By North Carolina Health News staff
Task force created to address COVID-19 impact on communities of color
As the death of George Floyd under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee highlights systemic racism and inequities for people of color at all levels of society, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order on Thursday to begin addressing some of the issues highlighted by COVID-19.
The order directs state agencies to establish specific measures to help communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
In North Carolina, African Americans make up 22 percent of the population, yet represent 30 percent of the lab-confirmed cases in which racial data were available. Thirty-four percent of the state’s death toll has been in the African American population.
LatinX people represent 10 percent of the North Carolina population, yet make up 39 percent of the lab-confirmed cases.
“I want to be clear that there is nothing inherent to black or brown people that makes them more susceptible to severe COVID-19 illness,” Cooper said. “The data should not be used to further racism or fear. The disparity is because people of color have historically had less access to health care, housing, economic opportunity and more. This virus is exploiting those inequalities and it’s up to us to do something about it.”
Through his order, Cooper established a new task force named for Andrea Harris, a founder of the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development and tireless advocate for minority- and women-led businesses. Harris died May 20 at 72.
“My friend Andrea Harris dedicated her life to eliminating disparities in North Carolina,” Cooper said. “She fought for social, economic and racial equity. We lost Andrea a few weeks ago and our state will miss her advocacy and her action.”
Machelle Sanders, secretary of the state Department of Administration, will lead the task force that takes up her mantle and more.
The task force will focus on access to health care, patient engagement in health care settings, economic opportunities in business development and employment, environmental justice and inclusion, and education, Cooper said.
Sanders said that while the foundation for the task force has been under construction for some time, the announcement of the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental, and Health Equity Task Force is timely.
The task force will pull a diverse group of people from each of the five areas of focus and develop a long-term, evidence-based, data-driven plan designed to bring change.
“Addressing disparities in health and health care is important not only from an equity standpoint but also for improving the health more broadly,” Sanders said. “As a unified state, I know that we can get through these difficult times together. However, we also must acknowledge the systemic inequities that class, race, gender and other social determinants present. We are not all faced with the same challenges.”
Social determinants such as economic disparities, housing issues, transportation problems, environmental inequities and more play a role in overall health.
“Health inequities are a result of more than individual choices or random occurrence,” Sanders said. “They are the result of ongoing interplay of inequitable structures, policies and norms that shape lives.”
Policies and structures and norms such as segregation, red-lining and foreclosure and implicit bias play a role in the longstanding disparities.
“As President Obama said, ‘Change isn’t easy, but it is always possible’ and we are going to work to achieve that possibility for the state of North Carolina,” Sanders said. — Anne Blythe
GOP Convention questions continue
It’s possible, Gov. Roy Cooper said, that Charlotte could host part of the Republican Convention in August with social distancing plans in place and President Donald Trump could give his speech elsewhere.
The governor and the president have been at odds over how a convention could be held in late August as COVID-19 remains a viral threat.
“I was told by the President that he insisted on a full arena, 19,000 people inside the Spectrum arena with no masks, with no social distancing, and that we, the state of North Carolina, had to guarantee that they could do that at the end of August,” Cooper said. “We said we want the convention here, we’re willing to work with you on outside venues, we’re willing to try to find a way that you can safely do it, but we cannot guarantee that.”
Trump tweeted earlier this week that there would be a search for a new site and new state for the convention. But nothing has been confirmed.
There still is a possibility that business meetings and lead-up sessions to the keynote speech could be in Charlotte and the president holds the kind of rally he envisions elsewhere. — Anne Blythe
A phase 2.5 with bar and gym openings?
Gov. Roy Cooper, facing a slew of lawsuits from bar owners, private gyms and others upset with the executive order prohibiting them from reopening yet, hinted at another executive order in the near future that might address some of their concerns.
Cooper was asked about a bill adopted by the General Assembly last week that would allow bars to open outdoors with social distancing measures and at half capacity. If he plans to veto it, he has to do so within a few days or it becomes law without his signature.
A similar bill could come across his desk soon allowing private gyms to open despite the executive order banning them.
Cooper has said legislation poses a problem on its own during a pandemic because if a surge in new cases and hospitalizations might call for a renewed shutdown, the bill would prevent state or local governments from dialing back those businesses. The General Assembly would be the only body that can change the law.
Cooper stressed that his decisions have been guided by data, trends and metrics being tracked by public health officials. The existing order that keeps gyms, bars, private playgrounds and more closed still expires on June 26.
“We’re analyzing whether bars and gyms should be able to open,” Cooper said. “I will say there’s a possibility that even before we get to the timeline of phase three that we might want to do a phase 2.5 or look at some of these additional items.” — Anne Blythe
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday morning:
- 960 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 31,966 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 659 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.
