shows a hurricane moving across the Atlantic near Cuba in a satellite image
Hurricane Isaias moved through the Bahamas on Friday, July 31, as seen in this satellite image. As of Friday, the storm's eye had reformed and become more organized as it took aim at Florida. Satellite image courtesy: National Hurricane Center/ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

By Anne Blythe

There are days when it seems as if some unknown force is maniacally throwing challenge after challenge at North Carolinians.

Many in this state have become all too familiar with the anxious anticipation of a hurricane or tropical storm whirling in southern waters, appearing to be on a path of destruction toward North Carolina’s perilously perched coastal and lowland communities.

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This year it’s happening in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and all the complications that brings with evacuations, finding inland shelter while maintaining all the prevention measures to keep COVID-19 at bay, too.

Gov. Roy Cooper issued a second state of emergency on Friday in preparation for possible damage from Hurricane Isaias to go along with the statewide order he issued 149 days ago in response to COVID-19.

“Although the track and destination of the hurricane are in flux today as models differ, now is the time for North Carolinians to prepare,” Cooper told reporters at a briefing late in the afternoon. “Hurricane preparations will be more complicated given the COVID-19 pandemic, and families and businesses need to keep that in mind as they get ready.”

As of 5 p.m. Friday, the National Hurricane Center reported that Hurricane Isaias had developed into a more tightly organized storm while pummeling the Bahamas with heavy rain, strong winds and ocean surge.

The storm is expected to move toward the southeast Florida coast, bringing heavy rain and wind with it Saturday before scooting up the eastern shoreline.

North Carolina, which juts out toward the ocean almost due north of Florida’s southern tip, could feel the impact of the storm as early as Monday, according to some modeling, making its greatest impact that night and possibly into Tuesday. The storm could shift, though, and bring more or less trouble for the state.

“Already there’s a threat of dangerous rip currents at our coast and the danger of tropical storm force winds is increasing,” Cooper said.

By declaring a state of emergency for the storm, the governor has enabled utility companies and other rescue operations to move heavy equipment along roads that typically have weight limits.

shows a hurricane track on a map
Earliest reasonable arrival time for tropical-force winds associated with Hurricane Isaias as of Friday, July 31. Image courtesy: National Hurricane Center

Mike Sprayberry, director of Emergency Management for the state, has overseen preparations and response for many hurricanes and weather-related disasters.

For weeks, he has been encouraging North Carolinians to develop modified evacuation plans that also take into account pandemic predicaments.

Hunker down with inland family and friends

Both Sprayberry and Cooper encouraged anybody ordered to evacuate to follow any such directives, which will come at the county level initially.

They also suggest staying with family and friends out of the storm path or getting a hotel room if possible instead of counting on congregate shelters.

“The state will coordinate shelters for folks who need to evacuate who can’t find other arrangements,” Cooper said. “The reason we’re asking people to make shelters their last resort is because social distancing and precautions that go along with a shelter in a pandemic.”

In conjunction with the battle against COVID-19, people coming to shelters will be screened for symptoms and given face masks for personal protection.

Those who have symptoms will be sent to a hotel, perhaps a college dormitory, where they can be better isolated, or to a medical facility if warranted.

Double trouble

“A hurricane during a pandemic is double trouble, but the state has been carefully preparing for this scenario so that we can keep people safe from the weather as well as the virus,” Cooper said. “The goal is to look back and say, ‘We over-prepared.’ And that means we must not be caught off-guard.”

Ocracoke Island, which was devastated by Hurricane Dorian flooding last summer, has ordered a mandatory evacuation for vacationers and residents that takes effect at 6 a.m. Saturday.

shows a truck driving through high water on Ocracoke
A truck travels up Friendly Ridge Road on Ocracoke through thigh-deep water on the morning of Sept. 6, just after winds pushed as much as 7 feet of water from the Pamlico Sound onto Ocracoke. Photo credit: Connie Leinbach/ Ocracoke Observer

Cooper stressed that people should not try to ride out storms in places where evacuation orders have been issued.

