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By NC Health News Staff

NC schools closed through school year, remote learning to continue

All those parents out there struggling to teach fifth grade math to their school-age children will be in the same boat through the end of the current school year.

Gov. Roy Cooper has extended his order banning in-person classes through then.

“All of us have been impacted by COVID-19 in some way,” Cooper said. “Our children and their parents have had some of the most abrupt disruptions to their lives and routines. Overnight, beloved teachers they saw in real life are now seen only on a computer screen. Friends are distant and ball fields are empty. Concert halls are quiet and the hum of hallways has turned to silence.”

“It’s such a confusing time to be a child,” Cooper added. “And it’s a hard time to be a parent, especially a working parent.”

As the remote learning continues in the weeks ahead, Cooper acknowledged challenges for some students where broadband access is limited, as well as difficulties for some who don’t have computers, smartphones or important technology connections at home.

The governor announced a partnership with AT&T, which will provide 100 hotspots in underserved areas. Duke Energy Foundation has agreed to provide 80 sites.

Mark Johnson, superintendent of the state’s K-12 public schools, said plans are being made for how to open schools in August amid the pandemic.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen said her public health team is working with school leaders to establish what classes might look like then, as well as offering guidance for summer camps and other groups that use school buildings and grounds.

“Rest assured, as the governor mentioned, we will operate our schools differently in the next school year, because the safety and security of your child and your child’s teacher, in our eyes, demands nothing less,” said Eric Davis, chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Education.

“For centuries North Carolina has been home to seven majestic lighthouses, symbols of our strength, hope for the weary, and beacons of safe harbor for those in rough waters. Like these mighty lighthouses, we will continue to stand our ground with an unwavering commitment to ensure that your child’s school and every school endures the challenges before us and emerges from this pandemic stronger, more resilient and more effective in educating your child and every child in our great state.” —Anne Blythe

Quote of the day: “Everyone should know that Teacher Appreciation Day this year is always in the first week of May, this year happens to fall on May 5, that is Cinco de Mayo,” said NC State School Superintendent Mark Johnson, during a meeting of Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID Task Force on Friday morning. “There is a certain type of case of Corona, that the grocery stores are happy to stock and I’m sure every teacher in the state would be happy to get a case of that from parents across the state.”

Governor releases $1.4 billion coronavirus spending plan

Gov. Roy Cooper released his proposal for spending the $1.4 billion coming to the state to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic through the federal coronavirus relief bill.

The proposal comes out four days before the General Assembly, the keeper of the state pursestrings, is scheduled to convene.

“This won’t be the last request that we make,” Cooper said. “The budget package is intended to fund immediate needs in three main areas. Public health and safety, continuity of operations for education and other state government services, and assistance to small business and local governments. I’m recommending a strong investment to respond to this unprecedented crisis.

“We know people are hurting,” Cooper added. “Businesses are struggling, and governments are facing severe shortages because of this virus. That’s why we have to act now to get resources distributed in a smart and efficient way.”

Included in the proposal are:

  • $313 million for immediate public health and safety;
  • $740.4 million for education and state government services; and
  • $375 million for small business and local government assistance.

The breakdown includes:

  • $300 million for transportation operations;
  • $300 million for local government assistance;
  • $243 million for K-12 education;
  • $80 million for state government operations;
  • $78 million for school nutrition programs to help children who rely on schools for healthy meals;
  • $77.4 million for higher education
  • $75 million to help ramp up testing and tracing the virus, as well as for the purchase of personal protective equipment;
  • $75 million to help support for rural and underserved communities;
  • $75 million for a Golden Leaf Foundation program to offer interest-free grants of up to $50,000 for small businesses;
  • $40 million for additional Medicaid costs;
  • $25 million for food, safety, shelter and child care; and
  • $20 million for public health, mental health and crisis services.— Anne Blythe

No veto override vote this session

Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican leaders at the helm of the General Assembly had a stand-off over the budget last year, resulting in a series of mini-budgets to keep state government going without resolving disputes over teacher pay and Medicaid expansion.

Cooper vetoed the General Assembly spending plan, and there has yet to be a vote in both chambers to determine whether an override would be approved.

“Those who have followed my past budget recommendations know that the proposal does not contain everything that I want,” Cooper said of his plan for the $1.4 billion from the coronavirus relief bill. “But I present it after consultation with General Assembly members in both parties, and in the spirit of consensus and compromise.”

State Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, issued a statement on Friday saying the Senate would not take a vote on whether to override Cooper’s veto of the two-year spending plan that caused the stalemate last year. The House, in a meeting with many Democrats absent, has voted to override the veto, but the Senate has not voted on the matter.

“When we come back into session next week our focus will be on providing relief for North Carolina citizens suffering because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Berger said in a statement. “Our state’s financial outlook is in a vastly different place than it was before this pandemic hit. Because of that, we will not be reconsidering the veto of the state budget this year.”

Berger cautioned about austere times ahead.

“We’re staring down a multi-billion dollar revenue shortfall, which negatively impacts our ability to fund the vetoed budget,” Berger said. “In order to ensure that we can continue to operate basic government services into the next fiscal year, it’s more prudent to keep operating on the certified budget.”

