By North Carolina Health News staff

In this campaign year, governor stumps for the face mask

Gov. Roy Cooper has not ruled out the possibility of reinstating social distancing restrictions if the state’s hospitals look as if they will be overwhelmed with patients battling severe COVID-19 infections as admissions continue to steadily climb.

What he would rather do, Cooper said, is get North Carolinians from all walks of life to embrace face coverings and start wearing them consistently, just because they care about protecting the health of other people and themselves.

His beseeching comes as the percentage of lab-confirmed cases is double what public health officials would like to see at this stage in the pandemic and the number of people in hospital beds continues to hit record highs.

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On Thursday, 857 people were hospitalized with illness related to COVID-19 and 1,333 new lab-confirmed cases were reported.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said recent increases are being driven largely by younger people.

“People ages 25 to 49,” Cohen said, while not being able to tie them to any one mass gathering, such as a protest or a high-risk workplace.

“While younger people are at lower risk for severe COVID-19 disease, they still can spread it to others who are at higher risk,” Cohen said.

There has been a push and pull as North Carolinians are more mobile, going to restaurants, hair and nail salons, and other businesses as the governor tries to jumpstart an economy that almost ground to a halt during the early months of the pandemic.

Schools were closed, restaurants shut down nearly overnight, bars, barbershops, bowling alleys, salons and more were put on the sidelines by a virus with its own timeline.

North Carolinians largely stayed home and slowed the spread of the virus for nearly two months. But since May, activity has picked up again and so has the virus spread. Some have described the recent urge to do more with fewer restrictions “quarantine fatigue.”

Many across the state seem to be divided about the importance of face coverings, either eschewing them for political reasons, discomfort or questioning the fierceness of COVID-19 against all but the most vulnerable.

“We need more people to wear masks,” Cooper said. “We need to figure out the best way to do that.”

Cooper has spoken multiple times this week about the possibility of the state requiring face coverings and said there would be an announcement early next week that could include new mask requirements.

Some counties, such as Orange and Durham, and cities such as Raleigh have ordered mask wearing in public in some form or another.

In Virginia, everyone over the age of 10 is required to wear a face covering in public places.

shows a man in a suit and tie wearing a dark mask as a precaution against COVID
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper arrives for a press briefing on the COVID-19 virus at the Emergency Operations Center on Thursday, June 18, 2020 in Raleigh. Photo courtesy: NC Dept of Public Safety

Soon there will be public service announcements from hockey players, race car drivers, restaurant owners and others about the importance of mask wearing, Cooper said.

President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and many Republicans in the General Assembly in North Carolina often are seen without face coverings while in front of the public or in meeting rooms.

“We’ve got to remove the politics out of all this,” Cooper said. “We’ve got to realize that strong people wear face coverings because it is a sign of compassion and that you actually care about people.”

Cooper was asked what has held him back from making the face covering mandatory and was asked why he is waiting until next week.

“There are probably more than a dozen ways you could write a law requiring face masks in different kinds of settings for different kinds of people,” Cooper responded.

The governor and his team have to consider how to address the needs of people with disabilities unable to wear face coverings. There also has to be thought about age limits.

“If you are going to make a law, you have to be careful about what you’re doing,” Cooper responded. “You have to be specific and you have to have it based on your best evidence. You just can’t snap your finger and say, ‘Hey, it’s a rule. Everybody do it.’

“It’s got to be something that’s well thought through and something that will be effective with the least intrusion that we can have on people.”

Any such rule would need public buy-in or it would fail, he said.

“You’re also going to get better results, too, when you can convince the public, heart and soul, that this is a good thing to do,” Cooper said.

“So it’s going to be important for business leaders and preachers and athletes and people who are on television — stars — to come forward and say, ‘This is something we can do to slow the spread of the virus. I think everybody wants our economy to improve. Everybody wants things to be open. Hey, the best way to do that is to wear a mask and social distance.’” — Anne Blythe

$3.3 million prison plan for testing all inmates

Wake County Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier issued an order this week requiring state prison officials to come forward with a plan for how they would test all inmates for COVID-19 and isolate any whose results are positive.

Todd Ishee, the commissioner of prisons, outlined those plans on Thursday, four days before it is due to the judge.

