A group of Camp Hope campers prepare to set sail for the first time.
A group of Camp Hope campers prepare to set sail for the first time. Photo credit: Rachel Herzog

By North Carolina Health News staff

Big testing-site gap in northeastern NC

After the state Department of Health and Human Services compiled a list of sites across the state where people can get tested for COVID-19, there was a glaring gap in Dare County and much of northeastern North Carolina.

“The northeast part of our state does not have the sites we would like to see,” Mandy Cohen, secretary of DHHS, said during a briefing with the media on Friday afternoon. “We know we need those sites in every part of our community. That’s where our partnerships with many different types of entities comes along.”

Dare County, which closed its borders to non-residents early in the pandemic, will begin welcoming back visitors on Saturday.

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Bob Woodard, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, issued a video statement on Facebook.

“I want all of our visitors to know that our community welcomes you back with open arms,” Woodard said. “However, because of the safety concerns that are still in place by the executive order of the governor of North Carolina, your vacation on the Outer Banks will be a little bit different than previous trips in the past.”

He asked visitors to work with local authorities to “do this safely.”

With more visitors comes the possibility of more COVID-19 exposure and transmission. Testing and contact tracing has been described as an important measure for tamping down any hotspots that might emerge.

Sheila Davies, Dare County’s health and human services director, addressed the concern that some people have expressed about testing availability.

“I believe this is, in part, because the messages people are hearing from the federal, state and local level differ,” Davies said in a different video message posted to Facebook. “The message at the federal level is that anyone who needs testing should be tested and that testing should be free. Unfortunately, that has not trickled down to Dare County at this time.”

Davies mentioned partnerships the federal government has launched with such retailers as Walgreens, Harris Teeter and Walmart, efforts that have not yet reached Dare County.

“As of today,” Davies said on Thursday, “there are seven Walmart sites in North Carolina offering COVID-19 testing. The closest such site to us, in Dare County, as at the Walmart site in Greenville, North Carolina,” which is more than two hours away.

“At the state level North Carolina is pushing for increased testing,” she added.

Davies said her department has inquired with the state’s testing surge task force about having more free and available testing sites and was told all of the sites already had been selected.

“In absence of available federal or state assistance at this time, we have been working to find alternative opportunities,” Davies said, adding that she expected to share information next week about a local initiative for a drive-through testing site next week.

shows an older white man wearing a mask to prevent transmission of COVID-19
North Carolina Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry wears a mask during the media briefing on Thursday, May 14 at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Photo credit: NC Dept. of Public Safety

“I really applaud the Dare County folks, who said, ‘Yep, we need to have a local initiative here,’” Cohen said. “It’s going to look different in different communities. Certain local communities will partner with a local health system or a hospital in their communities to do the testing. Others may partner with a federally qualified health center.”

She said that other communities may help to stand up a drive-through site at a place such as Walgreens or a Walmart.

“A number of those sites were ones that were not selected by the state, but rather were selected by the federal government in partnership with those corporate entities,” Cohen continued. “It’s our job in the state to now look at that mapping, where those sites are and say, ‘Where are we missing and how do we fill that in?’”

The ongoing work, Cohen said, is continuing to find partners to help set up testing sites, particularly in far-flung places where access to health care can be more difficult.

“It is a work in progress,” Cohen added. “We definitely noticed that the northeast, in particular, needs to make sure they have more access points to testing and we want to make sure those local communities get that going as soon as possible.” — Anne Blythe

Message to clinicians: Look more closely at high-risk populations

The state Department of Health and Human Services issued updated guidance on Friday on who should be tested for COVID-19.

Clinicians are urged to weigh more than traditional COVID-19 symptoms when deciding whether to order testing for someone from the state’s more marginalized communities or for people who work on the frontlines of the pandemic or come into contact with them.

Throughout North Carolina, African American communities have been hit harder by the COVID-19 virus, and Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen wants to make sure that they get testing when needed.

She also wants clinicians to consider whether someone lives in or has contact with someone from such high-risk settings as long-term care facilities, homeless shelters, correctional facilities or migrant worker farm camps.

The department has the same message about people  workers exposed to many members of the public or people living with them, such as grocery store clerks, gas station attendants and staff in other retail outlets where social distancing can be difficult to achieve or maintain.

“It’s not that we are saying you should actively, proactively bring everyone in from those communities,” Cohen stressed. “I think it is having the clinicians be aware that those are populations that are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 or be impacted by COVID-19, so when they are assessing in their clinical judgment all of the things that they might be considering for a patient that’s sitting in front of them, we want them to think about testing in particular for those communities.”

Cohen stressed that COVID-19 has infected many people who do not show symptoms such as fever, coughs, chills or sudden loss of the ability to taste or smell.

If someone calls or shows up at a doctor’s office or health care facility complaining of muscle pain or headaches, she encourages clinicians to not just send that person away without a test.

“So when you have someone sitting there in front of you, make sure to ask them: ‘Where are you working? Do you work in a grocery store? Are you a frontline health care worker? Do you come into contact, is someone in your household working at a nursing home?” — Anne Blythe


How is “regular” testing defined?

In recent weeks, North Carolinians have heard lots about the need for regular testing at nursing homes, long-term care facilities and other high-risk settings.

What exactly does “regular” mean?

“We are still looking at the science,” said Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state  Department of Health and Human Services. “We do know that testing is a moment in time.”

Beyond that moment, someone who tested negative for COVID-19 could later be exposed to someone who might have the virus as they circulate in their communities or at their jobs.

Getting more than a snapshot calls for repeated testing, particularly in nursing homes, long-term care facilities and elsewhere where the virus spread can move quickly.

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The state’s testing surge work group has been working on how to answer that question, Cohen said, as the state begins to ramp up testing and contact tracing in the weeks and months ahead.