Health care systems with staff already stretched thin by coronavirus are preparing for storm victims, too. If more medical workers are needed to help in areas hit hard by a storm, other states often have sent teams in the past to help.

If necessary, the state has access to a medical shelter in the form of the former Sandhills Regional Medical Center in Hamlet, which was revived as a COVID-19 relief facility earlier this spring.

Preparing for different circumstances

The pandemic could pose problems for such reinforcements.

“While North Carolina is a resource-rich state when it comes to not just search and rescue resources, but I would also say medical resources, we know that during Hurricane Florence we did request an additional large number of nurses, and some ambulance strike teams,” Sprayberry said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency can provide ambulance teams now, Sprayberry said.

“I am concerned about the number of assets that we can get in here that are medical in nature,” Sprayberry acknowledged. “But I think probably we could hold our own if we had to.”

Now what for universities?

The hurricane is approaching at a time when university towns are expecting a storm of students.

Bill Roper, whose 19-month stint as interim president of the UNC system came to an end on Friday, discussed how the campuses across the system have prepared for that impending crush during a meeting of the state’s Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force early Friday afternoon.

Some campuses are scheduled to bring students in during the coming week. It’s too soon to know whether Hurricane Isaias will alter those schedules.

There has been much planning, according to Roper, on individual campuses, though many faculty across the system have questioned whether it’s too dangerous to house thousands of students in dorms and have them in classrooms.

shows a group of students, many in Carolina blue, walking on the brick pathways of UNC Chapel Hill
Students at UNC-Chapel Hill walk through campus between classes. Image credit: Dennis Ludlow, Wikimedia Commons

“Part of what we’re doing is asking everybody to have in place formal memoranda of agreements with the local health departments in the counties that they’re in so everybody knows ahead of time what to do under whatever circumstances come as far as positive cases or people who are ill, and the need to do contact tracing,” Roper said.

Roper said practicing social distancing, wearing a face mask and hand-washing will be stressed at each campus.

“We are trying to build a culture of compliance with those healthy behavioral practices,” Roper said. “At every turn, people ask the question: ‘Do you really expect college students to do these things?’ And we are saying, ‘Yes, we do expect university and college students to do these things.’ ”

A lot of work is being done with student leaders to get that messaging across.

“We know that we will have cases of people who are coronavirus positive, and we’ll have some that are ill,” Roper said. “At each institution they are setting aside space in dorms for quarantine and isolation.”

Striking the right messaging campaign

As Roper and others count on students to take the responsibility for following the “Three Ws” of washing hands, wearing face coverings and waiting six feet apart, Tracy Zimmerman, senior director of External Affairs at the state Department of Health and Human Services, outlined how the public health team has worked to get people to embrace behavioral changes.

The public health messaging to the masses has been a carefully thought-out, but rapidly rolled out campaign that focuses on adopting new behaviors, which in more ordinary times might take years for people to fully embrace.

To help with the messaging, Zimmerman has turned to academicians who run focus groups and survey people to try to strike the right messaging balance.

Recent surveys show that some communities in North Carolina are embracing the wearing of face coverings at high percentages, despite the political rhetoric, mixed messaging and online misinformation about them from some quarters.

“Prevention is currently one of our best means to slow the spread of COVID-19, and at the same time it’s also requiring real behavior change for people,” Zimmerman told the task force Friday afternoon. “We’re asking people to wear a face covering and stand apart from others. Behavior change is hard. Keeping our distance from other people goes against human nature and wearing a face covering has its own barrier to overcome.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Friday afternoon:

  • 1,924 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 122,148 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,229 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, 1,757,102 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 that figure includes all of the coronavirus tests performed in the state.
  • People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (44 percent). While 12 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 79 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 309 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,332 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 910 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, 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.