Rapper sings about COVID, he's standing behind a microphone, wearing a mask and gloves
Charlotte-based rapper Doug E. Fresh recorded a public service ad about wearing masks and washing hands for Novant Health, as part of the health system's outreach to the African American community. Blacks in Charlotte have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Image: YouTube screengrab

By North Carolina Health News staff

Talks underway about how to open state again

Gov. Roy Cooper offered a glimmer of hope to North Carolinians wondering how much longer the stay-at-home order will be in place.

Cooper and Mandy Cohen, the state secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, stressed that all the restrictions in place over the past month have helped keep the health care systems from being overwhelmed this far into the pandemic.

“What we are doing is working,” Cooper said. “We’re saving lives. Our biggest enemy is complacency. The better we can be at staying home through April, the more likely we are able to ease restrictions.”

“We’re all looking toward a time when we can loosen these restrictions,” Cooper added. “And it will come.”

A team is working with the governor and his administration to develop policies for getting the economy “jumpstarted” while continuing to battle COVID-19.

The stay-at-home order is effective until April 29. Last week, researchers from Duke University, RTI International and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a forecast from a state-specific model that suggested a full lifting of the physical distancing policies could bring a surge of infection so overwhelming that there would not be enough hospital beds by Memorial Day. — Anne Blythe

Pressure to ease restrictions

“We’re considering the most effective ways to modify executive orders to help boost the economy while continuing to prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients,” Cooper said.

As of Monday, 561,000 people had filed for unemployment benefits and more than $66 million had been sent to North Carolinians out of work.

“Over the weekend and after a virtual church service with my family, I had a few moments for quiet reflection,” Cooper said, the day after Easter. “It’s been over a month since North Carolina had our first confirmed positive case of COVID-19.”

North Carolina already had been preparing for any spread of the virus weeks before then. 

“But it is still remarkable to consider everything that has happened in little over a month. We’ve added to our own conversation phrases like personal protective equipment, social distancing and flattening the curve. We’re using video conferencing to hold everything from church services to birthday parties. Parents have become home-school teachers. School teachers have found even more creative and important ways to support their students. But most of all we are staying at home to save lives.” — Anne Blythe

Consults with business and public health

Cooper acknowledged the pressure to ease some restrictions so people who are out of a job and businesses that have had to close down can get money coming in again.

“Right now our team is looking at statistics,” Cooper said, adding that his administration is looking at numbers of deaths, new cases and available hospital beds.

“We’re going to work, we already are working with the business community, people who work in restaurants and bars, our public schools, people who are getting ready to go to summer camp,” Cooper said. “We’re talking to all of those businesses about where they are, what those capacities are. Would it help you if we eased up on a rule a particular way and could you keep a safe business and not transfer the virus, but be able to operate and to earn a profit. Those are the kinds of discussions that are going on right now.

“But as some people want us to completely obliterate these restrictions, it would be a catastrophe,” Cooper added. “The numbers are very clear that these interventions that we’ve entered … those kinds of things are working, but we’re going to take all of those evidence over the next couple of weeks and we’re going to take input from public health experts and businesses to make the kinds of determinations of things we need to do going into May.” — Anne Blythe

Bending that curve

Cohen said that though testing has increased since the first COVID-19 case was reported in the state on March 3, the rate of acceleration of new lab-documented cases has slowed.

“Our doubling time of new lab-documented cases is getting longer and that’s a good thing,” Cohen said. — Anne Blythe

Trump tweets, Cooper responds

President Donald Trump sent out a tweet Monday morning amid the push-and-pull about when to lift stay-at-home orders that have been put in place across the country.

“For the purpose of creating conflict and confusion, some in the Fake News Media are saying that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government,” the president tweeted in a thread Monday morning. “Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect. It is the decision of the President, and for many good reasons. With that being said, the Administration and I are working closely with the Governors, and this will continue. A decision by me, in conjunction with the Governors and input from others, will be made shortly!”

When asked about the president’s words, Cooper said that had not been an issue to this point.

“Thus far, the president has been OK with the governors making these hard calls about protecting the public and issuing these stay-at-home orders,” Cooper responded. “So I would not expect that he would deviate from that, realizing that governors do have this emergency authority under public health.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can continue to issue guidance, Cooper added, and the state would listen to what the president and his team have to say.

“But I would not see them deviating from what they have been doing from the very beginning, is to issue guidance and let governors make the decisions about their own state, ” Cooper said. — Anne Blythe

Pandemic-related prison releases

In the face of a lawsuit and with growing cries to release non-violent offenders from the state’s prisons and jails during this pandemic, state prison officials have begun to evaluate early release for certain, nonviolent inmates who are considered high-risk for COVID-19 complications and scheduled to be released in 2020.

The Department of Public Safety has released six inmates under these new criteria and is considering about 500 more. DPS currently houses 34,042 inmates. 

There’s been concern from criminal justice advocates, inmates and their families that conditions within prisons are not suitable for social distancing and proper hygiene during this pandemic. The fear is that the virus could spread quickly within the facilities and sicken many at once, overloading the local hospital systems. — Taylor Knopf

Storm death amid pandemic

A disruptive band of storms passed over the state on Sunday and Monday amid the disruption to daily life the pandemic has caused for weeks.

The storms left a trail of toppled trees, flash floods, property damage, injury and one death.

“As the governor said, sadly one person has died in these storms,” state emergency management director Mike Sprayberry said. “A Davidson County woman died this morning when a tree fell on her home. Our prayers are with her family and with her husband who suffered minor injuries.”