Additionally, Senate budget writers sent a letter to Cooper asking him to instruct executive branch agencies — such as the state departments of Health and Human Services, Public Safety, and Commerce, which oversees the division reviewing unemployment claims, to find a one percent savings in their budget, to provide a $250 million cushion for state spending in the fiscal year that begins on July 1. — Anne Blythe

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Friday morning:

  • 269 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 8,052 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 477 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 100,000 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 (40 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 24 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 85 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 73 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,233 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 699 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

House health-care work group signs on some of NC aging coalition’s priorities 

A health care working group of the state General Assembly is recommending temporary, targeted coverage under Medicaid for people who have been touched by coronavirus and who earn up to 200 percent  of the federal poverty level, members of the North Carolina Coalition on Aging heard Friday.

In light of the unprecedented public expense caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the House COVID-19 Health Care Working Group also recommends that the state provide $50 million for personal protective equipment and other supplies, plus $25 million for testing, tracking and contact-tracing the disease.

At a monthly meeting of the North Carolina Council on Aging on Friday, officials told members how legislators greeted the nonprofit’s recent proposals for aging-related spending in the budget to be completed during the short session to convene April 28. The temporary increase in Medicaid could help address issues including low-end staffing in many facilities.

In addition to the two chunks totaling $75 million, legislators said they would push for $25 million for the Department of Health and Human Services to respond to coronavirus-related food, shelter, child care and safety. A NCCOA request for $5 million for the perennially underfunded NC Adult Protective Services agency was folded into this packet of proposed money.

The health care working group said the legislature should ask the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to pay for audio-only health care communication, over telephone with no visual element as in telemedicine. Also recommended, $25 million for facilities that receive state-county special assistance, amounting to $1,325 per resident between March 10 and July 30. These centers include assisted living facilities and typically provide room and board to low-income people on Medicaid.

The working group also recommended spending $40 million for shortfalls in Medicaid including increased costs in long-term care, nearly insolvent providers, and COVID-19 testing and treatment. — Thomas Goldsmith

Do not ingest or inject disinfectants

Mark McClellan, director of the Duke-Margolis Center For Health Policy and a former federal Food and Drug Administration commissioner, weighed in on President Donald Trump’s suggestion that physicians might want to consider ultraviolet light therapy or even injection of disinfectant to treat COVID-19.

Trump posed the possibility at a news conference on Thursday. In a webinar with reporters on Friday, McClellan quickly discounted such a notion.

“That’s definitely not a good idea,” McClellan said. “People really need to understand that disinfection is very important for surfaces, for things that they may come into contact with. There are very effective disinfectants for killing the virus and that is a critical part of reopening.”

In a 30-minute discussion, McClellan suggested that the “new normal” would look very different from the “old normal” with phased reopening of businesses, restaurants, movie theaters and bars with fewer people inside them spaced farther apart and possible pauses or steps backward from time to time.

Disinfectants will play a large role in keeping businesses and common surfaces clean through the pandemic, McClellan said.

On a day when #Lysol and #PresidentLysol were trending on social media after the president’s comments, RB, the parent company of Lysol and Detol, put out a statement to remind all that their products should not be ingested.

“[W]e must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route),” the company warning says. “As with all products, our disinfectant and hygiene products should only be used as intended and in line with usage guidelines. Please read the label and safety information.”

Trump attempted to dial back on Friday the take on what he said Thursday. At a press briefing, he said he was just asking a sarcastic question to reporters, though he was looking at his health experts when he posed the questions.

To tamp down any confusion, McClellan urged the public to listen to Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, the medical experts on Trump’s COVID-19 task force.

“Ingesting disinfectants, or anything like that, it is still poisonous, it’s not a good idea for the treatments,” McClellan said. “It’s important for people to listen to the public health authorities, the people like Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, who are supporting these innovative programs and trying to accelerate them to make safe and effective treatments available. Disinfection is important but not for ingestion or for improving your outcome if you have or are at risk for COVID-19. ”

McClellan echoed what many have been saying about the importance of ramping up testing and contact tracing in the coming months, in a large part because there has been a lot of viral transmission from asymptomatic people.

“We don’t know if it’s just 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent, but it is a lot and it is a fundamental feature that we need to address in doing containment from here on out,” McClellan said.  “That is why all of these distancing steps are so important.

“I was FDA commissioner during the SARS outbreak, and testing and tracing and contacts was much easier then because when people were symptomatic, or when people were able to spread the virus, they were very symptomatic, they were very sick, so that made identification of cases much easier, and containment much easier,” he added.

“Here, that’s not at all necessarily the case. So it’s very important for people even with mild symptoms, fever over a 104, sore throat, dry cough to stay home, workers to stay home and to get tested to see if this is COVID-19 or not and to be able to initiate the contact tracing. That’s also why testing of people who don’t have symptoms in high risk settings is also important.” — Anne Blythe

VA officials warn sleep apnea patients about using their breathing machines if infected

Health officials from the Durham Veterans Affairs Hospital sent out a warning today to their patients who use continuous or bilevel positive airway pressure machines, otherwise known as CPAP or BPAP. The machines are commonly used for people who have sleep apnea, a condition where a person stops breathing for short periods of time during sleep, disrupting their rest.

The officials warn that if a person using a CPAP or BPAP machine contracts the COVID-19, use of the machine, which forces air into a users nose, could “dispense air particles that could infect other members of your household,” and suggest that if a veteran becomes infected to not use their machine.

Dr. Raj Dasgupta answers questions about COVID-19 and sleep submitted by the public to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

In a press release, VA officials suggest that veterans who are diagnosed with COVID-19 avoid the use of alcohol and sedatives, sleep in a separate room from family members and follow other infection guidelines such as frequent handwashing to prevent spread of the disease. – Rose Hoban

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