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By North Carolina Health News staff

Churches argue state violating their rights

Gov. Roy Cooper said during a media briefing on Thursday that he had not seen a lawsuit filed in federal court challenging his modified stay-at-home order that calls for houses of worship to hold outside services with social distancing measures against COVID-19 unless impossible.

A group called Return America, as well as Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem and its pastor Ron Baity, and another baptist church held a rally in Raleigh to announce their plans to challenge the statewide stay-at-home order, according to the Associated Press.

The legal challenge comes days after Republican senators raised questions about why some retail stores are able to have more than 10 customers inside at a time when churches are restricted from holding their services inside unless it is impossible to stream them or hold them outside.

They argue that First Amendment rights are being violated.

“Let me talk just a minute about faith,” Cooper said during Thursday’s briefing. “Our faith can sometimes mean even more to us during a time of crisis. I’m a church elder and was a Sunday school teacher for more than 20 years. I am so grateful for my church family. There’s a real sense of belonging and a sense of community. When we physically gather together, shake hands, hug, sing, preach, take communion, we bond in our faith. I’ve really missed that as have millions of North Carolinians.”

Following a 2.5-hour choir practice attended by 61 people on March 17 in Skagit, Washington, including a symptomatic index patient, 32 confirmed and 20 probable secondary COVID-19 cases occurred. Afterwards, three patients were hospitalized, and two died. Transmission was likely facilitated by close proximity (within 6 feet) during practice and augmented by the act of singing. Diagram courtesy: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study on May 12 showing how quickly COVID-19 spread through a church choir practicing in Skagit County, Washington, one March evening.

Sixty-one people were at the 2 1/2 hour practice, which led to 32 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 20 cases that likely were secondary infections. Three people were hospitalized and two died.

“One fundamental tenet of faith,” Cooper added, “is to care for and love one another. When doing these things in person together, standing or sitting indoors for more than 10 minutes, we greatly increase the chances of passing to each other a virus that can be deadly. Ask any of the congregations who’ve experienced outbreaks and deaths due to this virus.”

Cooper praised the many congregations across the state “that have transitioned to doing either outdoor or virtual services in order to keep their members safer.”

Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, have stressed that CDC guidelines describe indoor activities as riskier than outdoor ones, and sitting in close proximity to someone for more than 10 minutes also poses greater risk of transmitting or contracting the virus.

“Regardless of executive orders, I would urge every congregation to pause and consider whether indoor services are the right thing to do right now for their members,” Cooper said. “We must care for and show love to one another.” — Anne Blythe

Prison staff to get free testing

Starting May 18, the 21,000 people who work in the state prisons will have an opportunity to be tested for COVID-19 at FastMed Urgent Care sites around the state.

The results of the test will be provided to employees by LabCorp through a secure online portal, according to a state Department of Public Safety news release.

The plan comes after prison officials and the state Treasurer Dale Folwell could not come to an agreement on a plan to test correctional workers at the facilities.

Prisons have become COVID-19 hotspots, and inmates have complained about not getting tested at all the facilities.

“The continued health and safety of our dedicated staff are our priorities as they bravely carry out our public safety mission through this pandemic,” Tim Moose, chief deputy secretary for the adult and juvenile correctional facilities, said in a prepared statement. “We have been committed and actively engaged to offer COVID-19 tests to all of our staff within Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice. I appreciate our staff and partners – FastMed Urgent Care, LabCorp, DHHS, and the State Health Plan – who worked so hard to make this happen.”  — Anne Blythe

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Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday morning:

  • 615 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 16,507 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 507 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 219,000 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 (43 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 20 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 85 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 121 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,334 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 765 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital. [/symple_box]

No peaks, no spikes, no valleys

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, pulled out her charts and graphs again to show North Carolinians what the trends looked like nearly a week into the first phase of reopening.

“We didn’t experience a peak in North Carolina,” Cohen said, “and that was no accident. We flattened the curve through our actions, and so far all those collective actions have prevented a peak.”

