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By North Carolina Health News staff

‘Pandemics cannot be partisan’

Eight days have passed since Republican leaders at the helm of the General Assembly stood side-by-side with Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, to show that the two parties could come together in consensus to support a $1.5 billion pandemic relief package.

The harmony was short-lived. In recent days, Republicans on the Council of State and in the state Senate have sent letters to Cooper raising questions about his phased reopening plan and an executive order urging houses of worship to hold outside services for crowds of more than 10 people.

Cooper was asked about the letters during a briefing with the media Tuesday afternoon.

Republicans on the Council of State, which includes the governor and nine officers of the executive branch elected statewide, urged Cooper to convene a meeting of the body “as soon as possible to discuss plans for reopening North Carolina’s economy, with the understanding that we will be dealing with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future.”

The letter was signed by Dan Forest, the Republican lieutenant governor challenging Cooper in the November election, Steve Troxler, the Commissioner of Agriculture, Mike Causey, the Commissioner of Insurance, Cherie Berry, the Commissioner of Labor, Mark Johnson, the superintendent of public instruction, and Dale Folwell, the state treasurer, who are all Republicans.

“As a majority of the Council, we are asking that you convene the Council of State as soon as possible so that we understand your plan for North Carolina,” the letter states. “We also need the ability to provide clarity to businesses across our state that are dangerously close to permanently closing. And we need clarity as to why you aren’t allowing specific industries to open as our neighboring states have done.”

Cooper outlined his Phased Plan for easing social distancing restrictions on April 23 during briefings with the media that are aired on UNC-TV.

Since easing restrictions, his office has gotten questions about whether the state is moving too quickly or too slowly to open more businesses.

Cooper maintains that while he seeks much input to determine whether the state will move through the phases of reopening the economy, he relies on data, evidence and advice from public health officials.

“Pandemics cannot be partisan,” Cooper said. “I’ve been on the phone with the White House every week. I’ve signed a unanimous pandemic budget. We’re going to rely on the science and the facts to tell us when we need to reopen. I know that people are hurting because of this virus. And I know that our economy is hurting because of this virus. But the health of our people and the health of our economy go hand in hand.”

When the Council of State met last week, Cooper said he offered to provide a briefing and meeting on the COVID crisis. That will be set up, Cooper added, without providing a specific date.

Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, also posted a statement on the pandemic to Medium, pushing the governor for more answers about his response to COVID-19, a virus with many unknowns.

“Governor Cooper should explain what his administration’s overarching strategy is,” Berger said in the statement posted by Senator Berger Press Shop. “Is his strategic endgame to prevent much of the population from ever becoming infected? Does he believe that is possible

“Or is his strategic endgame to manage the virus as it naturally spreads through the population — to protect the highest-risk groups while seeking herd immunity through the young and healthy first? We need a view into the administration’s thinking,” the statement continues. “What goal is driving his policy decisions? What does he think is achievable?” — Anne Blythe

Questions still about indoor church

Eighteen Republican senators sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper on May 8, asking for clarity about when church services could be held indoors under the modified stay-at-home order in effect until May 22.

Lee Lilley, the legislative affairs director for Gov. Roy Cooper, sent a letter on Monday, trying to clarify when services with more than 10 people could be indoors if outdoor worship were impossible.

Many houses of worship hold online services. Lilley suggested that if it were impossible for a service to be held outdoors that congregations consider streaming them or establishing plans for a series of indoor services with no more than 10 people or separated into different rooms in smaller crowds.

That response drew criticism from two of the Republican senators in a response posted to Medium by Senator Berger Press Shop.

Kathy Harrington, a Gaston County Republican, and Carl Ford, a Rowan County Republican, described Cooper’s executive order as “absurd” in a joint statement. They questioned why retail businesses now allowed to open at 50 percent capacity can have more people inside than a church.

“I miss in-person church services very much myself,” Cooper responded. “This Sunday I listened to my church service online, and it’s something we’ve been having to do over the last few weeks in order to protect each other, in order to care about your neighbor because we know that inside it is much more likely that you’re going to transmit this virus, particularly when you are sitting or standing in one place for a long period of time.

“Some people are trying to compare this with retail,” Cooper added. “There’s a big difference. With retail, people are moving around, and you don’t have as much a chance to spread the virus.”

The potential for virus spread increases when people are indoors and sitting closer together, the governor added.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, echoed much of what she said on Monday about why holding services indoors puts the congregation at a much greater risk for contracting the virus. People touch more surfaces inside, such as doorknobs, pews and more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued guidance about how the virus can spread quickly indoors, particularly when people are sitting close together for more than 10 minutes.

