By North Carolina Health News staff

More than a pandemic number

Gov. Roy Cooper reminded North Carolinians that there are faces, families, loved ones and mourning communities that tell the stories of this pandemic.

As the state eases social distancing restrictions to allow for more retail activity and state park visits, Cooper portrayed some of the lives lost.

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“At every briefing since our state’s first death, I’ve shared the number of fatalities due to COVID-19,” Cooper said. “As North Carolina moves into phase one today, I want everyone to remember what those numbers mean. Every time our state counts another death, a family and community descend into mourning.”

Cooper shared a bit about several of the 527 North Carolinians who have died from complications of the virus.

Sypraseuth “Bud” Phouangphrachanh, known throughout his Montgomery County community as “Officer Bud,” lived by his motto: “Anything for the kids.”

“He served as a sheriff’s deputy and school resource officer for 14 years and was in good health, never missing work or calling in sick,” Cooper said. “One person described him as a superhero. A local mom recalled how he sat and talked with her son who was frequently bullied and had found himself alone at a school dance.”

He died March 31 at the age of 43.

Alexander Reginald Pettaway, an officer at the Durham County sheriff’s office for 23 years, died in April from COVID-19. He was 55.

“He was well respected by his colleagues and described as a unique gentle soul who will be missed by all,” Cooper said.

Lloyd Lamb of Leicester served in the Army, worked for more than three decades and then became a Sam’s Club greeter in retirement.

“He rode the school bus, helping disabled children getting on and off the bus, always there to look out for them and to protect them,” Cooper said. “He died on March 28th.”

Janice Carolyn Philbeck Greene, of Fallston in Cleveland County, owned Jan’s Restaurant and was remembered by an employee as someone who was far more than a boss, truly a friend forever.

“Her community told stories of Jan looking out for people in need, serving up a meal and helping them with a little gas money,” Cooper said. “She’d send food whenever a family had a funeral.”

She died Easter Sunday, Cooper said.

“These are just a few of the stories running deep in communities across the state right now,” Cooper said. “As we make decisions and debate issues surrounding this virus, we must remember that each number represents the death of a real person. COVID-19 is a lethal threat. It is a cruel virus, causing grave harm in sometimes otherwise healthy people, separating people from their loved ones at the darkest of hours and taking our everyday heroes away from us.”

Those deaths and the research surrounding COVID-19 have provided lessons for North Carolina as it moves into the next phase for this pandemic, the governor said.

The virus is extremely contagious and can bring severe and fatal complications for some, but social distancing measures have proven to slow the spread of infection.

“Even though today at 5 p.m., North Carolina moves into phase one, know that the stay-at-home order is still in effect,” Cooper said. “It’s still better to stay home if you can.”

Nonetheless, Cooper and his team are trying to jumpstart an economy that has resulted in more than one million people filing claims for unemployment benefits.

“Phase one is a careful, modest step to reigniting our economy while keeping important safety rules in place,” Cooper said before holding up the face covering that he wears at the Emergency Operations Center. “As we go out more, we must all get used to the three Ws. Wearing a face covering, waiting six feet apart from others, and washing our hands frequently.” — Anne Blythe

Testing, testing, testing

Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen outlined how North Carolina has and will continue to ramp up COVID-19 testing.

“We remain laser focused on our testing, tracing and trends,” Cohen said.

For seven of the last 10 days, North Carolina has been testing close to 6,000 people per day, double what had been happening in previous weeks.

Cohen’s update on testing comes the day after 16 Republican state senators sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper asking about a WFAE analysis of a COVID tracking site that ranked North Carolina 45th in testing.

Though Cohen did not address that specific analysis nor the letter signed by the Republican senators and posted to Medium by Senator Berger Press Shop, she put the state at a much higher ranking.

“We rank fifteenth in the nation in total number of tests completed,” Cohen said. “Now, while I think we are on the right track, I am not at all satisfied where we are. The governor and I want to see more testing across the state, particularly in our underserved communities.”

To help with that, Cohen said the federal government has agreed to send North Carolina 300,000 swabs and 224,000 vials of the viral transport media, or liquid in which specimens are preserved while awaiting testing.

Delivery of those supplies is expected weekly through June and the state plans to distribute the supplies to testing partners across the state.

“We’re also working with the federal government and some corporate partners to bring additional testing sites to North Carolina,” Cohen said.

Walmart and Walgreens have opened federally-supported testing sites in Durham and Pitt counties this week, Cohen said. 

Walmart and Harris Teeter plan to open other sites in Bladen, Columbus, Cumberland, Edgecombe, Guilford, Hoke, Jackson and Wilkes counties later this month, Cohen added.

The federal government is picking up the cost for tests at the sites, Cohen said. 

shows a woman in a green dress standing behind a podium as she talks about efforts to combat the COVID pandemic
State Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen spoke at a televised news conference Friday about the state’s need to ramp up testing even more. She also reminded viewers and listeners that this weekend is Mother’s Day and florists will be open for business. Screenshot courtesy: UNC TV/ NC Dept of Public Safety

Labcorp, Quest and major health care systems across North Carolina also have partnered with the state to conduct testing.

