By North Carolina Health News staff
Kumbaya pandemic politics
The COVID-19 pandemic has swept so much abnormality through this state that North Carolinians could be forgiven if they failed to do a few extra blinks of astonishment when Gov. Roy Cooper signed a $1.5 billion relief pandemic package into law midday.
The Republican House and Senate leaders, who only several months ago could not find enough common ground on policy with the executive branch to push through a $24 billion state budget, were there at the side of the Democratic governor as he signed two bills passed by the legislature over the weekend, making them law.
Phil Berger, the Eden Republican leading the Senate, and Tim Moore, the Cleveland County Republican, at the head of the House, led their legislative chambers to unanimous votes on two bills that change policies and allocate federal funding sent to North Carolina for mounting pandemic-related costs.
“This is a time that North Carolina truly has come together to fight this disease,” Cooper said. “These two laws were passed unanimously. Every Democrat and every Republican supported them. I appreciate these leaders reaching consensus with each other and our office to move quickly so that we can test and trace this disease while we also get relief to people and businesses that need it.”
The package includes:
- $125 million for small business loans to be administered through the Golden LEAF Foundation;
- $95 million for hospitals, many of which have taken financial hits by stopping elective surgeries that help fill their coffers;
- $85 million for vaccine development, antibody testing, community testing and related research at Campbell University, Duke University, East Carolina University, UNC-Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University;
- $75 million for school nutrition programs;
- $70 million for summer learning programs;
- $50 million in health support for underserved rural and African American communities hit hard during the pandemic;
- $50 million for personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies;
- $30 million for local schools to purchase computers and other technical devices necessary for the online learning in place since the halt of in-person classes;
- $20 million for the county health departments and State Laboratory of Public Health;
- $9 million for broadband in rural areas with spotty WiFi; and
- $6 million for food banks.
“North Carolinians have come together, and what you have seen is the leadership in the General Assembly and all members of the General Assembly together with the governor and various executive branch agencies come together as well,” said Berger, whose Senate initially pushed for a $1.2 billion plan. “I believe this bill gets us on the right path and I am looking forward to continue to work, governor, with you, and with my colleagues in the General Assembly.”
In legislative sessions of recent years, it has been the House that typically moves closer to Senate plans during compromise sessions. The four-day session last week that closed on Saturday ended the opposite way with the Senate moving closer to the House’s initial $1.6 billion spending plan.
A House plan would have expanded Medicaid eligibility temporarily to some low-income North Carolinians eligible unable to get the benefits in this state because of a long-standing political battle over the expansion program. The Senate did not agree to that temporary relief, with some lawmakers contending that other federal aid would cover COVID-related treatment.
During the legislative compromise session last week, the House did not agree to a provision proposed by the Senate to increase the weekly state unemployment benefit to $400, a $50 increase over the current rate, once federal aid is exhausted. The number of claims filed for unemployment benefits topped one million over the weekend.
The legislative leaders, including Sen. Dan Blue and Rep. Darren Jackson, both Wake County Democrats, and Cooper all agreed that more pandemic-related funding would be needed in the months ahead. They lauded the Senate and House bills.
“It’s been very refreshing to see everybody put aside differences they had or thought they had and be able to work together for the common good and be able to make sure this legislation went forward,” Moore said. — Anne Blythe
More relief, more parks and shopping options ahead
Gov. Roy Cooper said he would reveal more detailed plans on Tuesday or Wednesday of what businesses could be reopened during the first phase of easing social distance restrictions.
Cooper’s stay-at-home order is set to expire on Friday. If the data show what his public health team wants to see that could mean a reopening of closed parks and more shopping options.
“We’re still analyzing our indicators, our testing, tracing and trends, talking with health care experts,” Cooper said. “We’re getting a lot of advice from businesses about what we can do.”
Easing social distancing restrictions is not the only thing that will happen in phases.
Cooper and legislators acknowledged that more relief packages will come in phases, too.
“I’m already thinking about what’s going to be in the next bill that will be coming down the pike,” said Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat and the House minority leader.
“Science tells us there will be peaks and there will be lows, but this virus is not going away. And no matter how things change, there are some issues we need to continue to constantly have on the forefront and address going forward — the need to expand health care access and close the insurance gap, the need to protect our frontline health care workers and other workers and make sure they have the protection that when they get sick, they can stay home, that safety net. We need to protect the unemployed who lost their jobs that may find that job not coming back in the near future,” he said. “Today we take a good step, but I hope it is just that — the first step.”
Without using the words ‘Medicaid expansion,’ a phrase that caused the budget standstill during the last session, Cooper, too, said he would be advocating for more to help the state’s uninsured.
Sen. Dan Blue, a Wake County Democrat, gave a brief history lesson and focused on the 1918 flu pandemic that continued to cause deaths in North Carolina in 1919 and 1920 to caution that there also might be some unforeseen COVID-19-related costs.
“The pandemic is unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Blue said. “A little more than a century ago, we had the same experience and we practiced social distancing. But as is sometimes the case, we got a little restless and the second and third phases were more deadly than the first phase.”
“I think we will learn the lessons and get through this pandemic all working together,” he continued. — Anne Blythe
Predicting revenue shortfall
Tim Moore, the Cleveland County Republican presiding as speaker of the House, noted that because so many businesses have closed down and unexpected pandemic costs have caused the state lawmakers to dip deeper into reserves, there could be some belt-tightening requested across state agencies.
