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By North Carolina Health News staff

Cooper, Cohen throw water on idea of COVID parties

Gov. Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, had a strong message when asked whether they were hearing about “herd gatherings,” where people, particularly the young, try to get infected with COVID-19.

“That is completely irresponsible and absolutely unacceptable,” Cooper said curtly.

There have been questions raised across the country about parties and gatherings of young people where the goal is to have COVID-19 spread through the crowd. It’s not clear whether the partygoers were ignoring social distancing measures to intentionally be infected with the fast-moving virus or whether they were of the opinion that their younger ages made them less vulnerable to severe reactions than older people, particularly those with underlying health conditions.

“There is no circumstance under which we want folks to actively pursue getting COVID-19,” Cohen said. “The reason we’re working so hard collectively to keep virus spread slow is that when there is more virus in our community, it not only impacts those who have it but, particularly those who are at high risk for getting severe reactions to the disease.”

Though no North Carolina incident was cited, Cohen said public health officials have heard such talk and have major concerns about reversing the collective impact of the stay-at-home order and social distancing measures that upended the economy and daily life.

“So what we’re hearing is young folks are saying, ‘I think I’m fine, I’m going to get COVID-19,’” Cohen said. “But they’re out in their communities. They’re spreading the virus further.”

It becomes even more dangerous for people with more chronic diseases who make needed trips to grocery stores, health care providers, pharmacies and other essential errands.

As of Monday, 43 percent of the COVID-19 lab-confirmed cases have been in people ages 25 to 49. Though people 65 and older make up only 20 percent of those testing positive for the virus, 85 percent of the deaths have been in that age group.

There has been talk off and on throughout the pandemic about trying to build so-called “herd immunity” instead of taking more restrictive measures to slow the virus spread as job losses mount and the weariness of staying at home sets in.

“We implore folks not to do that,” Cohen said. “We are nowhere near herd immunity. A party would not help us in any way. Please do not do that.”

Cooper added: “If you do that, you can easily kill someone you love.” — Anne Blythe

Big numbers, big decisions ahead

Over the weekend, North Carolina saw its highest day-over-day increase of COVID-19 lab-confirmed cases.

Between Friday and Saturday, labs reported 853 new cases of the virus — nearly 4.4 percent of the 19,203 positive results for all of North Carolina.

“Any increase like this is concerning and a reminder about how quickly this virus can spread,” Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said Monday during a briefing with the media.

Cohen and her team are digging into the data to try to better understand the weekend increase.

“One of the things we know is related to the fact that we are increasing our testing,” Cohen said. “With more testing, we expect to see more cases.”

What Cohen and her team weigh the hike against is the percentage of overall tests that come back positive. That hovers at nearly 6 or 7 percent, she said. That percentage does not trouble her at this time while enough hospital beds remain available to handle any surge of severe complications from the infection.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper listens during a briefing on COVID-19 at the Joint Force Headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, May 18, 2020. Photo credit: NC Dept. of Public Safety

Gov. Roy Cooper’s modified stay-at-home order is set to expire on Friday. Neither he nor Cohen would commit at the Monday briefing to the easing of restrictions or an extension of the order.

Georgia and South Carolina have eased restrictions sooner than North Carolina, and Cooper and his team are watching those states for any guidance or lessons they might provide.

But figuring out what really is happening in Georgia could be difficult after the state Department of Public Health there posted misleading charts and graphs last week.

“I still think it’s a little too early to tell the effects of easing the restrictions a few weeks ago,” Cooper said. “I know Georgia has had some trouble with reporting its data and maybe it looked a little rosier than it actually is when they came back and corrected that data.

“I continue to hope and pray that the numbers are good in Georgia and South Carolina and other states that have been a little quicker to ease restrictions,” Cooper continued. “What we’re hoping is that we continue this steady push where we make sure that we don’t overwhelm our hospitals and that we have enough hospital space in the event that we have many more infections of COVID-19 than we anticipate.”

Cooper has been asked numerous times about whether he and his team would support a regional or county-by-county approach.

“As we’ve said many times the virus does not respect county lines,” Cooper responded. “Many people often live in one county, work in another county, play in another county.”

Cooper said he has been in contact with county and city leaders hoping to get out from under a statewide order to loosen restrictions quicker than some of the places with more COVID-19 infection.

“Though there may be fewer cases in some counties, the per capita rate may be higher than in some urban counties,” Cooper said.

Watch for an update midweek, Cooper said, about whether the state will move into the next phase of easing restrictions over the weekend.

“If we are able to move into phase two, there really would not be a need right now for a regional or county-by-county approach because we’ll be putting out a new executive order that would allow more freedom,” Cooper added. “We’re continuing to keep the regional approach as a point of discussion, and are looking at the potential.”

