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By North Carolina Health News staff 

Gov. Roy Cooper issued his much-heralded executive order that will limit how many people will be allowed in grocery and retail stores beginning Monday and add more stringent contagion controls for nursing homes, as news arose of a COVID-19 outbreak in Rutherford County and other areas in the state.

As of Monday at 5 p.m., grocery and retail stores across the state will be restricted to five customers per every 1,000 square feet, or no more than 20 percent of the number of people that fire codes allow.

Stores also must place markers on the floor six-feet apart at places where people gather, such as check-out lines and deli counters. They must perform regular cleanings and routine disinfection.

“This should make shopping safer for customers and retail employees and help prevent stores from becoming flashpoints for virus transmission,” Cooper said.

The order encourages stores to make hand sanitizer accessible, to set shopping times for seniors and at-risk people, to use shields at check-out counters, and to mark aisles as one-way to limit traffic.

The mandatory protective orders for nursing homes come a day after the governor announced a hot spot at a nursing home near the border of Orange and Durham counties. Two deaths related to the outbreak at PruittHealth – Carolina Point, a long-term care facility on Mt. Sinai Road, have been reported as well as 69 positive test results for the extremely contagious coronavirus.

The order prevents dining and group activities in common spaces. It requires face masks for employees. It also requires nursing homes to screen employees and residents for symptoms of illness.

“We strongly encourage other long-term facilities to follow this same guidance,” Cooper said. “We’re focusing efforts on these congregate care institutions since the nature of this virus makes them easy targets for the outbreaks.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday morning:

  • 65 people total in North Carolina have died of COVID-19.
  • 3,651 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 398 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people with COVID-19 on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
  • More than 47,000 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 22 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 82 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
  • 25 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 2,977 ventilators in hospitals across the state, and 624 ventilators in use, not just for COVID-19 cases but for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

Faster relief for unemployment claims

Cooper’s order also attempts to help bring relief to the hundreds of thousands of claims for unemployment benefits that have come in during March and April.

The order will make it easier, Cooper said, for an employer to file a batch of claims on behalf of their employees, a process known as an attached claim.

“By temporarily eliminating some of the hurdles for these employers, we hope to get benefits in the hands of those who need them faster,” Cooper said.

Since March 16, the state Division of Employment Security has accepted 497,000 unemployment claims. The state so far, according to Cooper, has sent $40.3 million to North Carolinians with more checks going out every day.

The division also has received guidance from the federal government about how to disperse the supplemental benefit of $600 per week, payments that are expected to begin by the end of next week.

“Time is critical and precious for those who are out of work,” Cooper said. “I, my staff and the Secretary of Commerce are pushing the department to move as fast as possible. Every claim is important and represents an unemployed worker on the edge. Their families and our economy need these funds as quickly as possible.” – Anne Blythe

New Passover and Easter rituals

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, and Cooper urged North Carolinians to resist the urge to gather with family and friends during the Passover and Easter holidays this weekend.

Cohen said she and her family celebrated the start of Passover together on Wednesday night in a different way, together online, but miles apart.

“Our traditions are steeped in being together,” Cohen said. “This year, though, the best way we can show our love for our friends and our family is to find new ways to be together.

“That’s what I did last night for our family’s celebration of Passover. We had four states represented at our virtual celebration — Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, North Carolina — and everyone from my 2-year-old nephew to my uncle in his 70s was on the screen and miraculously everyone figured out the technology. We laughed. We ate. We all tried to talk at the same time, but we felt connected despite our distance.”

Cooper, who described himself as a man of faith who enjoys going to church, reminded all that now is not the time to take a chance to gather together even though Easter might tempt them.

“Even though you’re following the stay-at-home order and your relatives are, too, it’s still too risky to gather in groups for the holiday or any other reason for that matter,” Cooper said. “It’s been strange not being in the church building on Sundays and it will be even harder not to be in the pew on Easter Sunday, but it’s the right thing to do if we care about each other.” – Anne Blythe

Feeling down? New helplines available

Mike Sprayberry, director of the state department of emergency management, said two new helplines are available for North Carolinians in search of emotional support and for health care workers.

The Hope for NC helpline is there for people who need assistance coping and maintaining resilience during the pandemic. The free service is available throughout the state and can help connect people to mental health support. The number is 855-587-3463. People will be available around the clock to assist those in need.

Another line is available for health care professionals, first responders and other workers experiencing stress on the frontlines. The Hope for Healers helpline, through which the North Carolina Psychological Foundation is providing around-the-clock support, is 919-226-2002. A licensed mental health professional will follow up with callers. — Anne Blythe

Lawmakers race to wrap up information sessions, start to write bills

House lawmakers at the General Assembly heard hours of presentations Thursday morning as they gathered information for writing bills to address the state’s many needs created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

All of the members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 health care working group were present in virtual form to hear presentations by representatives of the child care industry, EMS workers and advocates for seniors. It was the third such meeting, and only one more informational meeting will take place next Tuesday.

