By Anne Blythe

The last call for alcohol at North Carolina restaurants, breweries, wineries and distilleries will get earlier starting Friday.

Gov. Roy Cooper, in anticipation of college towns filling up again with young people in their late teens and early 20s, issued an executive order that will stop the sale of alcohol at 11 p.m. Bars will remain closed.

“We’ve not yet opened bars in North Carolina for a reason,” Cooper said at a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. “Public health experts and examples from other states show that bars and other places where people gather closely together are a high transmission setting for this virus.”

The order is designed to prevent restaurants that serve food with beer, wine and mixed drinks from becoming bars after the dinner rush slows and late-night menus offer fewer choices from the kitchens.

It also prevents the sale of alcohol from such establishments between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. for off-premises consumption.

The order will not apply to grocery or convenience stores permitted to sell alcohol for off-premise consumption.

Orange County, Mecklenburg County and Raleigh already have instituted early last calls, and if the orders in those places are stricter than the state curfew, the local time stands.

“This will be particularly important as colleges and universities are scheduled to start, bringing people from all over the country to our state,” Cooper said. “We’ve seen case numbers increase among younger people, and prevention is critical to slowing the spread of the virus.”

Glimmers of hope, face mask effect

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, provided a glimmer of hope as she presented her charts and graphs on Tuesday.

“Some of our metrics are showing early signs of stabilizing,” Cohen said.

The number of people showing up at emergency departments with COVID-like symptoms has been on the decline for the past seven days, Cohen said, a drop-off that signals a leveling if it continues through the next week.

A graph shows the number of people showing up at North Carolina’s emergency departments with symptoms of COVID-19 remains high, even though in the past week, the number has started to tick down, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen. “This is the most timely data we have and it’s our earliest detection mechanism. And this metric is not impacted by testing rates or other factors,” she said.
Cohen posited that the slight downturn could be indicative of the statewide mask mandate from early July taking effect, and she said it’s still too soon to relax efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The number of new cases continues to rise, but not as sharply over the past two weeks as it had been since the easing of the statewide stay-at-home order in late May.

North Carolina has been conducting about 29,000 tests per day during the past week. Eight percent have been coming back positive, the data show. That’s a slight drop-off from the 10-percent mark that had been troubling the public health team for weeks, but still not down to the more palatable 5-percent level showing slower virus spread.

According to Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen, it has taken several weeks after the statewide mask mandate to start to see a decline in the percentage of positive cases among people who test for COVID-19. “Today’s actions affect where we are a week from now or two weeks or a month, and slowing the spread takes a sustained effort from all of us,” she said. Screenshot courtesy: UNC TV

The number of people hospitalized in North Carolina with severe illness related to COVID-19 was the highest on Tuesday the state has seen during the coronavirus pandemic. Even with 1,244 patients hospitalized across the state, Cohen said, the health care systems have room for more.

The overall picture for the state brought four yellow caution lines from Cohen, but none of the red Xes signaling metrics and trends going in the wrong direction.

“The take away from today’s data is that our actions to slow the spread of this virus are having an impact,” Cohen said. “Specifically, we see a direct correlation to the start of the statewide mask requirement at the end of June. Two to three weeks after implementing this requirement we started to see the beginning of these more stable trends.”

North Carolina’s hospitalization numbers continue to increase, despite other indicators starting to trend downward. Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen explained that hospitalization is a “lagging indicator” which decreases more slowly, several weeks after the number of new cases declines and the percentage of positive cases drops. Screenshot courtesy: UNC TV

Cohen stressed that now is not the time to get lax on social distancing measures.

“Seeing glimmers of potential progress does not mean we can let up,” Cohen said. “It means it’s time to double down. While we’re stabilizing, these trends are still high.”

Cohen noted that North Carolina is still seeing nearly 2,000 new lab-confirmed cases per day.

“These early signs are a testament to the hard work folks have been doing across the state,” Cohen said. “They show what is possible when we all work together. When we look at the states around us that haven’t taken the slow approach to easing restrictions, and they haven’t required cloth face masks like North Carolina has, it’s clear that there is no ‘one and done’ with this virus. It takes consistent and ongoing work to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Trump visits NC, Pence on the way

Nearly two months have passed since North Carolina public health officials received a call in early June from Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, to discuss troubling increase in case counts and the number of people hospitalized.

The state is getting attention from President Donald Trump and his team again, but for different reasons.

Trump was in the state on Monday to tour the Fujifilm plant in Morrisville where work on a coronavirus vaccine is underway. Famous for eschewing face masks throughout much of the pandemic, Trump wore one in public during his brief stop in North Carolina.

The visit comes at a time when polling shows low job-approval rates for the president, as well as him trailing former Vice President Joe Biden, his presumptive challenger in the fall election, in North Carolina, which political analysts describe as a key swing state.

Vice President Mike Pence is slated to visit a private school in Apex on Wednesday at a time when the Trump administration is pushing for in-person learning for K-12 school children.

Cooper did not meet with Trump when he came to the state and said Tuesday that he was not keyed in to Pence’s schedule, but welcomed both in North Carolina.

“We’re very proud of what’s happening in biotechnology and life science and medicine in North Carolina,” Cooper said. “I think this is one of the best, if not the best, hubs in the world for research.”

The use of remdesivir, a drug that’s shown promise in the treatment of patients with COVID-19 illness, emerged from research conducted at UNC-Chapel Hill. Vaccine research on all kinds of coronaviruses is happening at academic health centers across the state. Clinical trials related to the pandemic also are being conducted here.

“We’re always glad to have our nation’s leaders come to North Carolina and be a part of it,” said Cooper, who just that day had been on a phone call with Pence, Birx and Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to discuss pandemic response.

Plans to help people facing eviction, utility shut-offs

Cooper also underscored a request he made last week for more help from the federal government with unemployment benefit supplements and coronavirus testing supplies for labs now experiencing shortages.

“As the end of this month approaches, I know that many families are concerned about rent, utility payments coming due,” Cooper said. “Federal unemployment benefits that were helping cover those bills will be cut off abruptly due to inaction in Washington. I continue urging North Carolina’s congressional delegation — and all of Congress — to put politics aside and do what’s right as this pandemic rages on. The $200 a week supplement is not enough, and Congress and the president need to do more.”

Cooper said he planned to announce a new state program soon that will use some of the federal money already allocated to North Carolina to help people facing eviction and utility shut-offs, as an order preventing such action expires on Wednesday.

“COVID-19 has made life difficult for families across our state,” Cooper said. “But it won’t be this hard forever. We’re encouraged that vaccine development is showing promise, and that we can win this fight against this pandemic. For now, let’s stick together and do what we know works to prevent the disease spread while supporting each other. That’s how we’ll make it through.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • 1,820 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 116,807 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,244 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.
  • 92,302 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.
  • To date, 1,658,973 tests have been completed. As of July 7, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so since then, that figure includes all of the COVID-19 tests performed in the state.
  • The largest group of positive cases (44 percent) were in people ages 25-49. While 11 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 77 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 283 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,408 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 936 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.

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Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.