“We were getting projections that our state budget, we could have a deficit of $3.5 to $4 billion dollars as a result of this,” Moore said. “So we know that while we’ve taken care of these critical needs right now, there certainly are more critical needs to take care of, but then going into next year’s budget when schools open back up, when things are running back, and we have to pay for all those things. So we need to make sure we are prudent how we spend this money so we have funds there should the shortfall continue on into the fall and into the spring.”
A $4 billion shortfall, Moore pointed out, would be 16 percent of a $24 billion budget.
“We all understand that we’re going to have to look at some potential fiscal cuts to get where we need to be with our constitutional mandate of a balanced budget,” Gov. Roy Cooper said. “But also important is the bipartisan request made by the National Governors Association of Congress and the president for $500 billion to help states across the country — and local governments across the country — avoid bankruptcy and making sure that people can backfill their budgets.
“There’s a strong movement for that to happen,” Cooper added. “I hope we can get help from the federal government for this because we do have a constitutional requirement for a balanced budget. We’re all going to have to figure out how to get there.” — Anne Blythe
Don’t forget to disinfect those pens
“Okay, we have two new laws that will help the people of North Carolina, that this leadership has come together with consensus to move our state forward and we’re grateful for that,” Cooper said. “I’ve got a pen for each of them after we wipe it down with disinfectant.”
In medical studies, pens and other common instruments have been found to contribute to the spread of hospital-acquired infections.
— Anne Blythe
Indoor vs. outdoor activities
Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen addressed a question about whether there will be recommendations from public health leaders in the coming phase about relative risks for certain activities.
Physical distancing will continue to be important and wearing face coverings when that is not possible or when you are with other people will be, too. Hand-washing will remain important throughout.
“As far as activities, in terms of risk and not, we certainly know that indoor activities are higher risk than outdoor activities,” Cohen said. “And activities where you sit — stand or sit — for a prolonged period of time, but generally sitting for more than 10 minutes, that’s the things that are going to increase our risks.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cohen noted, has defined risk as anyone within six feet of someone for a period of more than 10 minutes.
In the first phase of loosening social distancing restrictions, Cohen said North Carolinians will see more commerce open and more park activity allowed.
“We’re looking to minimize that in-close-proximity, less than six feet for more than 10 minutes of time,” Cohen said. “And then when you do that if you have to be in closer contact, again, wearing face coverings, and to be washing your hands very frequently.” — Anne Blythe
According to NCDHHS data, as of Monday morning:
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Monday morning:
Judge orders NC prison officials to present COVID-19 plan
A North Carolina Superior Court Judge ordered prison officials to present specific plans for how they are containing COVID-19 in prisons and preventing the spread of the contagious virus between inmates. Prison officials must submit their plans by 5 p.m. on Friday.
This order came in response to a lawsuit by prison legal advocates asking for relief for inmates with underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19 complications. The legal advocates contend there are too many inmates to properly socially distance within prisons, creating a prime breeding ground for the virus.
The judge also asked prison officials for a list of the facilities that are providing the following:
- More than one facemask per inmate of the same quality of those provided to staff
- Unrestricted access to sanitation supplies, including soap and alcohol-based sanitizer
- Living conditions designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including moving bunk beds at least six feet apart and altering schedules to limit the mixing of inmates between housing units.
These are problematic areas in facilities across the state, according to inmates from several facilities who testified in sworn statements about the conditions in prisons during the pandemic. They wrote that their beds are not six feet apart. They’re given a limited amount of soap, which some say they use to wash their one cloth facemask. Many said they are not allowed to have hand sanitizer because it’s considered contraband. And inmates wrote that there is mixing between facilities and dorms with little attempt to separate prisoners with symptoms. —Taylor Knopf
Carteret Health resumes elective surgeries
Carteret Health Care has joined the list of hospitals across the state that have resumed elective surgeries in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Effective today, the county-owned hospital will take steps to resume elective procedures and inpatient care, according to a press release.
The decision to resume elective surgeries and some inpatient care came after the hospital prepared for a large surge of COVID-19 cases, said president Harvey Case in a press release. But newer models predict that need is far lower, he added.
Hospital staff will resume care in stages, according to the press release. Patients whose surgeries were delayed will receive calls from the hospital to reschedule beginning today. Inpatient care will also ramp up slowly with some safety measures in place. All patients and staff will be required to wear face masks and everyone will be screened for symptoms of COVID-19 before they enter the Carteret County facility. The hospital will also continue to implement visitor restrictions.
Hospital officials will continue to monitor the needs of the community, according to the news release, and will make sure resources are available for COVID-19 response.
“We clearly understand we cannot let our guard down, however, we believe we are ready to safely begin moving forward with caring for patients with needs that have been delayed,” Case said in the news release. – Liora Engel-Smith
UNC delays start of fall semester
Mecklenburg County health authorities say the coronavirus outbreak is projected to peak in mid-June in Charlotte. As a result, UNC Charlotte has moved the beginning of the fall semester back two weeks from August 24 to September 7.
“Given our unique location in North Carolina’s largest city, these two weeks allow additional time between the projected peak of the virus in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County and the start of the academic year,” said Chancellor Phil Dubois in a statement.
The university will assess any additional campus safety protocols and release a complete schedule for the semester soon. — Melba Newsome
Mental Health Moment – See some spring flowers!
The New York Botanical Garden is currently closed, but you can take a virtual tour of the profusion of spring blossoms there. Just feel your blood pressure drop as you watch.