- 18,860 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 468,000 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 (45 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 17 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 83 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
- 167 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
- There are 3,082 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 810 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.
You’ve got your COVID numbers, we’ve got ours, say CMS and NC
North Carolina has its numbers on the COVID-19 pandemic and the federal government has a set, too.
Noticeable gaps separate the two. The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which has recently emphasized transparency, revealed a hefty new database Thursday afternoon that put North Carolina’s cases of coronavirus infection in nursing homes at 1,425, leading to 322 deaths.
New programs often launch amid error and inaccurate data entry, CMS administrator Seema Verma said during a conference call with reporters.
“We should expect to see some fluctuations in the data,” Verma said. “That being said, we are working on quality control. In terms of the data, where we see discrepancies we’re communicating directly with the nursing home to try to address that.”
Through any counting measure, deaths related to COVID-19 keep coming hard at residents of the state’s long-term care centers. The state says a total of 575 residents have died. On top of deaths in nursing homes, there have been 73 people from North Carolina assisted living centers whose deaths are linked to the virus.
That comes out to roughly a 58 percent share of the state’s 960 COVID deaths, in keeping with a roughly 60 percent rate that’s been the trend in recent weeks.
Although the federal numbers appear to be a work in progress, substantive data will likely emerge from them. In one example, the CMS release identifies 10 nursing homes in which residents have had no access to testing.
In addition, CMS is compiling locations of laboratories where tests are processed, showing that half of the facilities had samples processed in places other than the State Laboratory of Public Health in Raleigh. However, the federal information includes more than 700 lines for nursing homes, when the state’s listings include about 430. — Thomas Goldsmith
Prison COVID information remains difficult to access
During today’s press briefing, Gov. Roy Cooper made a point about the many inequities affecting African Americans and other people of color when it comes to accessing health care, jobs and education.
Another place where people of color are disproportionately represented is in the state’s prison system.
“African Americans make up 22 percent of our state’s population, they make up 52 percent of people who are in prison,” Cooper told reporters. “Those are the kinds of things that we have to deal with head on.”
When asked when the public could get more information about how COVID-19 infections are playing out behind bars, Cooper said that the “Department of Public Safety can certainly provide that information.”
Yet DPS has not been forthcoming about what’s happening within the state’s prisons.
NC Health News has made multiple requests for information that have been refused or that remain unanswered.
When the virus outbreaks started in NC prisons, we asked how many inmates had been tested for the virus and DPS declined to share that information. The department later released those numbers.
When asked how many inmates have been hospitalized, DPS has refused to share that information. Officials have also declined to share what plan is in place if large numbers of inmates required hospitalization. The prison system is unable to treat inmates with severe cases of COVID-19 because it does not have any ventilators.
In early April, DPS reported its first positive case of COVID-19. A male inmate in his 60s at the Caledonia Correctional Complex in Tillery, according to an April 1 press release.
Soon after, 30 inmates tested positive at Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro. DPS tested some 700 inmates, with more than 400 of tests coming back positive. Around that time, the department created a dashboard with numbers of inmates being tested, and the results of those tests. That dashboard shows that three inmates from Neuse CI have now died.
“The large-scale outbreak at Neuse Correctional shows just how overcrowded, unhygienic prisons are a tinderbox for COVID-19,” CEO of Disability Rights NC Virginia Knowlton Marcus said in a release about a lawsuit filed by the organization on April 20.
On May 6, NC Health News asked for information about hospitalizations and the number of inmates displaying symptoms of the virus, but the department refused to release the information.
“I do not have the percentage of COVID-19 positive offenders who are now symptomatic. We are too busy with ongoing issues to keep that metric,” wrote public affairs officer, John Bull.
“I don’t have a number on hospitalizations,” he continued. “Offenders may be hospitalized for various reasons and durations. They may go to the hospital at Central Prison or to outside medical facilities because they need advanced medical care, or may potentially need advanced medical care or because they should be removed from environments that pose potential medical issues if they have underlying health concerns. Naturally, we can discuss none of those issues because they are part of an offender’s record, which is not public information under HIPAA, General Statute and court rulings.”
However, DPS is tracking the number of inmates who have been hospitalized with COVID-19. Prison Commissioner Todd Ishee told state lawmakers on Tuesday that he has that number and could share it privately with them.
Currently, it’s impossible to know the severity of outbreaks within the state’s correctional system. Last month, NC Health News signed onto a lawsuit filed by more than a dozen media companies which details multiple occasions where DPS has not provided information about COVID-19 prevalence, testing and transfers of inmates and deaths. – Rose Hoban and Taylor Knopf
FS Verified Complaint and Request for Mediation (PDF)