Prior meetings have addressed issues around social distancing and the need for supplemental state dollars for county health departments, the needs of health care providers and hospitals, and the impact on and needs of the state Department of Health and Human Services to address the pandemic.

By next Thursday, the representatives will begin marking up bills: the first one will cover the regulatory and policy changes needed to address the COVID-19 crisis and align North Carolina policies with federal policy changes that have been coming from Congress and multiple federal agencies.

The second bill will be a funding bill that will look to either create matching funds to pull in federal dollars or fill holes that Congress did not.

“We’re going to run out of time, quite frankly, with all the folks who’ve asked us if they could present,” said co-chair Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Winston-Salem). “We’ve had to focus in on where we felt like we would get the maximum value from presentations.”

“It’s overwhelming, all the information that we’ve been getting.”

Lambeth said bill drafting staff would be working overtime on the holiday weekend to get all of the legislative proposals in line.

The full General Assembly is slated to return to Raleigh on April 28, but it is as yet unclear how lawmakers will manage committee meetings, voting and caucusing in small rooms that might not allow for social distancing. – Rose Hoban

Concerns about school software outing transgender students 

Note: This has been updated to include a response from state education officials.

Some of North Carolina’s 1.5 million public school students have found state-required software inadvertently can reveal too much about transgender students’ private information in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

North Carolina’s public schools are required to use PowerSchool, a student information system, but the version used in the state doesn’t differentiate between students’ legal names and genders and their preferred names and gender, according to the Campaign for Southern Equality. Those can be different for transgender students.

The group sent a letter Thursday with more than 300 signatures to N.C. State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson asking for immediate changes to PowerSchool. The current setup opens students up to bullying and also violates privacy policies and laws at the federal, state and local levels as student information housed by PowerSchool is being displayed in online classrooms, discussion forums and web chats.

“Across the state, students are finding out that their classmate Janelle was once named James, that Aaron used to be Emily, that Latisha was Lavon,” the letter to Johnson states.  “It is impossible to describe the social, emotional, and psychological harms that this mass violation of privacy may cause. “

Graham Wilson, a spokesman for the Johnson and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, said education officials are looking to see if they can make changes.

“The State Board of Education’s attorney is reviewing this request for possible solutions that comply with state and federal law and that conform to the agency’s student data infrastructure capabilities,” Wilson said in a written statement Friday. –Sarah Ovaska 

Is your county making the grade in social distancing?

Location data and analytics firm Unacast launched a Social Distancing Scoreboard to provide public health experts, policymakers, academics, community leaders and businesses with data about the behavior of people under stay at home orders. The graphics are meant to reinforce the significance of social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Developed using tracking software on people’s phones, the interactive map shows mobility trends by county and state, and assigns a letter grade based on how well residents maintain social distancing.

Overall, North Carolina ranked as a C-, reflecting widespread movement of people around the state.

Unacast compared the distance traveled prior to COVID-19 to what’s happening now. Areas where the data show at least a 40 percent decrease in average distance traveled received an A, while areas that decreased travel by 10 percent earned an F.

One of the three counties receiving an A in North Carolina, Dare County, was one of the first counties to close its borders and also one of the first to issue a stay-at-home order on March 10. As of April 9, the county has recorded 10 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

See how your county is doing. – Melba Newsome

NOTE: This plug in works best on a desktop browser.

Click on the photo to see the interactive map. Source: UnaCast

 

Mental health moments: Dolly Parton reads

We all need for comfort in these trying times, and American country music icon Dolly Parton is giving her younger fans just that with a bedtime story.

Parton, whose Imagination Library sends books to the homes of millions of children each month,  will read a story each Thursday at 7 p.m. in a live YouTube event on Facebook. Videos are archived for those who might have headed off to bed early.

Parton premiered with the classic Little Engine That Could last week. This Thursday night Parton will read her own Coat of Many Colors, a book based off her hit song about her beloved childhood coat made of rags.

You can watch it here. All ages welcome, the young and young-at-heart.

And for those not aware, every child up to age 5 in North Carolina is eligible to receive a monthly book from Parton’s Imagination Library through state funding and a partnership with SmartStart. Sign up here. -Sarah Ovaska

John Prine performance

The singer/ songwriter John Prine died this week as a result of pneumonia second to a COVID-19 infection.

Prine, a folk icon whose often gritty songs of everyday and blue-collar people, made him beloved to generations of performers and fans. In this video from what appears to be the early 1970s, Prine sings “That’s The Way That The World Goes Round,” a song that kind of fits our current moment. -Rose Hoban

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