Rozier issued a preliminary injunction on Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, Disability Rights North Carolina, the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation and several inmates.

They argued that the prison system was not doing enough to protect inmates from COVID-19 and that the plans in place constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

In his order, Rozier stated after hearing only limited evidence before trial, that the plaintiffs likely would succeed on the merits of their claim that the current conditions of confinement violate the North Carolina Constitution, as well as the Eighth Amendment.

“Plaintiffs have established a risk of irreparable harm, including the risk of COVID-19 rapidly spreading throughout the vulnerable prison population, along with the substantial risk of death and long-lasting health consequences stemming from the disease,” Rozier wrote.

Preliminary Injunction ordered by Judge Vinston Rozier, NC Superior Court against Gov. Roy Cooper, Public Safety Sec. Erik Hooks and other officials of the NC state prison system (Text)
Ishee announced on Thursday, based on new guidance from the state Department of Health and Human Services, that testing had begun on all 31,200 inmates housed in the state prisons.

The process could take at least 60 days, Ishee said, and cost $3.3 million. LabCorp will analyze the tests with results being sent to the division of prison’s offender health care records.

Results will continue to be posted on the Department of Public Safety website, Ishee said.

Testing was underway at Albemarle Correctional Institution in New London in Stanly County.

“We are already testing everyone transferred to prison from our county jails,” Ishee said.

Those inmates are being held under medical quarantine until the results are in. Additionally, Ishee said, testing of inmates will be done in the limited cases in which prison officials transfer them between facilities. In cases where they cannot test, the inmates will be kept in medical isolation for 14 days at the new facility.

To date, Ishee said, the prisons have tested 2,809 inmates, only 10 percent of the entire prison population. The majority of inmates who tested positive, Ishee said, are presumed to have recovered.

Of the 717 individuals who have tested positive, Ishee said, 605 have met criteria from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health department for release from medical isolation, leaving 112 still battling the virus.

“Our top priority is everyone’s health and their safety, and I mean everyone,” Ishee said. “I recognize this has been a very difficult time for our staff and offenders, and I am grateful to our hard-working and dedicated staff for their continued hard work and service to our state.

“I also appreciate the patience and assistance from our offenders during this unprecedented time in our history.” — Anne Blythe


Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:

  • 1,175 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 48,118 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 857 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.
  • 29,219 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 693,000 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 14 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 81 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 196 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,187 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 858 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

Tar River flooding amid the pandemic

As tough as it can be to try to find some sense of normalcy and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, people who live along the Tar River in eastern North Carolina had another stressor added to their lives when heavy rains this week brought more flooding to an area still recovering from recent hurricane damage.

Mike Sprayberry, director of emergency management, reminded North Carolinians that crisis can be layered upon crisis when he gave his update on Thursday.

“It’s day 101 of the state Emergency Operation Center’s COVID response,” Sprayberry said.

It’s also yet another time during the past four years that the Tar River has swollen far beyond its banks to a point where teams have had to help evacuate people from flooded homes and rushing waters.

shows a pretty doorway with a bright orange sign on it reading "UNSAFE Do not enter or occupy"
A home in Princeville, near the Tar River, was still noted as unsafe for habitation in March, 2017 months after flooding created by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Rocky Mount and much of low-lying Edgecombe County were underwater after Hurricane Matthew doused inland eastern North Carolina with heavy rain in 2016. That flood inundated Princeville, celebrated as the oldest town incorporated in this country by African Americans. The town has endured other flooding that damaged the homes and buildings numerous times over the past two and a half decades.

“River and stream levels are falling today across the Tar River basin where significant flooding continues, particularly in and around Rocky Mount and Nashville,” Sprayberry said. “Conditions are still dangerous there this afternoon.”

Many roads were flooded and closed, Sprayberry said.

“First responders are still rescuing people from flooded vehicles and homes,” Sprayberry added.

Forty-two homes in Nash County were evacuated on Wednesday, Sprayberry said.

The Tar River in Edgecombe is expected to peak on Saturday, Sprayberry said, noting the area of Princeville behind the levee should not be impacted.

“But we are monitoring very closely,” Sprayberry said. — Anne Blythe

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