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By North Carolina Health News staff

NC prisoner dies after 8-day hospitalization

A prisoner from Pender Correctional Institution died from COVID-19, according to state prison officials.

The man, who was in his 50s with underlying health issues, exhibited symptoms of a viral infection on April 8, according to a news release from the state Department of Public Safety. Test results showing he had COVID-19 were returned two days later.

He died on April 21, after eight days of hospitalization.

“Any death is a tragedy, and we must continue our efforts to do all we can to try and flatten the curve of COVID-19 in prisons,” Todd Ishee, Commissioner of Prisons, said in a statement. “The health and safety of the staff and the men and women in our custody is of paramount importance.”

Prison leaders declined to identify the inmate, saying prison records are confidential.

Civil rights and disability rights advocates have filed several court requests, seeking the release of particularly vulnerable prisoners during the pandemic. After the state Supreme Court rejected an emergency petition, the groups filed the lawsuit again, this time in Wake County Superior Court.

Prison officials have started to review whether certain prisoners serving time for non-violent crimes can be released early and serve the remainder of their sentences outside prison, under the supervision of probation and parole officers. — Anne Blythe

Statewide testing of correctional officers

Todd Ishee, Commissioner of Prisons, told reporters that all correctional officers will be tested statewide for COVID-19.

The decision follows an outbreak at Neuse Correctional Institution, where more than half of the 700 prisoners housed there have tested positive for the virus.

Only two percent of the men housed there who have tested positive are showing symptoms, Ishee said.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity for our staff to be tested,” Ishee said. “That is something that is on the minds and hearts of our staff.”

The prisons have yet to call for testing of all prisoners.

“As for mass testing of our offender population elsewhere, we are monitoring that every day,” Ishee said. “We are in consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services and our CDC guidelines every day. So we’re going to kind of approach that as an individualized decision guided by our team of health care experts.”

He said the command team was not currently recommending any further mass testing.

“However, we are doing testing on a daily basis for offenders that are exhibiting some type of symptom that could be related to the COVID-19 virus,” he said.  — Anne Blythe

Input on social distancing for sports, concerts, businesses

In preparation for announcements later this week about what happens after Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order expires on April 29, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, gave a peek into what has been going on behind the scenes.

Several work groups have been meeting to discuss what might happen with large gatherings, businesses and restaurants if social distancing restrictions are eased.

Donna Julian, the Charlotte Hornets executive vice president and arena general manager, is chair of the group discussing large gatherings. Representatives from Live Nation, the parent company of Ticketmaster and StubHub, the faith community, as well as the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, also are part of the group.

A group focused on businesses is led by Gary Salamido, president of the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, a powerful voice for the business community. That group includes members from the North Carolina Retail Association, Biltmore Estates and Carolina Cat, a source for construction equipment.

Restaurant collaboration is another focus, too.

“All of these groups are discussing mitigation strategies, such as optimizing social distancing of employees and consumers and congregants, screening of employees for symptoms and combating misinformation about the virus while also taking into account the realities faced by different venues and different businesses,” Cohen said.

The work groups are learning from businesses that already have stepped up to implement measures designed to act as barriers to virus spread.— Anne Blythe

Should NC take regional or statewide approach?

As some counties lobby for a county-by-county or regional approach to easing social distancing restrictions, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, talked about some of the challenges.

“We know that people work in one county and live in another,” Cohen said. “We were looking at some commuting data from Mecklenburg County, for example. The folks that work in Mecklenburg County live in 32 surrounding counties, so trying to think about a county-by-county approach is really challenging.”

At some point, Cohen said, a regional approach could be possible, but it has to be driven by data-informed policy, information her teams are trying to gather now.

“Right now, I would say North Carolina needs to pull together as a state,” Cohen said. “We know that we have urban centers throughout our state in terms of where our geography is, which is different from some states, who might just have one urban center and the rest rural. We sort of have a different geography.”

North Carolina needs to have more testing and tracing ability so trends can be studied to figure out whether there might be urban-rural approaches as restrictions are eased. — Anne Blythe

Testing decline amid calls for ramping up

Speaking of testing, WRAL reporter Travis Fain and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, both noticed that testing across the state has taken a downward trend in the past week and a half.

“We are seeing those same trends, too,” Cohen said in response to a question.

Earlier this week, the state sent out new guidance to providers and clinicians to make sure they were aware that changes have been made to the way they can order tests.

“We know we are in a better place in terms of lab testing capacity, in terms of the lab throughput, but also in terms of PPE and supplies,” Cohen said.

The state wants clinicians and providers to know that if anyone presents with fever and cough, they should use their judgment about whether to order tests.

Earlier in the pandemic, the state had a testing supply shortage and discouraged testing for people suspected of having mild cases of COVID-19. Since then, private labs and academic partners have come on line with more testing ability, with faster turnaround times.

At the State Public Health Lab, testing priorities are for health care workers and more vulnerable populations such as those in nursing homes. According to DHHS, the state lab has the capacity for about 400 tests per day right now.

There was an uptick in tests over the past two days, Cohen said.

An effort is underway to set up testing sites that might be more convenient to and trusted by African American communities and other people of color who have been hit disproportionately by the virus.

One of the labs at the State Public Health Lab which opened in early 2013. This week, DHHS officials said the lab has supplies to run about 400 COVID-19 tests per day. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“We want to make sure we have a better understanding of the disease and to make sure that all our communities have access to testing all throughout North Carolina,” Cohen said. “So that’s been a big focus for us this week. …We’re going to continue to push on the gas here.

