By North Carolina Health News staff

Count On Me NC campaign

Now that restaurants can serve diners inside again with new social distancing requirements, a large question looms: Will diners feel comfortable enough to return?

With that in mind, the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association has helped develop the Count On Me NC program in collaboration with state public health officials, the state’s tourism marketing program and Ben Chapman, a professor and food safety extension specialist at N.C. State University.

The Count On Me program offers free online courses for businesses that are gradually reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a voluntary program that will be part of a marketing campaign to boost consumer confidence, as well as let restaurateurs know their guests are doing their best, too, not to spread the virus.

Lynn Minges, president and chief executive officer of the restaurant and lodging association, outlined the program on Friday at the governor’s briefing with the media.

The training focuses on intensive cleaning, how to thoroughly disinfect spaces, hygiene and social distancing practices to better protect the public and employees from exposure to COVID-19.

Restaurants and businesses that complete the course receive signs to display in windows or elsewhere in their establishments to show their commitment to using the new safety protocols. Eatery websites also will be able to display the logo. Servers might be wearing pins or badges, acknowledging the commitment.

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Minges said 3,500 businesses have completed the training already, and perhaps as many as 10,000 employees have been trained.

“There is no question that North Carolina’s restaurants and our hospitality community have been significantly impacted by this pandemic,” Minges said. “During this challenging time, we’ve looked for ways to help our community to prepare for this reopening.”

The program, Minges said, is a public health initiative that encourages guests and businesses to work together to protect everyone’s safety.

“This program is an acknowledgment that we’re all in this together, and Count On Me NC conveys a sense of mutual responsibility,” Minges said.

There are separate training modules for restaurant owners and managers, back-of-the-house employees, front-of-the-house workers and cleaning staff.

Participating businesses will be listed in the Count On Me NC website. Visitors to the site will be able to sort the businesses by keywords or by map locations.

Restaurant diners may also go onto the website and add their names to a pledge to follow social distancing protocols.

“We all have a role to play in keeping our communities safe and healthy, when visiting restaurants, businesses and other public places,” Minges said. “We know that North Carolinians are ready to do their part.”

Gov. Roy Cooper was asked earlier in the week what restaurant he planned to dine in first. He said at the time that he had been eating a lot of pizza while working long hours so it was unlikely to be a pizzeria.

When asked Friday if he would feel comfortable eating in a restaurant again over the weekend, he said he would.

“Yes, I would feel comfortable going to a restaurant,” Cooper responded while adding that he might not visit one this weekend. “I hope I can spend some time with my family this weekend. We’re continuing to work on issues here, and we’ll be working through the weekend, but yes I would feel comfortable.

“I would certainly want that restaurant to be following all of the personal safety rules, and doing everything they can to prevent the transfer COVID-19,” Cooper continued. “We hope that people will feel safe enough to go to our restaurants throughout the state, and we hope that all of the restaurants continue to obey the rules. I think they’ll find that that’s good business for them to do that.” — Anne Blythe

Are craft breweries bars?

North Carolina has developed a thriving craft beer industry since the “Pop the Cap” law was adopted in 2005, allowing breweries to create hand-crafted beers with more than 6 percent alcohol.

Now, with 328 breweries, taprooms and brewpubs across the state, the guild representing this sector of the economy said members are not sure whether they can open this weekend as social distancing restrictions are eased.

Gov. Roy Cooper issued a new executive order this week that allows restaurants to open Friday evening, but keeps bars closed still due to public health officials’ concerns about the increasing number of lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in recent days.

“Throughout the COVID-19 shut-down, the NC craft beer industry has acted in a responsible manner making the safety of our customers and employees our top priority,” Richard Greene, executive director of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, said in a statement posted online May 21. “We have enacted protocols in accordance with CDC and NCDHHS guidelines, consistent with requirements and guidance for NC restaurants, that would allow our breweries to reopen on a modified basis for onsite consumption, without sacrificing public safety, and allowing for appropriate social distancing and sanitation protocols.”

Gov. Roy Cooper was asked whether the brewpubs, which think of themselves as different from bars, could reopen under the most recent order.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said her team would issue guidance on Friday that might provide answers to some of the questions. — Anne Blythe

shows a mobile hospital that's being deployed for COVID treatment
The new MED-1 is the second mobile hospital in Atrium Health’s fleet. The facility will be placed in the infield for the Coca-Cola 600 this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Each MED-1 mobile hospital consists of up to 14 acute care beds, a 2-bed operating room, digital X-ray capabilities, ultrasounds, an on-site lab, a pharmacy and other essential emergency department necessities. The hospital is currently deployed to a hospital in Georgia to assist with additional emergency room capabilities. Photo courtesy: Atrium Health.

NASCAR back, Atrium rolls out MED-1 mobile hospital for races

The loss of live televised sports during the pandemic has given birth to numerous complaints from those missing their teams while stuck at home.

The situation also has provoked much creativity as sports leagues and associations search for ways to bring some competitions back in this new age of abnormal.

On Sunday, NASCAR will hold the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The races will be televised, but no fans will be allowed in the stands.

