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More testing, more tracing, even more attention to COVID-19 trends

Gov. Roy Cooper offered a more detailed look at what needs to happen when North Carolina begins to ease restrictions in place now to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed with patients infected with COVID-19.

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Dive deeper: During coronavirus pandemic, recovery support moves online
Four things North Carolina’s coronavirus data tells us — and what it doesn’t.

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He outlined a three-part plan that includes wider-spread testing for the coronavirus for which no vaccine or treatment is available, beefing up the contact tracing done after a person gets a positive test result to try to prevent further spread, as well as watching trends in the weeks and months ahead.

“We want to get back to work, while at that same time preventing that spike in our hospitals with COVID-19 patients,” Cooper said.

The state will need more supplies and lab capacity to do more diagnostic testing and reliable antibody testing, he said, and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, is bringing together partners from the public and private sector to coordinate the effort.

“Our new normal relies on an increase in testing capabilities to isolate and track new cases of COVID-19,” Cooper said.

Cohen is setting up a testing surge work group with leaders from the public and private sectors to develop a plan to increase testing capacity, expand testing sites and options, and address those supply challenges.

“Personal protective equipment, the gowns, the masks, the gloves continue to be a limiting factor,” Cohen said. “Those shortages of protective equipment, those gowns and masks, means we must be judicious in how we use these resources and that also means that has to be available for our health care workers who care for those with COVID-19.” — Anne Blythe

Need more contact tracers

To carry out this effort, though, Cooper and Cohen said the public health workforce will have to be boosted so cases can be better traced and tracked.

“Contact tracing can be effective in containing new outbreaks, but it requires a lot of people and a lot of legwork,” Cooper said. “When a new case pops up, the tracing efforts will work to identify people who’ve been in contact so that they can get tested and take the right precautions.”

Cohen said the state currently has some 250 public health workers trained to do tracing work, but many more would be needed during the weeks and months ahead.

“Tracing is something we do well here in North Carolina,” Cohen said. “Tracing is when you do that detective work to find all the people and places someone may have been when they were infectious with the disease.”

The county public health departments do much of that work now in conjunction with the state health department.

“Going forward, it will take a much larger team to aggressively trace the contacts of everyone who tests positive for COVID-19,” Cohen said. “As the governor said, we’re working with partners to ramp up staffing and explore digital tracing technology options.”

All the  information will help public health officials understand the virus trends as the state begins to open businesses, schools and more. — Anne Blythe

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Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday morning:

  • 117 people total in North Carolina have died of COVID-19.
  • 5,123 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 431 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.
  • Close to 68,000 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 26 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state.
  • 46 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,073 ventilators in hospitals across the state, and 693 ventilators in use, not just for COVID-19 cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital. [/symple_box]

Sporting events and concerts with empty seats?

“We know we must continue to protect our state, especially the most vulnerable and high-risk people even after we ease certain restrictions,” Cooper said. “Until we have a vaccine or effective and available treatment, these people still are uniquely at risk. In our new normal, we will still have to decrease the risk of exposure for older people and those with underlying health conditions and continue strong precautions for those in nursing homes and other congregate living settings.”

In what Cooper calls the “new normal,” North Carolinians could see more people wearing masks and having their temperature checked.

“A restaurant you may go into may have tables that are only partially full,” Cooper said. “The only sporting events or concerts that you may be able to watch for a while will have no in-person crowds.

“A new normal can get us back to work, back to school and back to play, but in a new way for a while.”

Experts have told the state, he added, “it would be dangerous to lift our restrictions all at once.” — Anne Blythe

No off-on switch for ‘new normal’

Cooper suggested thinking about the next phase less like turning on a light switch.

“Think about it more as a dimmer switch, which can be adjusted incrementally,” Cooper said. “As we slowly bring the lights back up, we have to monitor for troubling signs of a spike in cases that could overwhelm our hospitals and risk lives.”

Cooper acknowledged how quickly the state went from the hustle and bustle of just two months ago to the stay-at-home mode that has cost hundreds of thousands of people their jobs and businesses.

“It’s important to understand that undoing those changes won’t happen as fast,” Cooper said.

“To protect our health and long-term economic prosperity, we have to act with care rather than haste. Like everybody else, I’m anxious to get North Carolina back to normal. But we have to be realistic for a while. There will be a new normal,” he said. “As we adjust, I know that North Carolinians will continue to look out for one another as we work together to recover our economy and beat this virus — and we will beat this virus.” — Anne Blythe

Protests and First Amendment

During the pandemic, abortion protesters and a group gathered outside the state Legislative Building on Tuesday calling for the governor to lift the stay-at-home order have raised questions about whether people can be arrested for exercising First Amendment rights.

Cooper addressed several questions about that on Wednesday.