The state remains under a stay-at-home order, but people have had a few more places to visit. Parks may open again. Some retail stores have started to open doors to in-house customers as long as social distancing measures can be applied.

North Carolina has also seen more positive test results for COVID-19. The DHHS dashboard reported 691 new cases today, the highest single-day total yet. But when those increases are weighed against the total number of tests being done, the people testing positive remain relatively level, Cohen said, in the 5 to 7 percent range.

Bars and restaurants remain closed to in-house guests, but if the trends remain level or show no evidence of a pending spike, some may be able to open to more business after May 22.

Gov. Roy Cooper said he and his team are exploring many options with restaurateurs and others in the business community for how they can bring in more customers safely with the virus still circulating.

One thought has been to allow the businesses to provide more outdoor dining options, perhaps even closing some streets to make room for such opportunities.

Cooper also said he has not ruled out the possibility of a reopening approach that would allow regions where there’s little virus being detected to ease restrictions sooner than harder hit regions. The idea of a county-by-county approach brings less enthusiasm to the governor and his team.

“We know that folks live in one county, work in another, maybe shop in a third, go to church in a different one, so it’s really hard to think about a county-based approach given how people move around, which means the virus is gonna move around,” Cohen told lawmakers during a legislative hearing Thursday morning. “And I know a state is an arbitrary border, but at least it gives us some ability to provide consistency and standardization.”

She said that members of the business community expressed concern that if counties pursued a county-by-county approach, businesses would have too many conflicting regulations they might have to follow.  — Anne Blythe

Find a testing site near you

The state Department of Health and Human Services has added a list of COVID-19 testing sites to its dashboard.

In this phase of the pandemic, Gov. Roy Cooper and Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen want all in North Carolina to know that anybody who thinks they need to be tested for the virus should get a test.

Walgreens, Walmart and Harris Teeter are setting up testing sites across the state with federal aid and people can get a test there without needing a physician’s referral.

Physician Will Martin at the Piedmont Health Clinic in Moncure said their drive-through clinic has been busy, testing 15 to 20 people each afternoon he’s staffed the tent in their Chatham County parking lot. On Thursday afternoon, the site was mostly quiet, but Martin said cars were backed up around the lot in prior weeks.

Physician Will Martin from Piedmont Health’s Moncure clinic has been testing people in their drive through tent. With him is scribe TKTK, as Martin can’t put his contaminated hands onto the keyboard. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“It’s important to remember that this virus is still a threat,” Cooper said at a Thursday media briefing. “We know that COVID-19 is circulating in our state and we don’t yet have a vaccine or a cure. A chief factor in our state’s readiness to move to phase two is testing. Statewide, we’ve doubled the number of testing in recent weeks, which is good. But we know we need to do a lot more.

“Testing has to be widely available at low cost or even free if we’re going to keep people as safe as possible and reignite our economy, which we want to do so much,” Cooper continued.

Cohen told lawmakers Thursday morning that DHHS is working with the federal government which is finally standing up testing sites in retail parking lots.

“We are also going to be contracting with vendors to make sure that we are getting these testing sites in locations where we think are important and mapping it to the data,” she said. “That will give us the ability to maybe move these sites around as we see the virus is in one community or that it moves to another place.”

The testing site list might change on a day-to-day basis, so check back at the DHHS dashboard on the day you’re heading out to get tested. — Anne Blythe and Rose Hoban

Cumberland County site opening

Fayetteville will open a coronavirus drive-thru testing site Friday in the Walmart parking lot on Ramsey Street.

The site will be open from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Anyone who meets local, state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines will be tested, including first responders, health care providers, others with symptoms of COVID-19 and those in high-risk groups without symptoms.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Cumberland County has more than doubled since April 25. It now stands at 413.  — Greg Barnes

Mental health moment – pizza maker

Many of us have eaten more than our share of pizza in recent months. So, it’s no wonder this young man has gotten inspired.

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