By Anne Blythe and Greg Barnes

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the country’s first public university to open its doors to students, found itself on the trailblazing path again this week.

Instead of welcoming students to its classrooms and campus residence halls, the university became the first of the 17 UNC system schools to start turning thousands away from in-person instruction and sending them home because of the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus during the first week of classes.

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Gov. Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters at a Wednesday media briefing, that what happened at UNC-CH has provided valuable insight as they advise other campuses and universities during the coronavirus pandemic.

They stressed that wearing face masks and complying with social distancing measures, on campus and off, are key to slowing the spread of the virus, which has led to 2,431 deaths in North Carolina.

Testing and contact tracing led to the discovery of four COVID-19 clusters, each with five or more related cases, forcing quarantines and isolation of students with lab-confirmed cases.

Cohen said she spoke on Wednesday morning with the chancellor at East Carolina University, where a cluster of cases in Gateway-West Residence Hall was reported Tuesday.

The secretary also has been in touch with other UNC system chancellors and heads of private colleges and universities, as well.

“They’re not just going to work with law enforcement, but use the tools at ECU to hold students accountable,” Cohen said. “I think that is a good step forward. We also need to make sure that if there are outbreaks, there are close connections between the universities and the local health department so that we can quickly jump on issues and make sure if we see a cluster of cases, it can remain as small as possible.”

Female student studies with mask on in grass
A UNC-Chapel Hill student studies with a face mask on outside Hinton James residence hall, where a COVID-19 cluster was reported. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

Throughout the pandemic, many law enforcement agencies have been instructed to take a community policing approach, as Erik Hooks, secretary of public safety, described it. The officers talk with people, encourage compliance and perhaps issue citations instead of mass arrests, Hooks said.

Universities and colleges are being urged to use student honor codes and other measures within each institution to ward off the kinds of problems UNC-CH encountered. Campus police and local law enforcement officers in college towns are now being encouraged to take action if necessary to keep crowds to 10 or under indoors and capped at 25 people outdoors.

“It is so important to enforce the rules,” Cooper said.

The contact tracing has provided some insight into how the virus clusters developed in Chapel Hill, Cohen said, but the picture is not fully developed.

“We’re just at the beginning of understanding exactly the viral spread on some of the campuses,” Cohen said.

They seem to follow different themes, she said.

“Some of them are amongst their athletic teams that have been practicing together and have been on campus for longer,” she said.” A number of them have been related to some sorority, fraternity or other Greek life events where they live in the same location.

“A couple of others, they think might be linked back to a social gathering. So I think we’re still understanding this.”

What the anecdotes show, Cohen stressed, is that the virus spreads when people are close together, not wearing masks, and viral transmission is more likely indoors.

Free testing help in seven counties

As the trouble on college campuses gets attention, North Carolina’s overall trends and metrics are stabilizing and bringing encouraging news, Cohen and Cooper said.

Over the past week, 7 percent of the coronavirus tests have come back positive, a drop from averages of 11 percent that troubled the public health team.

What distresses them now, though, is a drop in the number of tests being conducted across the state.

“Our key metrics show progress after a lot of work,” Cohen said. “Our surveillance data that show early warnings continue to decline. Our cases are slightly declining, our percent of tests that are positive are holding stable at 7 percent and our hospitalizations are stable. But remember, this progress is fragile and it takes ongoing work.”

To help ramp up testing in Forsyth, Guilford, Iredell, Mecklenburg, Onslow, Orange and Randolph counties, the state brought on a new vendor that will put up “turn-key testing sites.”

StarMed Urgent And Family Care, P.A., a North Carolina-based company, will provide the clinical and administrative staff to do the work as well as the necessary supplies to help out in counties that have seen accelerated COVID-19 spread.

“These tests will be free,” Cohen said. “Cost should not be a barrier to any North Carolinian who needs a test.”

Remote learning exposes broadband divide

The push to ramp up testing comes at a critical time in North Carolina. Not only have college students returned to campus communities, but K-12 public school children also are back in class. Some districts are offering in-person instruction while others have resorted to remote learning.

Remote instruction has presented challenges for teachers at the whim of the technology provided by the state Department of Instruction and parents and caregivers who must take on roles as homeschool teacher aides.

“I think it’s safe to say that this will be a school year like no other,” Cooper said. “Some students are back in the classrooms with masks on. Others are learning from kitchen tables and lap desks.”

In some places in North Carolina, the challenge of distance learning can be even more demanding where Wi-Fi and internet access is either non-existent or unaffordable.

Cooper announced on Wednesday that his administration would be putting $12 million to two programs to help lessen internet access issues.

The state Department of Information Technology and its Broadband Infrastructure Office have awarded $10.24 million for projects in Bertie, Columbus, Duplin, Edgecombe, Graham, Greene, Martin, Nash, Robeson, Rockingham and Swain counties.

The money will go to 11 providers and cooperatives to help connect some 6,860 households and 243 businesses, agriculture operations and community anchor institutions to broadband.

An additional $2 million will be used in Robeson County, where Spectrum Southeast is expected to connect 1,157 households and 11 businesses, agriculture operations and community institutions to broadband.

“Even before this pandemic, expanding high-speed internet access was a top priority for my administration,” Cooper said. “Now that we’re living in a socially distant world, reliable internet is more important than ever. For students learning remotely and people working from home, internet access is an absolute must-have.”

Cooper said his team will work hard to expand that access throughout the state.

Cumberland uses buses to connect students to Wi-Fi

During the pandemic, school districts have tried to bring help on the local level.

For example, the Cumberland County school district has deployed 80 school buses in neighborhoods around the county to provide internet capability to students who are learning from home.

shows a big yellow school bus in a parking lot.
In many counties, districts have been using school buses as WiFi hotspots to provide internet access to students who may lack it at home. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Students will have access to the username and password to use the buses as a mobile hotspot, school officials announced in a news release. A school employee will staff each bus to make sure the Wi-Fi equipment is working properly. The range of connectivity for each bus is about the size of a football field.

The buses will be at the 80 locations from 7:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday. Click here for a list of the locations and the information for signing on to the Wi-Fi.

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:

  • 2,396 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 146,779 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,026 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.
  • 127,749 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,1,951,120  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 (43 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.
  • 344 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,268 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 929 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.