By North Carolina Health News staff

Grocery store changes on the way

Gov. Roy Cooper plans to issue an executive order later this week with more crowd-control specifics for grocery stores and other retailers to strengthen the impact of his statewide stay-at-home order.

One of the most common complaints that his administration has heard from across the state is that going to the store can be akin to entering a menacing labyrinth for people trying to adhere to social-distancing rules. Some people are not keeping their distance.

“We hear that being a problem,” Cooper said. “We don’t want people to be afraid to go to the grocery store, to the pharmacy to get essential items.”

Some stores across the state have taken voluntary steps to help shoppers and their employees to try to prevent any virus spread through people who might be asymptomatic.

Coronavirus by the numbers
According to DHHS’ data as of Tuesday morning:

  • 46 people total in North Carolina have died of COVID-19.
  • 3,221 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 354 are currently in the hospital. (The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people with COVID-19 at any given day and is not cumulative.)
  • 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 (42 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 20 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
  • 16 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,197 ventilators in hospitals across the state, and 749 ventilators are in use, not just for COVID-19 cases but for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

They have started limiting the number of customers who can be inside and have employees at the door keeping count of how many are going in and the number of people exiting. Some locations have made their aisles one way so shoppers won’t meet coming and going from different directions. Many have put tape on the floor in check out lines six feet apart. Plexiglass also has been installed at many cashier stations to help protect employees.

“This is a positive step and we need to make that kind of thing more uniform and that’s what you can expect in an executive order, “ Cooper said.

“If you might have to stand in line a little while to be able to get into the store, it would discourage people from going just because they want something to do,” Cooper added. “We think this is an important signal to send as well, that wherever we are, we have to keep our physical distance, and the best thing you can do right now is to stay at home.” — Anne Blythe

Maybe May, maybe not

Cooper spoke to the media on Tuesday, the day after researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill, RTI International and Duke University released a forecast of a state-specific model showing that lifting stay-at-home restrictions at the end of April and going back to pre-COVID-19 business as usual would overwhelm the health care system.

The modelers found that with social-distancing restrictions similar to the ones in place now continued beyond April, the crush of people infected with COVID-19-related pneumonia would not be as high and the system should have enough bed space available for those needing care.

“Now I know many of you are wondering if this North Carolina model means that our stay-at-home order will continue into May,” Cooper said. “The answer is we just don’t know yet.”

Cooper stressed the importance of staying home in the weeks ahead and limiting exposure to the public for essential business and shopping needs only.

graphic including an image of coronavirus

North Carolina will continue to look at the state-specific model, which, according to the researchers, will evolve as more data become available during the pandemic. Cooper said his team also will look at other models and examine what has happened in other states and countries. Public health experts and business leaders will be consulted during the weeks ahead, too.

“Every day, several times a day, we’re looking at whether our efforts and interventions are doing enough,” Cooper said.

Cooper stressed that in the weeks ahead as he and his team pore over model forecasts and track the impact of the pandemic, public safety and saving lives will be at the forefront of his decisions.

“We know that if our hospital system gets overwhelmed and too many people get sick and die, …not only is that a human tragedy, but it’s certainly a long-term problem for our economy,” Cooper said. “There are a lot of people now out of work because of the havoc that this virus has caused.

“They need to know that we’re going to be working night and day to make the very best decisions to help them through this time and then also get our economy working again.”

Cooper said many of the adjustments that employers and individuals have made since the first COVID-19 infection was reported in North Carolina on March 3 could lead to a new way of life since it could be next year before a vaccine is available.

“People are using video conferencing and phones,” Cooper said. “We’re finding different ways to operate and to be successful, and as we go forward we can use some of the things that we have learned during this time. When things can open back up more, we can do it the right way because we’ve got to know, this virus is going to be with us for a while, at least until there’s a vaccine, and so we have to be careful with how we interact with each other.” — Anne Blythe 

Sandhills Regional Medical Center. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Old hospital to be repurposed for COVID-19 patients

In late 2017, the Sandhills Regional Medical Center in the Richmond County town of Hamlet shut its doors.

The hospital had been acquired less than a year before by FirstHealth of the Carolinas, a chain of small hospitals headquartered in Pinehurst. But because of lax volume and few procedures being done, the company closed the 49-bed facility, which has space for surgeries, diagnostic imaging and clinics.

At the time, the facility was only seeing a handful of patients each day, performing an average of two surgeries per week and fewer than seven imaging studies daily, FirstHealth CEO David J. Kilarski said.

“Maintaining a highly trained staff with such low volumes is not a sustainable situation, especially when the same services are offered a few miles away,” he said in a press release.

Now the facility will get another lease on life, as a location for treating recovering COVID patients, that’s according to state emergency operations director Mike Sprayberry who made the announcement at this afternoon’s daily press briefing.

“In the event hospitals across the state exceed their bed capacity, Sandhills Regional will be used to house their non-acute and non-COVID-19 patients,” texted system spokeswoman Gretchen Kelly.

Sprayberry said that the Council of State had approved the lease on Tuesday morning.

“It can now be prepared to provide additional beds to support hospital overflow,” he said.

According to Kelly, the proposed agreement says “the state would provide all staff, supplies and equipment. The center will not be used as a homeless shelter or care center for infectious disease patients.”

The move comes at the same time the governor is preparing an executive order that will ease restrictions on hospitals that will be released later this week.