“What we’re hoping is that ministers and church leaders will put the health of their congregations at the head of their thinking here, in consideration of each other, realizing that it is still dangerous to hold indoor services when more than 10 people are there and those people are closer together,” Cooper said. “We want to make sure that the people across this state are protected.” — Anne Blythe

A PruittHealth skilled-nursing facility in Orange County is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that has killed two. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

New count shows that nearly 60 percent of NC COVID-19 fatalities are in long-term care

As a state and nation focused on COVID-19 continue to argue the pros and cons of testing, mask-wearing and social distancing, older people and those with disabilities keep dying in North Carolina’s long-term care centers.

The state Department of Health and Human Services identified four additional skilled nursing facilities as having outbreaks of the virus since Thursday. They are Genesis Healthcare, Chatham County, four cases; Harmony Hall Nursing and Rehabilitation, Lenoir County, two cases; Wilkes(boro) Health and Rehabilitation, Wilkes County, four cases; and Oak Forest Health and Rehabilitation, Forsyth County, one case.

Newly reported deaths of people in nursing homes since last week, with county location, include six at Treyburn Rehab and Nursing, Durham County; six at Brian Center, Henderson County; five at Autumn Care of Cornelius, Mecklenburg County; four at Pruitt Health, Orange County; three at Five Oaks Manor, Cabarrus County; three at Springbrook Nursing and Rehab, Johnston County; and three at Rich Square Nursing and Rehabilitation, Northampton County.

In more typical times, we’d likely see headline news and detailed accounts about the presence of a new, deadly virus in four North Carolina nursing homes, let alone more than 30 deaths of older and vulnerable people in these centers in less than a week. Tuesday’s release brings to 297 the total of COVID-19 deaths in state nursing homes during the pandemic, with another 46 noted as dying in adult care homes or assisted living facilities.

The 343 deaths in long-term care represent nearly 60 percent of North Carolina’s total death count of 577 during the pandemic.

— Thomas Goldsmith

Tend to your mental health, too

Given that May is Mental Health Awareness Month, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, encouraged North Carolinians to take care of their minds as well as their bodies during the pandemic.

“We’ve all done a great job protecting our families and neighbors and slowing the spread of COVID-19,” Cohen said. “But in taking those important steps, we’ve had to change the way we live significantly in ways that were just hard to imagine even just a few months ago. We’ve had to stay physically apart from one another, stop many of the activities that may have brought us joy. Some of us are newly out of work and others of us have lost family members or friends to this virus.”

The pandemic itself, Cohen acknowledged, can prompt fear, depression and anxiety.

“One way to navigate this challenging time is to find new — or in some cases — old ways to connect with other people,” Cohen recommended. “Call or use video chats to connect with your friends and loved ones. Get outside. Exercise if you can.”

During this phase of the social distance restrictions, parks have opened again.

For people who need help managing their mental health during this unprecedented time, Cohen suggested reaching out to mental health care providers, primary care physicians who might be able to offer care guidance or looking at the department’s website for resources.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers advice for talking with children of all ages about the virus and the pandemic.

Additionally, the state has helplines, such as Hope4NC at 1-855-587-3463, where around the clock call-takers can connect people to resources for mental health and resilience support.

Help is also available for people and loved ones experiencing severe distress at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. — Anne Blythe

NC manufactures changing gears

As North Carolina ramps up its testing to an average of 6,000 per day, the state also will need to keep a strong supply of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Gov. Roy Cooper praised several manufacturers in North Carolina for shifting production lines to help with that supply chain.

“We’ve been fighting for more PPE and our manufacturing task force has identified North Carolina businesses that can help us,” Cooper said. “North Carolina has a rich history of being a leader in manufacturing and in innovation.”

Saab Barracuda, based in Lillington, typically produces camouflage netting for the military. Apple Rock in Greensboro specializes in trade show displays.

Both companies have agreed to make isolation gowns.

“This is a critical piece of medical equipment that has been in short supply,” Cooper said.

ASI Signage of Holly Springs, Gilero of Pittsboro and Bright View Technologies of Durham are producing face shields.

“This is exactly what I mean when I say North Carolina will get through this pandemic by working together,” Cooper said. “I look forward to more innovation, creativity and team spirit that has always defined our state.” — Anne Blythe

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday morning:

  • 577 people total in North Carolina have died of COVID-19.
  • 15,346 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 475 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.
  • 9,115 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious.
  • More than 202,000 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 (42 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 21 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 85 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 3,224 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 734 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

Mental health moment

Museum curators around the world have been challenging each other to a #curatorbattle on Twitter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They have posted the creepiest objects in their collections with the hashtag #creepiestobjects. Warning. Many could bring on an overwhelming case of the creeps. They also have challenged each other to post #besthats, #SassiestObject and the recent #bestbird challenge from Yorkshire Museum.

Search for the hashtags for objects you might miss in a regular stroll through the museums.

 

Editor

North Carolina Health News is an independent, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering health care in North Carolina employing the highest journalistic standards of fairness, accuracy...