woman sitting at a microphone with an American flag behind her points at the camera as she makes a point about COVID-19
North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen makes a point during the daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, May 13. Photo: Screenshot of UNC-TV webcast

By North Carolina Health News staff

That number you don’t recognize might be a contact tracer

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on many public health jobs for which few across the country ever gave much thought.

Epidemiologists and virologists, once known mostly to their colleagues in the science world, have become household names.

Now, North Carolinians are hearing more and more about contact tracers. They’re the workers behind the scenes in public health departments across the state. They do crucial work finding people who might have come into contact with someone else who tested positive for an infectious disease, in this case, COVID-19.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, has talked about the 250 contact tracers already working in North Carolina. The state hopes to double the number in the coming week, and perhaps add an additional 250 in the months ahead, for an eventual total of 750.

“We’re looking to layer on not just those that we are going to hire as new tracers, but also looking how we can use our local health department and their teams that are already existing to do tracing efforts,” Cohen said. “And there are other volunteers that have come forward since we’ve been talking so much about contact tracing. So now we’re figuring out: how do we deploy a sort of a volunteer corps with our trained and hired corps.”

The state health department partnered with Community Care of North Carolina and North Carolina AHEC, a statewide network that provides education to health care providers, for the creation of the Carolina Community Tracing Collaborative.

The collaborative has been hiring workers and has begun the training, but Cohen did not provide a precise number for how many new tracers are on board.

The state also is seeking advice from Partners in Health, a Boston-based non-profit working with Massachusetts and other states on contact tracing efforts.

“We are able to glean from their expertise on both the approach and the training,” Cohen said.

One problem the tracers have encountered is not everyone picks up a tracer’s call.

“I think we all do this. We see a number on our phone that we don’t recognize. We don’t pick that up,” Cohen said. “However, that could be a phone call coming from a contact tracer wanting to get in touch with you about potentially being a contact. So we’re going to have to work in a number of ways.”

Increasing the numbers of tracers is important, Cohen said.

“Obviously you just want the manpower and the people power to move forward,” Cohen said.

Cohen and her team plan to work on a communication effort so people understand that number not recognized could be someone with crucial public health information.

“So stay tuned,” Cohen said. — Anne Blythe

More antibody testing, but what do results really show

North Carolinians have more access to antibody tests through a number of programs and facilities.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen was asked whether any broader picture had emerged from the tests.

The early results, Cohen said, show North Carolina with a low prevalence rate of somewhere around two percent of the people with antibodies, a number that she described as “not surprising.”

North Carolina, which took an aggressive stance to slow the spread of the virus, has not had a peak or spike of cases during the pandemic similar to those in such states as New York.

Cohen cautioned against putting a lot of stock in such preliminary results.

“We’re still at the beginning of knowing …how does that really help us here,” Cohen said.

She listed the current unknowns about antibody testing, among them: how long the antibodies last and how long any immunity from them lasts.

“With something so new like COVID-19 that’s really hard to know. We have to see more time go by so I think there still definitely is more scientific work that has to be done related to antibodies to know, ‘What do they mean?’” Cohen said.

“I think they’re a good tool to help us get a snapshot, or what’s called a prevalence rate of COVID-19 here in North Carolina that could potentially help us say, ‘Well how many people have been exposed?’” Cohen continued. “We know our total of lab-confirmed cases are not the total universe of everyone who’s had COVID-19.” — Anne Blythe

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday morning:

  • 597 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 15,816 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 521 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 210,000 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.
  • 117 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,383 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 807 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

Hotspot search tool now available 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, internet connection has become more important than ever.

Netflix and Amazon notwithstanding, the internet has become a portal to nearly every avenue of life from work to school to doctor’s appointments.

But not everyone in the state has access to reliable internet, much less broadband. To help those whose internet connection is either unreliable or nonexistent, the North Carolina Department of Information Technology compiled a statewide list of free hotspots

The map includes library parking lots and businesses who set up hotspots to help people access the internet for free, among other locations. –Liora Engel-Smith

Should salons, barbers reopen?

