a woman standing at a podium takes off her mask worn against COVID-19
North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen removes her mask before speaking at a press conference held June 22 at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Screenshot courtesy: UNC TV

By North Carolina Health News staff

Connecting North Carolinians to ‘whole health’ help in all 100 counties

A mother of three went to a Johnston County church one Wednesday evening not too long ago and asked for the community there to pray for her because she wanted to get back on her feet.

That church, according to Georgina Dukes, Unite Us Network director, was one of the 1,118 organizations that has joined NCCARE360. The network, launched on March 4, 2019, pulls together an array of expertise and connections in health care settings, housing, transportation, interpersonal safety and employment programs across the state to provide quick boots-on-the-ground help for individuals in need.

“They not only prayed for her on that Wednesday evening, but one of the staff created a profile and sent an electronic referral for that mother after Bible study around 9 p.m. for employment,” Dukes recounted Monday afternoon at a news briefing with Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services.

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Cohen and Dukes announced that NCCARE360 is now available in each of the state’s 100 counties. The statewide project is fully launched six months ahead of schedule. The network helps people in need get help through organizations collected electronically. The process makes it easier for health care and human service providers to get people to the right person to help, instead of sending them out into the world with a list of bureaucratic options that can be a maze to navigate and no follow-up.

“We realize that we as North Carolinians are done putting our community members through traumatic cycles of seeking help,” Dukes said.

That mother of three, according to Dukes, was contacted the next morning at 8:30 by the NCWorks Career Center, only half a day after she was so in need of new direction that she sought the prayers of others. The center provided her employment assistance in record time.

“These two agencies that would not traditionally refer to each other were able to successfully help a mother get employed, by not giving her a sheet of resources and hoping it works out,” Dukes said. “The mother was able to seek help from a door she trusted because we meet people where they are, not where we want them to be.”

As of 1 p.m. Monday, Dukes said, more than 2,400 people, or “lives,” had received help from NCCARE360.

“When we say ‘lives,’ we are referring to our friends, our family members, our neighbors and colleagues who are seeking help to address a social need within the past 12 months,” Dukes said.

In recent years, there has been a focus on “whole care,” with attention given to housing, transportation and employment that, when lacking, can have a detrimental impact on overall health.

“As many of us know, it can be very challenging for anyone to navigate in crisis, and access to health and social care is not always equitable,” Dukes said.

The network tool created by NCCARE360 attempts to connect churches, religious organizations, non-profits, government entities, and more, with each other so they can quickly know what resources are available, as well as monitor cases as they move through programs.

Cohen stressed the importance of such a system as the state battles COVID-19.

Because of long-standing health care access disparities for communities of color in North Carolina, Black, Latin and Hispanic communities have been hit hardest during the pandemic. Because many rely on lower-wage, frontline jobs to keep shelter over their heads and food on the table, the pressure to work when sick weighs heavily.

“Having this infrastructure in place puts our state in a way stronger position to address the devastating impact of COVID-19 on so many of our residents. It’s going to help us recover,” Cohen said. “NCCARE360 breaks down silos that have created barriers to needed care and community services, particularly in our rural communities. Those silos also exacerbate the health disparities that we see across our state.”

The network was built through a public-private partnership. The Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation, United Way of NC, NC 2-1-1, Expound Decision Systems, and Unite Us have partnered with the state health department to develop and implement the network.

Organizations interested in joining the network should go to uniteus.com/join. — Anne Blythe

shows a woman standing at a podium, there's another woman behind her wearing a mask against COVID-19
Georgina Dukes explains how NCCares360 could facilitate connecting people needing help to the correct services through the statewide database approach during a press conference at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh on June 22. Screenshot courtesy: UNC TV

Find COVID-19 clusters in child care centers and schools

The state Department of Health and Human Services announced plans to add a new tool to its dashboard on Monday afternoon through which parents and others can track clusters of COVID-19 in child care facilities and schools.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state DHHS, told reporters at a media briefing on Monday, before the information went live, that there are three clusters in child care facilities.

Schools have been closed for in-person instruction since March. Gov. Roy Cooper and Cohen have laid out two scenarios for how schools might be able to open again in August. They also have suggested that if current coronavirus metrics and trends do not begin to reverse soon, more online and at-home learning could be in store for children and parents in the late summer and fall.

The dashboard also will include more demographic data for each county, including gender, age, race and ethnicity.

Cohen and her team have stressed the difficulties of collecting data from some of the more rural and smaller health care systems and departments that have not been able to upgrade technology through the years for a variety of reasons.

It was not until recently that the federal government required all laboratories to report detailed demographic data when they report test results.

The requirement takes effect Aug. 1. Cohen has said contact tracers hope to help backfill some of the gaps in North Carolina reports. — Anne Blythe


Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Monday afternoon:

  • 1,223 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 53,605 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 870 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.
  •  36,921 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 757,000 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 (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.
  • 191 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 2,856 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 855 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

Proposed cuts would affect transit for seniors, people with disabilities

Advocates for the aging and disability communities are scrambling today after a bill to address the $700 million budget deficit at the state Department of Transportation passed the Senate and was sent to the House of Representatives.

House Bill 77 ends a number of programs with deep cuts to public transportation dollars. And the bill zeroes out the Rural Operating Assistance Program, which is an $18.4 million program that funds elderly and disability transportation.

The state DOT has been hammered in recent years by an expensive lawsuit settlement plus extra costs incurred by speeding up projects. Added onto that have been the high costs for repairs on multiple roads damaged by flooding from Hurricanes Matthew, Florence and Dorian. Then, in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has slashed gas tax revenue as fewer people took to the roads. In sum, it means a huge deficit that lawmakers are trying to address.

But Alison Costanzo from the NC Coalition on Aging said this particular cut would hurt rural residents who are older or have disabilities.

“Transportation is a huge problem for a lot of seniors who are living at home,” Costanzo said. “They’re homebound, can’t drive, they rely on services like this to get to medical appointments, grocery stores, et cetera.

“This is a major issue for them.”

The bill proposes that some of the federal coronavirus relief funding that’s coming to states via the CARES Act be used as a stopgap for this year and next. But Costanzo and other advocates and lobbyists at the legislature are always wary of cuts followed by temporary funding, because when dollars go away from the state budget, they often never return. In practical terms, it means that programs can’t make plans because they don’t know if next year’s funds will follow this year’s.

“You’re making plans for this year to spend it without knowing if you’ll get it next year,” she said. “So you don’t want to build your infrastructure up too much being not sure what the new normal will be ultimately.”

Kim Angel from the Macon County Transportation Authority said last year her agency received $165,000 from the ROAP program, which paid for senior and disability transit, along with subsidized bus lines that got essential workers to work and regular folks to the grocery store during the lockdown.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, she said monthly ridership is down as much as 80 percent, and with it farebox revenues.

She said losing the ROAP allocation means that “rather than helping us recover from some of the losses, we’ll have to use this money to replace money that we had counted on to provide services.” – Rose Hoban

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