“Our health officials have worked closely with NASCAR and the Charlotte Motor Speedway to ensure a safe Coca-Cola 600 this weekend,” Gov. Roy Cooper said at a news conference Friday afternoon. “I know a lot of people are looking forward to this live sporting event on TV. I know that I am and that we’re glad that since North Carolina is the home of NASCAR, that we’re going to be having this event here.”

Cooper said NASCAR had been very thoughtful in developing a plan to protect employees, drivers, pit crews and people who work on the cars from the virus.

NASCAR submitted a plan to the state Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the Mecklenburg County health department.

“I think they are ready to put on a very safe race,” Cooper said. “No spectators will be there. That is because we know that …when people gather together the risk of infection is so much higher, and this is why we continue to have in our executive order the mass gathering ban.”

The order restricts crowds to no more than 25 people outdoors.

NASCAR will hold races at the speedway Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

While there, Atrium Health will deploy members of its Sports and Events Medicine team to provide fever screenings and symptom monitoring for drivers, their support teams and any media at the event.

“In many ways, North Carolina has been a model of success in combating COVID-19 and the social distancing directives in our state have successfully slowed the spread,” Brian Middleton, vice president of Atrium Health’s Musculoskeletal Institute, the primary sports medicine provider, said in a statement. “As we look for ways to return to normalcy, having ‘race day’ at Charlotte Motor Speedway happen over Memorial Day weekend is a sign of hope and a sign of healing.”

The health care system will debut its new, state-of-the-art MED-1 mobile hospital. Atrium Health has a fully functional hospital in the speedway infield. The new mobile hospital will be onsite for anyone who may need COVID-19 treatment during the races.

“When we talk about being COVID-Safe, it defines Atrium Health’s commitment to identify and isolate people who may potentially have COVID-19,” Katie Kaney, Atrium Health’s senior vice president and chief administrative officer, said in a statement.”That means housing and treating COVID-positive patients in separate areas, treating them with separate staff, all with the ultimate goal of protecting others from exposure.” — Anne Blythe

No football or basketball, but maybe other sports

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said her team has been working on guidance for sports leagues and summer camps.

Because COVID-19 is so contagious, there are unlikely to be any recommendations to resume such contact sports as football and basketball any time soon.

But a public health team has been working with the N.C. High School Athletic Association and other sports organizations so clearer guidance can be offered as summer leagues and schools consider their sports seasons ahead.

Tennis, golf and swimming are among the lower-risk sports, Cohen said. Talks still are underway for how baseball might resume.

“Sports are so important to the formation of character, for fitness,” Gov. Roy Cooper said. “I love sports. I grew up participating on sport teams all the way through high school, and I know how important they can be for the education of children. So start out knowing that this is something we want to have happening as we approach the school year.

“At the same time, we have to understand the presence of COVID-19, and I don’t think we have all of the answers to those questions yet.” — Anne Blythe

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Friday morning:

  • 728 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 21,618 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 568 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections 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 303,000 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 (43 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 19 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 84 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 143 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,252 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 804 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

As Memorial Day approaches, 146 COVID-19 cases tallied in veterans homes

Twenty-three veterans of U.S. service have died of COVID-19 in North Carolina veterans nursing homes this spring, and 146 others have contracted cases of the death-dealing virus, state health officials said Friday.

The N.C. State Veterans Nursing Home in Salisbury has had 43 cases and seven deaths; the Fayetteville facility, 19 cases and one death among staff and residents; and the home in Kinston, five cases and one death, with all outbreaks listed as ongoing.

A previous outbreak at the Durham VA Community Living Center resulted in 6 cases and no deaths. The state Department of Health and Human Services said Friday that the outbreak at the Durham center is over. An outbreak at another Durham facility continues, with the number of cases at the Durham Nursing & Rehabilitation Center climbing to a total of 111 cases with 16 deaths.

According to the twice-weekly DHHS listing of coronavirus cases in long-term care, the 442 deaths comprised a little more than 60 percent of the state’s total of 728 deaths.

The situation for veterans has been much more severe at facilities such as the New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus, where more than 70 residents have died, the New York Times reported.

Correction: We originally gave an incorrect number for cases and deaths at the Durham VA Community Living Center. The correct numbers were six cases and no deaths. The state Department of Health and Human Services said Friday that the outbreak at the Durham VA center is over. An outbreak at an unrelated Durham facility continues, with the count at the Durham Nursing & Rehabilitation Center rising to a total of 111 cases with 16 deaths.

How does COVID compare to flu?

NC DHHS figures show that 203 people died from laboratory-confirmed cases of the seasonal flu between Sept. 30, 2018, and May 11, 2019, the state’s flu season. While others likely died from flu-related causes (a tally that gets calculated after the fact), this official death toll comes in at a rate of about 27 deaths monthly.

By comparison, from the first North Carolina death attributed to COVID-19 on March 25, 716 people have died from the virus, state officials said Thursday. That means that more than 358 people per month have succumbed to the disease so far.

That doesn’t take into account the people who likely died of COVID-related causes who haven’t been counted yet. That after-the-fact calculation involves tabulating the “excess” number of deaths over what’s expected to occur in a given week.

Because North Carolina is one of the last states to rely on paper-based death certificates, these data lag behind that of many other states that have already seen increases in their weekly death rates over prior years’ numbers.

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