Nearly a dozen tornado warnings have been issued in the past 24 hours, Sprayberry said shortly after 3 p.m.

The National Weather Service has confirmed the touch-down of a tornado in Alamance County and will investigate possible touchdowns in Anson, Richmond, Onslow, Jones, Craven and several other counties.

Some of the western counties experienced flash flooding, mudslides and the wash-out of some roads. In Watauga and Haywood counties, water rescue crews helped people escape from flooded homes.

Power outages occurred across the state. At the peak, shortly before 9 a.m., some 286,000 customers were without power. By mid-afternoon, there still were some 148,000 power outages.

Sprayberry cautioned those without power not to run generators inside their homes or garages because of the potential for fatal carbon monoxide fumes. He also suggested using flashlights instead of candles for light at night to avoid potential fire risks.

Emergency responders who already were working long hours related to the COVID-19 pandemic also were on the frontlines during and immediately after the storms. — Anne Blythe

Volunteer health corps growing

Despite the storms, pandemic-related planning continued at the Emergency Operations Center. They continue to try to round up personal protective equipment as well as distribute what supplies they have in a strategic fashion, Sprayberry said.

Nearly 1,200 medical professional volunteers have been screened and are ready to work if they’re needed to support health care systems across the state, according to Sprayberry. More than 1,000 people are still going through the screening process, he added. — Anne Blythe

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Monday morning:

  • 86 people total in North Carolina have died of COVID-19.
  • 4,816 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 313 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 63,000 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 (38 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 25 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
  • 45 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 2,420 ventilators in hospitals across the state, and 597 ventilators in use, not just for COVID-19 cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

Novant Health teams with recording artists on coronavirus outreach

Coronavirus messaging has gotten a musical makeover in a collaboration between Novant Health and two African American artists, the health system said on Monday. 

The artists, beat-boxing legend Doug E. Fresh and Grammy-award winning artist Anthony Hamilton, released videos with songs encouraging people to stay home, wear face masks and more. 

“What was true before COVID-19 is true now: we have real health disparities in our black communities. We see the trend and we’re taking action,” said Vicky Free, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Novant Health. “It’s vital all of our communities know how to stay healthy, and leveraging trusted voices help bring increased relevance and attention. Doug and Anthony see what’s happening and are both committed to helping our community flatten the curve. We are thrilled their voices are amplifying the messages everyone needs to hear.”

Doug E. Fresh released a play on his familiar “6 minutes” rap line with a social distancing-themed video called “6 ft.”

YouTube video

Anthony Hamilton, a Grammy award winner from Charlotte, has also recorded a video about social distancing, encouraging people to “be cool, stay home, that’s the rule.”

YouTube video

Both artists will record new messages in the future, Novant Health said in the press release, but until then fans are encouraged to join the campaign by tagging @NovantHealth on social media to show how fans practice social distancing. -Liora Engel-Smith

New Hanover County officials reopen tennis courts, keep beaches closed

After New Hanover County reported its first death this weekend, officials have extended the county’s stay-at-home measures by more than two weeks. 

But they’ve rolled back some restrictions, allowing tennis and pickleball courts in the county to be open again. The amended order, which goes into effect this evening, also reopened public and private marinas, docks and public boat ramps. Beaches, however, will remain closed

Monday’s order also allows for stores with non-essential items, such as clothes and home goods, to remain open, though dressing rooms will not reopen. Auto and boat dealerships will be allowed to operate, but only if they can comply with social distancing measures. The loosening of restrictions in New Hanover County comes as officials across the nation deal with the impact of the stay-at-home orders on the economy coupled with increasing pressure to lift these policies-Liora Engel-Smith

The latest data from Mecklenburg is a mixed-bag

More than 30 days into a county-wide emergency declaration, the most recent COVID-19 data from Mecklenburg County show the racial disparity of who contracts the disease continues to grow. As of Friday, African Americans make up 50 percent of the 913 cases reported, while they make up only 33 percent of the population. 

The county also reported that people aged 20-59 account for about 72 percent of cases and two of the cases were in children less than a year old. Twenty percent of those who tested positive required hospitalization and residents older than 60 accounted for 46 percent of hospitalizations. Nearly 50 percent of all confirmed cases have been released from isolation.

The virus-related death toll held steady at 12 deaths for the second day in a row, possibly an indication of better news to come. — Melba Newsome

Mental health moment: Red Sox organist performs daily

Remember the crack of a baseball bat, the “hey, batta, batta swing” and the umpire with his arms stretched out yelling: “Safe?”

Maybe you’re thinking right about now how nice it would be to discover some hidden superpower and be able to knock this COVID-19 out of the ballpark far, far away.

Then we could all be safely out and about again, hearing some of the iconic sounds of spring silenced during this pandemic.

Until state and national public health leaders call “safe” and the 2020 baseball season can go back into full — or at least partial— swing, Red Sox organist Josh Kantor is offering his own version of the seventh-inning stretch and taking his growing virtual audience out to the ballpark daily. On Sunday, he played a little bit of “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” and closed out with a 12-minute version of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.”

Tune in daily at 3 p.m. for the Facebook livestream show. Kantor and his wife the Rev. Mary Eaton, who sometimes breaks out with a dance move or two, take requests, perform and ask only one thing: If you have the means and enjoy the show, give a donation to your local food bank. 

 Find your local food bank here. Here’s how the Feeding America food bank network is responding to coronavirus. — Anne Blythe

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