“We’re still looking at the data and working with our scientists to know how to define ‘regular,’” Cohen said.

The term was not defined in the testing guidance issued to providers on Friday.

Once the state has science to create more defined guidance, Cohen added, the state needs to provide the right infrastructure for whatever frequency of testing is needed.

Though testing supply shortages limited how much testing the state could do in the early weeks of the pandemic, teams from the state Department of Emergency Management have worked to procure more supplies and more personal protective equipment.

“I still think there is more work to do in order to build to that capacity,” Cohen said. “We are flying the plane and building it as we go here.” — Anne Blythe

DHHS: Buncombe, Robeson have first-time nursing-home outbreaks of COVID-19

The state Department of Health and Human Services announced first-time outbreaks of COVID-19 in six North Carolina nursing homes Friday, along with at least 12 newly announced deaths in such facilities.

The figures came on a day when DHHS Director Mandy Cohen said that the state will be testing all North Carolina nursing home residents for the deadly virus. Death from COVID-19 has come to 338 such residents, out of the state’s total 641 deaths.

Along with county names the first time outbreaks are at Alamance Peak Resources, Alamance; Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community, Buncombe; Genesis Healthcare LLC, Chatham; The Pines at Davidson and Wilora Lake Healthcare Center, Mecklenburg; and Pembroke Center Genesis, Robeson.

The two newest counties to experience at least two residents or staff members testing positive in a skilled nursing facility came in one of the state’s wealthiest counties, Buncombe, and one of the poorest, Robeson.

Meanwhile, outbreaks in five North Carolina nursing homes are over, DHHS said. Those facilities, followed by county location, are Peak Resources-Outer Banks, Dare; Durham VA Community Living Center, Durham; The Lodge at Mills River, Henderson;, Hunter Woods Nursing and Rehab, Mecklenburg; and Village Care of King, Stokes. — Thomas Goldsmith

PPE allotments for nursing homes, long-term care facilities

North Carolina nursing homes and long-term care facilities had access to more pandemic supplies this week.

“We began distributing personal protective equipment to more than 3,800 licensed care facilities across the state,” Mike Sprayberry, director of state Emergency Management, said during a Friday media briefing. “This includes nursing homes, adult care homes and other types of care facilities that need PPE to prevent the spread of the virus among their residents and staff.”

Regional drive-through sites are being set up so facility managers can pick up their allotments of face shields, procedure masks, gloves, shoe covers and hand sanitizers, Sprayberry said.

The allotments come with instructions for proper PPE use, as well as with information for getting more of the crucial equipment.

The distribution sites will be staffed by local emergency managers and National Guard representatives.

Sites were open in Martin and Franklin counties on Friday that will go to facilities in 10 counties. Sites will be set up in other locations during the next two weeks to get supplies to all licensed long-term care homes.

“This is an example of the vital multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional planning that it takes to address the needs of this event,” Sprayberry said. — Anne Blythe

Overnight camps will be different in 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance on Thursday for youth programs and summer camps during the pandemic.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said her team has shared that guidance with North Carolina camps waiting to learn whether they can open during the next phase of easing social distancing restrictions.

“I say it’s not going to be the same summer camp that folks may have remembered as of last summer,” Cohen said. “But in phase two there is an opportunity for overnight camps to open with some restrictions.”

Cohen said her team hopes that some camps still may be able to open under the guidance.

“Others, I know, already have made the decision not to, or may look at this guidance and say, ‘You know, this is not the right thing for our camp in terms of what we provide and how we operate,’” she said.

Cohen acknowledged how “incredibly challenging” opening overnight camps could be.

“It’s children, so they are a lower risk population,” Cohen said. “But they are living in tighter quarters, and it does involve a lot of travel. We know we have a lot of folks coming from out of state here. So all of those things needed to be taken into consideration.”— Anne Blythe

National Hurricane Center image of a tropical storm developing off of the Florida coast in the Atlantic.
A weather disturbance that could end up being 2020’s first named tropical storm was roiling the waters off of Florida on Friday May 15. According to the National Hurricane Center, the system continues to produce showers and gusty winds across the Florida Keys, portions of southeast Florida, and the northwestern Bahamas. The NHS predicted the storm would become a tropical or subtropical storm sometime Saturday, May 16.

Could be rough surf at NC beaches

Mike Sprayberry, state director of Emergency Management, told North Carolinians that the National Hurricane Center is tracking a weather system off the coast of Florida.

Forecasters give it an 80 percent chance of developing over the weekend into the first named storm of the season.

Numerous researchers across the country have predicted a busy hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean this year. Though the season begins officially in June and extends through October, storms sometimes appear earlier or later.

“The only impacts we expect at this time in North Carolina are strong surf and rip currents along the coast early next week,” Sprayberry said. “So be careful out there if you’re swimming at the coast.” — Anne Blythe

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Friday morning:

  • 641 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 17,129 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 492 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 231,000 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.
  • 122 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,475 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.

Mental health moment – Penguinpalooza!!!

In a fun collision of two fun things, curators from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City invited over some flapping friends from the Kansas City Zoo to take in the sights.

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Curator Julian Zugazagoitia welcomed these “special friends” to see how they reacted to the art. He said they reacted “much better to Caravaggio than to Monet.” He noted they were “Peruvian penguins, so we were speaking to them in Spanish and they really appreciated the art history.”

Then we’ll take in some SEA-Span featuring African penguins waddling through the Florida Aquarium. Check out their vocalizations around the 1:00 mark.

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Like humans, these penguins need to get their heart rates up and it’s good mental stimulation too.

Finally, check out these penguins at the Oregon Zoo hanging out with some tiny goats. Prepare for squeals of delight around the 1:00 mark in this video, when we get up close and personal with some baby Humboldt penguins.

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