shows schematics of two different viruses, the new familiar grey and red representation of SARS_CoV2, commonly known as COVID-19 on the left and the flu virus on the right.
Two different viruses are likely to be circulating at once this fall: COVID-19 and the flu. The combination of the two could easily overwhelm hospitals. Images courtesy: CDC

By Anne Blythe

As college sports officials spent Thursday weighing pros and cons of moving ahead with an Atlantic Coast Conference football season in the coming weeks and month, public health officials in North Carolina, where many of those teams play, raised the specter of a different fall phenomenon.

Flu season is coming amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, brought that up Thursday during a briefing with reporters in which she shared the latest COVID-19 trends and metrics.

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The 14-day rolling average of new cases per day is trending downward, as is the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive.

The number of people who show up at emergency departments with symptoms of the virus is on the decline, and the number of people in hospital beds with severe illness related to the novel coronavirus is leveling.

The continued glimmers of hope in the state’s trends and metrics for several weeks now are not strong enough for Cohen and her team to tell North Carolinians that the worst of the pandemic is behind them.

“Our progress is fragile,” Cohen said. “It’s going to take continued work on our part to make sure our trends continue in the right direction. I see a challenge in front of us. As schools go back into session, we know more people will be moving around and we know virus will be moving around.”

After putting in a plug forthe three Ws — wearing a face mask, waiting six feet apart and washing hands — Cohen added another mind-boggling thought to what could be next in this most unusual year.

“What I see as we go into the fall, also, is the start of flu season,” Cohen said. “Then we start to have two viral illnesses out there that could have severe impacts on our population. So you’re going to be hearing a lot more from me and my team, and I’m sure the governor as well, about the importance of everyone getting their flu shot this year. Our ability to make sure folks get their flu shot this year also is going to impact our ability to have success on the COVID front.”

Flu season in North Carolina begins in October and goes through May. In North Carolina, 186 people died from influenza during last year’s flu season that ran from Sept. 29 to May 16.

Many of the symptoms for flu are similar to COVID-19, and a bad flu season alone can easily fill an intensive care unit. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the two viruses combined could quickly overwhelm health care systems.

Job-retention program 

While flu season is approaching, public health officials and Gov. Roy Cooper were more focused on the immediate opening of college campuses, K-12 schools and changes to unemployment relief packages that have kept many families afloat after their jobs disappeared or their work hours were cut.

Cooper announced the creation of a new $15 million job-retention program that sets aside federal funds allocated to North Carolina earlier this year for coronavirus pandemic relief.

Businesses and non-profit organizations in North Carolina can apply for up to $250,000 if they have not received help from the Paycheck Protection Program, federal Main Street Loan Program or state Rapid Recovery Loan Program.

Those businesses and organizations applying for help must have kept at least 90 percent of the workforce they had at the end of February through June.

Grant applications must be filed by Sept. 1 with the state Department of Commerce.

“I know that this pandemic has made things tough for many of our businesses and nonprofits,” Cooper said. “It’s important that we support them as they seek to do right by their employees and their customers.”

Trump order, GOP lawmakers and NC governor

“We’re also trying to get help for those left behind by the loss of the federal unemployment benefits that ended last month,” Cooper added. “Congress should act to give people certainty on these benefits. I encourage Washington to set aside partisanship and get the job done.”

Earlier this week, Cooper sent a letter to Phil Berger, the Eden Republican who leads the state Senate, and Tim Moore, the Republican from King who serves as speaker of the state House, urging them to expand state unemployment benefits.

Cooper’s letter was in response to a letter the legislative leaders sent him encouraging him “to take steps to secure unemployment payments to North Carolinians per the terms of President Trump’s executive order.”

President Donald Trump signed an executive order over the weekend that could provide $400 a week for the unemployed while Congress is in a stalemate over whether to continue the $600 per week that had been coming from the federal government until late last month.

Questions abound about the Trump order and how it would play out. The order calls on states to contribute 25 percent of the $400, or $100 per week for each claim.

Cooper said Thursday that it likely would require setting up another program, which could create a new set of bureaucratic hurdles for the unemployed to overcome at a time when people already are experiencing long waits for claims to be reviewed and granted.

“We need to get unemployment compensation to people who need it, people who are hanging by a thread, who need to put food on the table and pay the rent,” Cooper said.

“The president’s order creates a new program which will require every state to set up a separate bank account and a second regulatory scheme in order to get that $400,” Cooper added. “I want them to get all they can get so I would advocate that we do take the $300 and add $100 from our North Carolina unemployment trust fund to get that money. I assure you our staff will work as hard as they can to get that money out to people, but they’re still waiting for the Department of Labor federal rules on how this operates.”

Cooper said he had told North Carolina’s congressional delegation to try to fund the programs already in place.

“If there’s no other choice and if Congress and the president can’t agree on funding this program, then we’re going to continue to proceed forward, try to set up this new process, try to get this $400 supplemental money to people as quickly as we possibly can,” Cooper said.

Additionally, Cooper called on state lawmakers to provide more at the local level. In his letter to Berger and Moore, the governor pointed out that “North Carolina has among the worst state unemployment benefits in the country, but you have failed to remedy that in the middle of a pandemic.”

“Most people are running out of their payments after 12 weeks,” Cooper said at the media briefing on Thursday. “They’re capped at $350 per week in North Carolina. That cap needs to be raised. The amount of time, particularly during this pandemic, needs to be extended. So the state legislature needs to take action as well.”

Cooper suggested extending benefits to at least 24 weeks and increasing the amount of state aid available per week to at least $500.

Pandemic education aid

As public school systems across the state prepare to start classes again, either in-person or virtually, Cooper also announced the launch of the $95.6 million Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund.

The initiative makes pandemic relief aid allocated earlier this year by the federal government available to students in North Carolina’s public schools, universities and community colleges who might need tuition help or other aid because of hardships created during the pandemic.

The State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction will receive $40 million to hire more school nurses, social workers and psychologists.

Another initiative that could help families as school starts again is a Child Care Hotline. The state public health team has identified 30,000 slots available to school children up to age 12 whose parents cannot work from home or need help with care.

The hotline number is 1-888-600-1685 with staff available to help Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

“We know that families may need extra help finding school-age care options right now, as many schools have started the school year with remote learning only, and others are operating with children onsite on alternate days or weeks to meet social distancing requirements,” Susan Gale Perry, Chief Deputy Secretary for NCDHHS, said in a statement. “The Child Care Hotline can help families fill that child care gap by providing referrals to available school-age programs.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:

  • 2,249 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 140,824 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,070 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with coronavirus 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.
  • 116,969 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,1,850,689  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 13 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 79 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 350 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,207 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 887 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.