“We want to see that trend go up,” Cohen added. “That’s part of our work over the next number of weeks, so we’re working with private and public partners to make that possible.”

Cohen added that the decline could be tied to unequal distribution of tests. In certain parts of the state, there is a lot of capacity for testing, while some parts are not set up to do as large a scale as proposed, she said. Cohen said she hopes to see changes over the next couple of days.

— Anne Blythe

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday morning:

  • 242 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 7,220 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 434 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people with coronavirus 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 90,000 tests have been completed thus far, though not all labs report their negative results to the state, so the actual number of completed coronavirus tests is likely higher.
  • Most of the cases (39 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 25 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 84 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 67 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,202 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 679 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

Western NC collaboration churns out masks

A group of textile manufacturers and nonprofits, led by the Morganton-based Carolina Textile District, have shifted their manufacturing to sewing cloth masks amid the coronavirus pandemic. The initiative, which began at the end of March, has dozens of participating organizations.

“We’ve organized these companies for the past 10 years and are ready for this.” said textile district founder Molly Hemstreet in a press release. “We are working to scale quickly over the next week to be able to meet the incredible need and demand.”

By next week, a spokesperson said, the collaboration will produce 10,000 masks per week, with the goal of eventually scaling up to 30,000 masks per week. The textile district is a collection of 80 cut-and-sew factories in western North Carolina.

The district staged a 20,000-square-foot facility at a Morganton-based furniture company for the work and distribution, Carolina Textile District said in its press release. The facility also stores fabrics and other mask supplies. – Liora Engel-Smith

Cumberland County food-distribution worker tests positive for COVID-19

Cumberland County Public Health is conducting a contact tracing investigation after a person who worked at a meal-distribution site at Douglas Byrd Middle School tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Out of an abundance of caution, Cumberland County Schools is going to close the site for 14 days,” the county announced in a news release.

The site was set up for drive-thru distribution only, and health officials say the exposure risk is low to anyone coming through the line because close contact was limited to less than 10 minutes, the county said in the release. The person infected was wearing gloves and a mask during the food distribution.

“I am grateful to all of our Child Nutrition staff and volunteers for working hard to provide meals for our students,” schools Superintendent Marvin Connelly Jr., said in the release.

“Our thoughts are with the individual, and we are hopeful for a full recovery. We will continue to follow the guidance of local health officials and take the necessary precautions to keep our staff, volunteers and families safe.”

The meal sites at other school and community locations will continue to operate. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/mealpickup. – Greg Barnes

$2 million to support behavioral health during COVID-19

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services received a $2 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to support North Carolinians struggling with mental and behavioral health issues during the coronavirus pandemic.

This is an exceedingly stressful time. Life has been turned upside down. People have lost jobs or work. Kids are home from school. Some are hungry. And COVID-19 is a scary virus. Some have it and others are mourning the loss of loved ones to COVID-19 complications.

The grant money will strengthen the state’s behavioral health resources in three main areas, according to a NCDHHS press release.

Part of it will go toward a new initiative called the Hope4Healers helpline (919-226-2002), started by NCDHHS and the NC Psychological Foundation. This is a telehealth resource specifically for health care workers and their families to help them cope with all the stressors they face on the front lines of this pandemic. Many are making huge sacrifices to care for patients right now.

The grant money will also go toward supporting people in opioid treatment programs. More than half of the people in these programs are self-pay, and loss of income during the pandemic is a barrier to continuing treatment, according to the NCDHHS release.

Finally, some of the grant funding will be used to support people with substance use disorders or other mental health challenges transitioning from jails and prisons into the community. — Taylor Knopf

Feeding seniors in need in Edgecombe and Nash counties

When Gov. Roy Cooper set crowd control restrictions in mid-March, Keisha Spivey, executive director of the nonprofit Ripple Effects, knew she had to cancel the gala she had planned that following weekend. That created a problem for the Rocky Mount organization: the food they had already purchased for the event would go uneaten.

From that misfortune grew an idea: the food should go for people in need. Spivey, whose organization normally serves at-risk and homeless people, knew some low-income seniors in Edgecombe and Nash counties were scrambling to feed themselves amidst the new coronavirus restrictions. So she took the food for the 300-person gala, solicited donations from a local farm, and packed it all into grocery bags, to be delivered to low-income seniors.

Ripple Effects volunteers pack food for low-income seniors in Nash and Edgecombe Counties. Many low-income seniors told the organization that they have struggled to feed themselves during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit: Ripple Effects.

That first week, they delivered food to about 55 homebound seniors. Week by week, the donations grew, and so did the seniors in need. Last week, she said, volunteer drivers brought food to more than a 100 people. Each bag contains food that’ll last seniors a week: fruits, vegetables, beans, rice. Some weeks, they include bread products. Bags also have other necessities: toilet paper one week, laundry detergent another week. Each bag also contains food for the soul, Spivey said, such as a poem, a prayer or art from local children.

Spivey said volunteers are mindful of coronavirus restrictions and practice social distancing: no more than 10 volunteers at a time are in the same room when food bags are packed. Masked drivers remain in their cars when food is delivered to their trunks and they leave bags for seniors at the door after calling to alert them the delivery has arrived. Some seniors are unable to lift the bag on their own, in which case, masked and gloved drivers carry the food into their house.

While Spivey thought the program, which she dubbed Boots on the Ground, would run for eight weeks, the protracted coronavirus crisis has made it clear that seniors would need food longer.

She plans to “run this consistently and excellently until the end of the summer,” she said. “And we’ll see what happens from there, but that’s where we are.” — Liora Engel-Smith

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