The executive order “will help to waive some regulations to be able to free up bed space because right now some hospitals have limits on the amount of beds that they can have,” Gov. Roy Cooper told reporters during a daily coronavirus press briefing. “It also helps to free up regulations to be able to have more health care providers who would be able to go to battle in this fight against the virus.” – Rose Hoban

Creating living spaces for people at risk

At the most recent count available, North Carolina has about 9,300 homeless people living around the state, not including the thousands who may be doubled up with family or friends.

Many of those people are at risk of acquiring coronavirus from staying in overcrowded shelters or other congregate living situations where people are at close quarters.

The stay-at-home order signed by Gov. Roy Cooper last week exempted those people,

but as reported by NC Health News, those closures create issues in accessing basic needs, such as bathrooms, running water for hygiene, and food.

Now the state will be creating spaces for housing these people, according to state emergency director Mike Sprayberry.

Sprayberry told reporters during a briefing on Tuesday that North Carolina had received FEMA help for creating the housing, which will be in hotels and dormitories, “for a variety of people in different situations who need individual housing to help slow the spread of the virus.”

“This can include people who are exposed to, or test positive for COVID-19 who do not require hospitalization but need to be isolated,” Sprayberry said. “Also people who have been treated for COVID-19 and were released from the hospital. People needing social distancing as determined by public health officials because they were at high risk due to their age, medical condition, or living situation.”

He said that his division is opening a support center to help municipalities with setting up these “non-congregate housing options.” – Rose Hoban

Funds available for child care for critical workers

State health officials reiterated their pledge this week to help emergency and critical services workers find and pay for child care. Plus, child care providers working during the crisis are also eligible for bonuses from the state, according to a news release from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

The state is offering financial assistance to families with income up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level ( $78,600 for a family of four) if they have no other viable options for child care. Parents who are essential workers, which include health care workers, can fill out a form here and call a hotline at 1-888-600-1685 that’s staffed by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to find open child care centers in their area.

The state will keep paying out child care subsidy payments for April and May to day cares regardless of whether those centers remain open in April and May. N.C. Pre-K programs will also continue to receive funding. Teachers in those programs are expected to offer remote learning and support to those children if their center is closed, according to the N.C. DHHS press release

Gov. Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, stressed the importance of child care for front-line workers at a news conference on Tuesday.

“While most of us are staying home, some North Carolinians are providing the essential services that we rely upon every day,” Cohen said. “It’s the truck drivers who are delivering food or medical supplies, our grocery store workers who are stocking shelves, our pharmacists filling prescriptions, our janitorial workers who are sanitizing essential workspaces, and of course our health care workers on the front lines taking care of those who are sick.

“The one thing they all have in common is they are parents or they’re the caregivers of young children: When they go to work they need a safe place for their children, where they’ll be cared for and nurtured.”

Cohen included child care workers among those essential to the pandemic attack plan who, outside these unprecedented times, do not always get the credit they deserve.

“In the best of times they are our unsung heroes, who care for, love and teach our children,” Cohen said. “They are literally brain builders, supporting children’s healthy development so they have a strong foundation for health and learning, and that’s in the best of times. As we face this pandemic, we know our early childhood workforce is a support system that allows our essential services to be there for all of us.” — Sarah Ovaska and Anne Blythe

99 counties and the Meck ain’t one 

Unacceptable. That’s how state Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Davidson) described a decision by the State Board of Education to allocate emergency coronavirus relief funding to every county in the state, except Mecklenburg.

On March 24, Gov. Roy Cooper set aside $50 million of COVID-19 relief money for schools. Half of the package was divided among counties based on the number of enrolled students. The state board voted to allocate the other half based on a “low-wealth” percentage that favored counties with smaller tax bases and fewer reserves.

The state Department of Public Instruction, or DPI, said the formula factored in a district’s ability to pay for COVID-19 expenses using local money, a calculation that left CMS out in the cold for funding beyond its headcount allotment.

Marcus and 13 other Mecklenburg state senators and representatives issued a joint statement criticizing the decision. “Mecklenburg County has the most COVID-19 cases in the state and has more high poverty students than any other school district in the state,” the statement read. “We … call for fair treatment of all children, including those living in poverty in Mecklenburg County.”

Despite being a former member of the CMS board, state board chair Eric Davis defended the decision to exclude CMS from this round of funding. “We realize this will disappoint some folks, but we strive to be fair,” Davis said. “We thought in this particular case, taking into consideration the individual counties’ ability to generate funds for their school district should be the primary criteria. We have difficult choices. But we’re striving to meet the needs of all.” -Melba Newsome

Lost Colony loses 2020 season to COVID-19

Roanoke Island Historical Association’s (RIHA) Board of Directors has canceled the 83rd season of Paul Green’s The Lost Colony, which is performed nightly in Manteo during summer months.

In an announcement made on The Lost Colony’s Facebook page, RIHA board chair Kevin Bradley said the organization did not want to risk the safety of the audience, cast or crew in calling for the cancellation, the first since 1944, during World War II.

“Several times throughout our storied history, the community has rallied around The Lost Colony. Whether it was to help repair storm damage as a result of hurricanes or devastation caused by fire – every time the local community has stepped up and helped the Colony recover,” Bradley said in a statement.

“We feel this is the appropriate time for The Lost Colony to take a step back and to return the favor and rally around the community that has done so much for us.

“These are difficult times and that creates an environment where difficult decisions are required. And this certainly was a difficult decision for our Board of Directors to make – but I believe the correct one in light of what our community is facing.” – Rose Hoban

Mental health moment: cuteness overload

The Oregon Zoo has a video of adorable baby goats meeting other animals, among dozens of other videos, including one of elephants having a “pool party.”

These videos are a perfect opportunity to take a break from the news and enjoy some squeal-producing critter antics. -Rose Hoban

YouTube video

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