“We have a shared goal of statewide testing in all 100 counties,” Cohen said.

Cohen and her team work with a testing surge team that includes representatives from the labs and health care organizations who have been meeting regularly to develop plans to do so. Additionally, they’ve established a scientific study council to evaluate new test methods.

Cohen said funding for testing provided in the $1.5 billion COVID-related relief package adopted unanimously by the General Assembly last weekend and signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on Monday “will help.”

“But there’s plenty more work to do ahead of us,” Cohen said. “I look forward to working with the General Assembly when they return to do all that we can to protect the health and well-being of North Carolinians.” — Anne Blythe

Will all corrections officers get tested?

Erik Hooks, secretary of the Department of Public Safety, was asked why the prisons had not moved ahead with a mass testing plan for thousands of corrections officers.

Initially, a proposal put forward by Dale Folwell, the state treasurer and overseer of the State Health Plan, would have had all corrections officers tested on facility grounds.

That plan was scrapped earlier in the week.

Hooks said his department continued to work with the treasurer’s team to get prison guards tested.

“We have not come to a full developed plan,” Hooks said. “But we are having great discussions. We just opted for operational concerns not to do mass testing on those facility grounds.” — Anne Blythe

Might want to visit a florist. Hint, hint.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services and a mother of two, dropped more than a few hints about Mother’s Day in her briefing.

The first instance came when she talked about why some businesses could reopen in this new phase of easing social distancing slightly over the next couple of weeks.

The idea is to ease open the door for shopping opportunities in places where people will mostly be standing as they shop and able to stand six feet apart.

“We started with lower risk activities, where people are largely walking around if they go indoors and where it’s easiest to social distance as in places like a clothing store or a florist — hint it’s Mother’s Day,” Cohen said.

During this phase, Cohen encouraged all to continue social distancing measures, not only to protect themselves but to be considerate of others.

“Make sure you do the three Ws for your mom or your grandma, yeah okay, I’m throwing in a little mom guilt out there,” Cohen acknowledged. “But I know moms everywhere want to protect their families and loved ones during this difficult time. One of the easiest gifts you can give your mom or your grandmother is one where she can know you’re doing your part to protect those around you.”

Cohen then gave a shout-out to her mom.

“I want to wish a happy Mother’s Day to my fellow moms, and in particular my mom,” said Cohen, who often talks about her admiration for her mother, a nurse practitioner. “Love you, mom.” — Anne Blythe

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Friday morning:

  • 527 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 13,868 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 515 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized 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 178,000 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 (42 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 22 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 86 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 110 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,263 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 633 ventilators in use, not just for COVID cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.


Atrium Health to start antibody testing and help businesses reopen

Atrium Health in Charlotte announced plans this week on how it will offer new COVID-19 antibodies testing as well as ways the hospital system can aid area employers in safely reopening. 

The health system hopes to partner with businesses to develop response plans for the COVID-19 pandemic. Consulting could include helping with plans on how to re-configure offices and set health-monitoring systems in place to prevent additional outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, according to a news release.  

 Atrium also has the ability to test for antibodies to COVID and can provide responses in as few as 24 hours from an in-house lab, faster than many other options that are coming online, according to a news release from the health care system. 

 This testing can give further insight into the disease. 

 “We are still learning the full capability of what antibody testing can provide, but if we’re able to test for coronavirus antibodies now, it can help as we interpret the data over time and allow us to make informed decision with results as we advise patients on the next steps as we learn more about this disease,” said Dr. Suzanna Fox, deputy chief physician and senior medical director of Atrium Health’s women’s service line, in a written statement. 

 Atrium plans on beginning its antibodies testing with its own employees next week, and then moving on to testing for patients.  – Sarah Ovaska

 Mental health moment 

We have five new reasons to celebrate here in North Carolina, with the births of endangered American red wolves at the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro. The zoo introduced the baby pups Friday, though the five were born on April 21. 

shows a leeeeetle baby wolf being tended to by two women in masks and gloves
One of the new red wolf pups at the North Carolina Zoo gets a dose of medicine from some of the zoo staff. Photo courtesy: NC Zoo

Pups and mom are all doing well, the zoo reported. There are two males, and three females, named after plants in the state: the males, Oak (Appalachian Oak) and Cedar (Red Cedar) and Sage (Azure Sage), and females, Lily (Carolina Lily, the state’s wildflower), and Aster (Piedmont Aster). 

The births are welcome news as there are only 15 to 20 red wolves in the wild, all of which are in eastern North Carolina. It makes the American red wolf the most endangered canid in the world.

 The N.C. Zoo now has 25 red wolves in its breeding program, making it the second-largest pack in the U.S. (the biggest pack is at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash.)  – Sarah Ovaska 


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