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By North Carolina Health News staff
Are we there yet?
An independent collaborative of scientists and researchers from the Triangle held a news conference today presenting two very different scenarios for the state in its battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
If North Carolina lifts its stay-at-home order at the end of April and simply returns to business as usual, the number of COVID-19 cases would likely jump to some 750,000 in North Carolina by the end of May, according to the collaborative’s forecast, with many of those people landing in the hospital and overwhelming health systems.
If the social distancing that is in place remains in place longer, the modelers found, that number drops to some 250,000 people who have the disease, remaining close to the state’s capacity to treat the most serious cases.
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to DHHS’ data as of Monday morning:
- 33 people, total in North Carolina, have died of COVID-19.
- 2,870 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 270 are in the hospital.
- More than 40,000 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 (41 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 21 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 82 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
- 14 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
- There are 2,596 ventilators in hospitals across the state, and 616 ventilators are in use, not just for COVID-19 cases but for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.
The forecast is derived from three different models developed in collaboration by researchers from Duke University, RTI International and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The bottom line: If North Carolina were to go right back to the way life was before schools and universities were closed for in-person classes, before bars, restaurants, barbershops, salons and other places were closed, and people in non-essential businesses told to work from home, the health care system would be overwhelmed by COVID-19 infection in late May or early June.
The modelers will continue to issue forecasts as they gather more data in the days and weeks ahead, noting that the forecast issued on Monday included data available through April 4.
By that time, North Carolina had been under a state-wide stay-at-home-order for almost a full week.
“Social distancing flattens the curve so that fewer people get sick at the same time,” Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said at a news conference Monday afternoon. “We know when people aren’t coming into contact with each other it lowers the chance that they will either catch or pass on the virus.” — Anne Blythe
Try something different for Easter, Passover
With Good Friday, Easter and Passover and other religious observances on the horizon, Cohen suggested that North Carolinians who typically gather for large family events should think of new ways to celebrate.
“It’s a time where families want to come together, where friends want to come together with deep traditions of doing that year after year,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately this is just not that year.”
The state is at a crucial point of trying to slow down the spread of the virus and to keep the number of hospitalizations from rising even more rapidly in this acceleration phase.
“Try to think of creative ways to connect with your family, with your friends, with your community, but by phone, by video,” Cohen added. “I know that is hard but I really appreciate everyone taking to heart to stay at home to slow the spread.” — Anne Blythe
National Guard to deploy later this week
Mike Sprayberry, director of the state Department of Emergency Management, said Monday at a news conference that National Guard planners will be deployed later this week to help with advance planning at 10 county emergency operation centers as the state continues to prepare for the medical surge.
National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers members with planning expertise have been scouting the state and looking at sites that could be used as alternate hospitals if a shortage of beds were to occur in one or several regions of the state.
Amid frustrations with the lack of personal protective equipment and ventilators being shipped from the Strategic National Stockpile, Sprayberry and his team have been aggressively seeking other sources for the masks, gloves and other equipment that healthcare workers and emergency responders on the frontlines will need to do their jobs more safely.
On Friday, he said, the state received 600,000 surgical masks from a private vendor to supplement the 598,000 surgical masks shipped to North Carolina from the federal government.
“Of all the hard-to-get personal protective items we’re seeking, surgical masks are one item we have had some success,” Sprayberry said, stressing the word some. “But we still need more of all types of personal protective equipment.” — Anne Blythe
AARP: Mail every voter an absentee ballot
Given the unknown time span of COVID-19’s threat to North Carolinians, especially older ones, the state’s AARP chapter has asked the General Assembly to send mail-in ballots to every registered voter in the state.
But Karen Brinson Bell, the executive director of the State Board of Elections, is urging caution, citing advice from a state that took years to adopt all-mail voting. Bell sent members of a task force a memo from Lori Augino, director of elections in Washington State.
“With 25 years of vote by mail experience, I offer some advice and caution,“ Augino wrote in part. “Vote by mail requires different continuity of operations planning that you’ll need to be prepared for.
“While there is some technology available that can augment your operation, vote by mail
remains a manual process that relies on a large workforce that must be healthy and working in
tight quarters for long days over weeks at a time.”
In other words, if election officials think vote by mail will magically smooth the process and require fewer employees, they should think again, Bell is signaling. The state board will meet Tuesday and will consider modifications to voting procedures to take effect this year, but is unlikely to consider total vote by mail, spokesman Patrick Gannon said.
The change would require legislative approval, as would several proposed modifications to the voting process forwarded to the legislature by the State Board of Elections. Lisa Riegel, advocacy manager for the state AARP, said the unpredictability of the coronavirus spread through the state meant North Carolina should prepare to make it possible for any voter to avoid a trip to the polls.
“Unfortunately, it does not look like this is going to be ending as quickly as we would like it to,“ Riegel said in a phone interview. “Even if things are better, people may still not feel comfortable going to public places to vote.”
Bell expects an increase in voting by mail, but suggested three principal modifications to lawmakers in March:
- Changing the process for voting by mail to simplify it for state voters, and making sure that county election boards are ready to handle many more absentee ballots;
- Making preparations for the presence of sufficient poll workers for both early voting and Election Day locations; and
- Coming up with the money to pay for suggested changes such as larger numbers of absentee ballots, the thorough cleaning of voting equipment and polling stations, and maintaining proper security both for voters and elections workers.
Millions in funding are likely forthcoming to North Carolina’s elections process from federal sources, Gannon said. The $2.2 billion federal CARES stimulus fund will provide $10,897,295 for voter activity, given a $2,179,459 state match.
And the Help America Vote Act fund will pay $11,625,810 if the state provides a $2,324,962 match. — Thomas Goldsmith
GOP convention in doubt
According to President Donald Trump, the show must go on!
Even in light of the ever-expanding coronavirus pandemic, Trump has repeatedly insisted that the GOP nominating convention will be held on August 24-27 in Charlotte as planned.
“No way I’m going to cancel the convention. We’re going to have the convention, it’s going to be incredible,” Trump told Fox News host, Sean Hannity. The Republican National Committee also says it remains firmly committed to moving forward with the convention.
But in a Friday morning Twitter town hall, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles signaled that the convention date and place might not be set in stone.
“We’ll see,” she said cryptically, when asked about the convention prospects. “I don’t know whether or not we will have the ability to do this if this pandemic continues.”
As DNC host city Milwaukee emerged as one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots, the Democratic National Committee pushed its scheduled convention back a month. Originally planned for July 13-16, the democratic convention will now be held August 17-20. Former vice president Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, has even suggested a virtual convention. — Melba Newsome
Mental health moment: Blooms in your screen
While staying at home, take a tour of the world’s largest flower garden, Keukenhof.
The tulips are beautiful.
This story has been updated to correct the first name of AARP lobbyist Lisa Riegel.