“The executive orders that I’ve entered do not interfere with people’s constitutional rights to express themselves,” Cooper said. “However they do deal with people with unlawful mass gatherings and people who are disobeying those orders because they are put there in order to protect the people of North Carolina, to protect people from transferring this virus from one person to the next.

“Those executive orders are there for public safety,” Cooper continued, “and we expect people to obey those orders wherever they are or whatever they are doing.” — Anne Blythe

General Assembly funds help kickstart COVID study 

One hundred thousand dollars from a N.C. General Assembly discretionary fund has been released to help start a study aimed at determining how many people in North Carolina may have already been infected with the novel coronavirus that has upended society and has North Carolinians staying at home.

In a telephone press conference Wednesday morning, Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) touted the new study as “a worthy investment, just to get the data to help inform decisions.”

The study, led by Wake Forest Baptist Health physician and researcher John Sanders, will send volunteers who are patients at Wake Forest and at Atrium Health in Charlotte a home test kit. That kit will be used not to see if people have COVID-19 currently, but if their blood has antibodies that indicate they may have had the disease in the past.

“It’s a plastic kit that you put a sample on, in this case a drop of blood, and in a few minutes you get a few lines that tell you whether you’ve got antibodies, or not,” Sanders said.

Currently, the FDA hasn’t approved this sort of antibody test yet, but many companies are making such tests and they’re being reviewed at the agency.

“Part of the way you validate the use of the tests, is to use them and compare them to other standards,” Sanders said.

The home kit samples will be linked to patients’ electronic medical records and will be put up against  additional blood sampling that the researchers will use to compare to the results patients get from the home test. On top of that, the volunteer subjects will enter their symptoms into a database accessible through their smartphones to track if they’ve currently got the disease, which for many people can be asymptomatic.

The study comes at a time when there’s an increased call for relaxation of the strict social distancing rules that Gov. Roy Cooper and governors around the country have enacted to retard the spread of COVID-19. Berger’s office has released several documents calling for more testing to drive decision-making.

Sanders told reporters that the final study would likely cost tens of millions of dollars when it’s brought up to scale. He’s looking for funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and others to complete the research. — Rose Hoban

NC Health News will have fuller coverage of this breaking story tomorrow morning. 

County ABC boards buy back liquor from bars and restaurants

Some restaurants and bars might be able to tap a new revenue stream during the pandemic by selling back some of their unused alcohol to local Alcohol Beverage Control boards.

The Mecklenburg County Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) board approved a buyback program on Tuesday for businesses in Charlotte and the wider county area. The buyback is an opportunity for a one-time return of up to 100 bottles of liquor during the coming month that are no more than $3,000 in retail value.

“Our Board is committed to doing their part by joining in support of state and local relief and recovery efforts in response to this unprecedented economic disruption to our valued customers’ businesses,” Jason Hughes, the CEO, said in a statement.

The bottles had to be purchased from the local board between Jan. 1 and March 17, according to a news release outlining the parameters.

The board’s permitted mixed beverage customers should call  Store #19 at 704-731-5828 to set up an appointment for returning inventory. Returns will only be accepted at the facility at 3333 N. Tryon St., Charlotte.

The Wake County ABC board approved a similar program on April 3. It went into effect on April 6 and ends on April 30. — Anne Blythe

Charlotte mobile testing sites target African Americans

Atrium Health and Novant Health rolled out mobile COVID-19 at four testing sites on Charlotte’s west and east sides with the intent of reaching more African Americans who have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic.

Community members do not need an appointment to receive screening for COVID-19 symptoms at any location site. Before being tested, everyone questioned to determine if they have COVID-19 symptoms which include a fever, cough and shortness of breath. They are swabbed for the virus if they report any symptoms and receive results in as little as 24 hours. Those who test positive are asked what resources they need to isolate at home.

African Americans account for half the coronavirus cases and deaths in Mecklenburg County, despite being just one-third of the population. Kinneil Coltman, an Atrium senior vice president who oversees the mobile testing program, said the actual number of cases in the community is likely even higher because African Americans may be under-tested. — Melba Newsome

Mental health moment – NC Zoo

The N.C. Zoo is giving people young and old a peek into how the animals are faring at the Asheboro-based zoo.

The zoo put up a Virtual Visit guide with lessons and information, and a Zoo EDventure Online series will take place from 10 to 10:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday on the zoo’s Facebook page. There will be close-ups of animals and chances to interact directly with staff.

There’s plenty of other entertainment to be had, including an Easter egg hunt staff set up for animals (Don’t worry, the eggs weren’t plastic but papier-mâche and stuffed with each animal’s favorite treats.). Watch here as animals including monkeys, turtles and even polar bears get in on the egg hunt! – Sarah Ovaska 

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