It’s time to reopen hair salons and barbers, urged a missive from state Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) today.

In a release issued Wednesday morning, Berger argued that 25 states, including most of the states in the Southeast, have reopened personal grooming services “in some capacity.”

“Gov. Cooper needs to provide counties with the flexibility to reopen hair salons and barber shops if they choose,” said the statement, posted to the Medium site Berger Press Shop. “The majority of states in our region and the country have reviewed the science, facts, and data and reached a different conclusion than Gov. Cooper’s. What is his strategic endgame in choosing a different path based on similar facts and data?”

Berger suggested counties could allow for salons and barbers to reopen provided they implement rules such as those in use in other states. The release cited rules such as:

  • Scheduling customers by appointment only;
  • Sending customers and employees home who have COVID-like symptoms;
  • Requiring employees and customers to wear masks;
  • Removing communal materials such as magazines;
  • Cleaning and disinfecting equipment after each use.

When asked about Berger’s statements during her daily press briefing, Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said she had heard this concern from other quarters. She explained she and Gov. Roy Cooper have focused on reopening businesses in places where the virus’ spread is more diluted, such as retail stores where there isn’t much sitting, or in parks and outdoor places.

“We know this virus is transmitted more when someone is in close proximity over a longer period of time,” she said. “By nature of a salon and a barber shop, obviously you are sitting down for a longer period of time and folks are close together.

Cohen said North Carolina is still seeing “a lot of virus here,” and she did not want to see a surge of cases.

“I know everyone wants a haircut, including me,” she said. “But hold on a bit longer.”

– Rose Hoban

Can the genie be squeezed back into the bottle?

Gov. Roy Cooper has been asked whether he has eased social distancing restrictions too early or whether he should push the door open even further for more routine activities this week.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, was asked about the potential for further easing of restrictions on May 22, when the modified stay-at-home order expires.

Trends that North Carolina has selected as guidance for when and how to move further into Cooper’s multi-phased reopening plan have remained relatively level, Cohen said.

She plans to bring out charts and graphs again on Thursday to further explain the trends one week into the first phase of easing social distancing restrictions.

“Look, this has been such an unprecedented time for our state, our country, our world that it’s hard to predict: if this would happen, what would we do then,” Cohen said. “We will continue to say that we’ll look at the numbers and continue to try to make the best decisions we can based on science and data. We acknowledge that there is more going on in our state than just COVID-19 and we have to think about both safety and protecting people’s health as well as what is going on in terms of mental health, spiritual health, financial health.”

Cohen acknowledged that the science surrounding COVID-19 is changing along the way.

“We are trying to strike the right balance,” Cohen said. “I think, no matter how fast, how slow, we are going to have a different way of moving through the world.”

With that, she brought up the importance of three Ws: wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart and continuing to wash hands.

She responded to a question from Ken Smith of WRAL about whether the genie could be “put back in the bottle” if North Carolina opens up more and sees a resurgence of virus cases.

“If we need to, we will walk back,” Cohen said. — Anne Blythe

Mental health moment – tropical paradise!

Many of us won’t feel comfortable getting onto a long plane flight (or any plane flight for that matter) for some time, but we can always travel via YouTube!

Today we take a trip to tropical Hawaii, first to check out the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden on the “big island.”

It’s really amazing to see orchids blooming amidst the ferns.

Then hop on over to Oahu to the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden, about an hour from Honolulu. This is a nicely done amateur video that includes some great drone footage.

If you want to see a longer video of Ho’omaluhia, you can check one out here.

Finally, a tour of Molokai, the island that many call the “real Hawaii.” It’s less touristed and has a strong local community dedicated to Hawaiian traditions. One side of the island is tropical rainforest with dramatic mountains, ravines and waterfalls. Those mountains create a rain shadow, and on the other side of the range there’s arid flatlands that more resemble parts of the U.S. West, with cattle ranches and farms.

Plenty of links related to each video, so you can take a trip with your eyes and plan for another day.

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