilators. This is important and badly needed. But the federal government can and should do more to direct industries to help produce these supplies. This pandemic is a war and we need the armor to fight it.” – Anne Blythe

Still working out unemployment kinks

Cooper acknowledged that many people who lost their jobs in this pandemic “through the blink of an eye” continue to hit barriers as they file for unemployment benefits.

Lockhart Taylor, assistant secretary of the state Division of Employment Security, which vets the claims, said this week that the website and phone system for receiving such claims were being modified for the unprecedented load.

He said that as of Friday they had paid a little more than 41,000 people claims totaling slightly more than $10 million. That represented claims filed by Friday, March 20.

“We’re starting to get these monies out,” Taylor said Friday. “These monies will continue to go out in larger amounts next week as we saw the numbers of claims increase in the week that followed.” — Anne Blythe

Worries about outbreaks among the homeless

Cooper has been talking with mayors of the state’s urban areas about how to help the homeless during the pandemic.

“As you know I’ve issued a stay-at-home order,” Cooper said. “There are some people who don’t have a home and it’s more important than ever that we make sure that homeless people have shelter and that we can prevent the spread of the virus there.”

Cooper said he had been on a phone call earlier in the day with some of the mayors from the state’s larger cities. Homelessness was a prime topic for them.

Some cities are setting up homeless people in hotels already, the governor said, and the state is exploring whether some of the federal money that North Carolina expects can be used for that purpose.

The federal money is restricted to use for COVID-19, Cooper said, but the state has been in talks with people at the U.S Department of Treasury about what the money can be used for and hopes to add that to the list.

“If people who are homeless are congregating together, the virus begins to spread and we know we have a very difficult situation on our hands,” Cooper said. — Anne Blythe

Should everybody wear masks?

President Donald Trump told reporters at a White House briefing on Thursday that he was waiting for public health experts to give him guidance on whether to encourage Americans to use scarves, bandanas and homemade masks while out in public during the pandemic.

Cooper was asked Friday whether he would suggest that people cover their mouths and noses with a scarf or makeshift mask when out and about.

“The very best way to slow the spread is to not be in gatherings of people and to keep a physical distance,” Cooper said. “If you do that, then that is the very best thing you can do to protect yourself.”

The studies are mixed on wearing a mask, Cooper added. He stressed that the people he wanted at the head of the line for N95 masks and other protective equipment in short supply were the health care workers and the front-line workers dealing directly with the public.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, echoed Cooper’s concerns for the health care workers and other front-line workers and stressed the importance of staying six feet apart from each other in public and staying at home except for essentials.

Gimme Six Feet

Triangle-based entertainers and YouTube personalities The Holderness Family have created an earworm-worthy video on behalf of UNC Health to remind you to remain six feet away from others in order to properly social distance.

YouTube video

“Then if we think about whether masks are appropriate for those of us who are just going out to the grocery store or the pharmacy — again — our best way to slow the spread of the virus is to be staying home,” she said. “But for those who are thinking about wearing masks, I think that can be one component of protecting folks from the spread of the virus,” she said.

The masks, she stressed, have to be used appropriately and people should continue to emphasize washing their hands.

“We worry when people wear masks they think that is a one-size-fits-all for protecting themselves and our community,” Cohen said. “But the tried and true things that work are washing your hands, wiping down those surfaces and, of course, keeping social distance.” — Anne Blythe

CMS and Queens University partner to provide scholarships to 2020 grads

Queens University announced a partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to provide a minimum $10,000 annual scholarship to 2020 graduates in Mecklenburg County. The Queens Commitment applies to public, charter and private school students in Mecklenburg County, as well as associate degree graduates of Central Piedmont Community College.

“This unprecedented time of crisis is bringing significant challenges for our students and their families,” said CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston in a press release. “This partnership with Queens University will help offer relief to families who may be struggling with the added financial burden of paying for their child’s college education.