If Cooper and his team decide it’s too soon to ease restrictions further over the weekend for the entire state, the governor said the regional approach “is something we would take a closer look at.” — Anne Blythe

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Monday morning:

  • 661 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 19,023 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 511 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.
  • 11,627 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 255,000 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.
  • 130 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,330 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 778 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

Rules restricting large indoor worship services temporarily lifted

James C. Dever III, a federal judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina, has given churches and other houses of worship a cautionary go-ahead to hold indoor services while a lawsuit challenging the governor’s stay-at-home order proceeds in court.

The order was issued on Saturday as part of the lawsuit filed by two Baptist churches, the pastor of one of the churches and an organization of conservative Christian leaders in North Carolina called Return America.

The lawsuit was filed on May 14 by Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, its founder and pastor Ronnie Baity, who also is president of Return America, and People’s Baptist Church in Greenville.

They argued that Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide stay-at-home order allowing some stores and retail outlets to operate at 50 percent capacity, but limiting indoor church services to no more than 10 people except when there is a funeral violates their rights to free speech, assembly and equal protection.

Though a hearing on the churches’ request for the judge to block the order is not set until May 29, Dever issued a temporary restraining order saying: “The Governor cannot treat religious worship as a world apart from non-religious activities with no good, or more importantly, constitutional, explanation.”

Though a full hearing is set for May 29 on the challengers’ request to block the effects of the stay-at-home order related to houses of worship, Dever issued a temporary order saying that keeping the restrictions on houses of worship until then would be damaging to the churches.

“In effect, the assembly for religious worship provisions … place worshipers between Scylla and Charybdis, forcing them to choose between obeying their faith or risking criminal prosecution for a Class 2 misdemeanor,” Dever wrote in the ruling, mentioning the six-headed monster that lived on a rock and the menacing whirlpool awaiting Odysseus in Greek mythology.

Cooper’s staff announced over the weekend that his office would not appeal the temporary order.

Dever acknowledged in his order that the “Governor’s interest in protecting the public during a public health emergency is both compelling and sincere.”

“The court also understands that “[t]he right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community… to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”

Last week, Cooper urged church leaders to follow social distancing measures and to try when possible to hold church services online or outdoors.

The existing stay-at-home order expires May 22. Cooper told reporters on Monday that he has not decided whether restrictions would be eased further at that time or if he would extend the measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

“The public has a compelling interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19,” the order continues. “Lives are at risk, particularly among the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and lung disease. But the instinct for self-survival is strong. The court trusts worshipers and their leaders to look after one another and society while exercising their free exercise rights just as they and their fellow citizens (whether religious or not) do when engaged in non-religious activities.” — Anne Blythe

Senate leader says Medicaid expansion unlikely in upcoming session

Almost a million North Carolinians have lost their jobs since the start of the crisis generated by the coronavirus pandemic, and with those lost jobs, many people have also lost health insurance coverage.

It’s yet unclear how many of those unemployed workers might be eligible for subsidized health insurance through the Affordable Care Act online insurance marketplace. It’s also unclear how many people might not qualify for a subsidy because they fell into an earnings “gap” left open when North Carolina declined to expand the Medicaid program.

A dispute between the legislature and Gov. Roy Cooper over the policy was one of the prime reasons they were unable to agree on a state budget in the past year.

In a media briefing held at the General Assembly building to kick off the upcoming legislative session, Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) threw water on advocates’ hopes for expansion.

“I do not see where we’re going to have the funds to do the expansion or whether expansion at this point in time makes for good policy,” Berger said.

He said that federal dollars have been appropriated to pay for COVID-related testing and care for anyone who might be uninsured. He also pointed out that hospitals have been on the receiving end of federal dollars to mitigate the expenses they’ve incurred in preparing for the coronavirus pandemic.

When asked what he would say to workers who might fall into the gap, Berger answered, “There are federal dollars that are coming into the state of North Carolina that are intended to address that unique situation.” – Rose Hoban

EMS workers get their shout-out

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, and Mike Sprayberry, director of emergency management, often take a moment to recognize health care and frontline workers who play a large role in helping North Carolinians during this pandemic.

National Emergency Medical Service Week falls between May 17 and 23.

“I want to give a special thank you to the 42,000 brave men and women serving as EMS professionals across our state,” Cohen said. “On the best of days, this is an incredibly challenging job. But during this pandemic, these frontline workers have had to step up in extraordinary ways. You’ve done so with amazing resolve and compassion.”

Sprayberry offered a hand salute. — Anne Blythe

Mental health moment

Wonder what it might look like at some of those favorite haunts you used to visit before we ever knew there was a fast-moving pathogen called COVID-19?

Fish Tales Bar & Grill in Ocean City, Maryland worked with Revolution Event Design and Production in Baltimore to come up with a new mobile table design that just might keep guests six feet apart while dining and drinking.

If nothing else, it could make bumping into someone you haven’t seen in a while even more abnormal in our new normal.

Have a look. Think it will work there? How about North Carolina?

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...