Queens’ student emergency fund provides support for internet access, as well as for unexpected, necessary travel to return home. -Melba Newsome

Atrium and Novant leaders ask for county for a field hospital

In a joint letter to Mecklenburg County manager Dena Diorio, Atrium President and CEO Eugene Woods and Novant Health President and CEO Carl S. Amato requested funding and resources for a field hospital on the UNC Charlotte campus as the hospital systems brace for a surge of coronavirus patients.

The leaders stressed that the health care system could become overwhelmed quickly.

Atrium Health Novant Health Joint Letter to Dena Diorio (Text)
”[U]sing the latest epidemiological statistical analysis to predict community spread, we are anticipating potential additional volumes of approximately 3,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients beyond our currently planned surge capacity. In addition, our models suggest the surge will occur between mid-April and mid-May 2020,” they wrote.

On Thursday, Chancellor Philip Dubois sent a letter to students, staff and faculty pledging the University’s full cooperation to the county and state as needed. So far, UNC Charlotte has offered six residence halls in the South Village as a possible field hospital location. –Melba Newsome

Durham Public Schools ends food assistance program

Hours after State Board of Education (SBE) Chairman Eric Davis announced that several school district employees tested positive for the coronavirus, Durham Public Schools announced a cafeteria worker at Bethesda Elementary School had tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the end of its food assistance program for needy students.

“I am grateful for all of our staff who have provided immediate food assistance to our children while in the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis,” DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said in a statement. “We now need to focus on the health and wellness of our employees.”

Friday was the last day students and families could pick up daily meals at more than 67 schools and community sites across Durham County. DPS, however, will distribute a week’s worth of meals at 13 schools Monday. – Melba Newsome

Chief Justice seeks to ease judicial burden

North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley signed an order outlining seven directives to ease the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic for people involved in the justice system, including granting relief to people burdened with court fines and fees and extending the postponement of most court hearings to June 1.

Citing the historical logistical and financial hardships caused by the virus, Beasley offered retroactive relief for anyone with court fines and fees issued 40 days prior to April 6.  The Chief Justice also directed court clerks not to report past due information to the Division of Motor Vehicles, which suspends driver’s licenses for failure to pay, and gave a 90-day extension of any fines and fees assigned between April 6 and May 1.

Beasley has already signed several emergency orders postponing most cases in superior and district courts for 30 days, including eviction and foreclosure hearings, and instructing local officials to limit the risk of exposure in courthouses. –Melba Newsome

Handmade masks getting traction, but do they work? 

Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Health tested 400 varieties of homemade cloth face masks, to figure out how effective the masks actually are at preventing the spread of coronavirus.

The results? Well, it all depends on the fabric used, according to testing done at the Manufacturing Development Center at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, part of Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem.

The best-performing designs used two layers of a high-quality, heavyweight “quilter’s cotton” with a thread count of 180 or more. Those masks had a 79 percent filtration rate, meaning it blocked 79 percent of particles.

That came in better than the 62 to 65 percent that a surgical mask offers but below that of the golden standard of filtration masks, the N95 respirators capable of screening out 97 percent of particles, according to the research.

The worst performing face masks consist of single-layer or double-layer masks made of lightweight cottons.

Wake Forest Baptist Health, the health care system anchored in Winston-Salem, has not approved the use of cloth masks in its hospitals, but wanted to know what was the most effective in case they were to run out of other equipment, said Scott Segal, the chair of anesthesiology at the hospital.

“As important as this information is for hospitals, it is also important for people who want to make masks for their own use,” Segal said. “We don’t want people to think that just any piece of cloth is good enough and have a false sense of security.” – Sarah Ovaska

Mental health moment: virtual violin concert

As North Carolina keeps a close watch on Italy and other places overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, take a moment for a virtual drop-in on these 12-year-old twins from Agrigento, a hilltop city along Sicily’s southwestern coastline.

Mirko and Valeria, who call themselves “Little Band Violinists,” have been entertaining themselves and the world with their stay-at-home musical moments.

YouTube video

Watch them cover Coldplay, put their own spin on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and more.

You can enjoy the show while staying at home.

Their enthusiasm is infectious — the good kind of infectious. -Anne Blythe

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

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...