Empty Carolina blue and green football field
Kenan Stadium at UNC-Chapel Hill is empty while ACC teams figure out what to do amid coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

By Anne Blythe

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, took a moment on Tuesday to expound upon her oft-repeated “three Ws” pitch as UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and East Carolina University reported high COVID-19 test positivity rates.

From Aug. 18 to Aug. 23, UNC-CH tested 1,568 students and 32.2 percent came back positive. At N.C. State University, 333 COVID-19 tests were performed during that same week and 62 people, or 18.6 percent, were positive. East Carolina University reported that 267, or 26 percent, of the 1,012 tests conducted from Aug. 16 to Aug. 22 were positive.

ad reminding readers to support our COVID coverageUniversity officials have linked the COVID-19 clusters to off-campus activities, such as parties and other events where social distancing measures are not consistently followed. Some have been tied to athletic programs.

Cohen, now familiarly recognized in the street as “the three W lady”, stressed the importance of wearing a face mask over the mouth and nose whenever in public.

“Public doesn’t just mean places like the grocery store or the post office,” Cohen said during a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. “Public also means gatherings with extended family or close friends or when you’re going to work.”

Keeping distance goes beyond spacing apart in grocery store lines or waiting for the next elevator after letting someone else go first, she added.

Woman and college student pack bags into an SUV
After UNC-Chapel Hill halted in-person classes for undergraduates due to coronavirus clusters, students move out of on-campus dorms. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

“It also means just generally avoiding crowds,” Cohen said. “Gatherings of people are more likely to become super-spreader events as we’ve unfortunately seen this in our college campuses.”

During the past week, UNC-CH, ECU and NCSU made the shift from in-person to online-only classes for undergraduates, changes that forced Chapel Hill students to pack up and move out of campus residence halls almost immediately after they had arrived.

The decisions have brought a variety of responses. Campus leaders laid much responsibility on students while students pushed back at the university for moving ahead with openings that ignored science and cautions from public health experts.

What about ACC football?

Many are questioning whether similar reversals will be made if the Atlantic Coast Conference football season proceeds as planned.

On Monday, N.C. State reported a cluster related to its athletic department with 27 positive cases of COVID-19 identified. Given that, Boo Corrigan, NCSU athletics director, announced a suspension of all athletic-related activities.

When asked whether she thought it was a good idea for the teams to be playing football this fall amid the pandemic, Cohen said her public health team was recommending that recreation, youth and high school sports leagues steer clear of contact sports at this point.

“When you talk about professional, college sports, they are doing and taking very different kinds of protocols,” Cohen said. “Some of our professional athletes are going into bubbles, they are taking different kinds of precautions that generally we don’t see in the rest of the public so they are exempt from our executive orders in terms of moving forward. But it is exactly why our gyms continue to be closed here in North Carolina. We continue not to recommend contact sports, because again, those are the activities that are far more risky for viral spread.”

The NBA has created a bubble at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., where the professional players must remain in isolation from the outside world through the shortened season.

College campuses have not taken such extreme isolation measures, though.

“A number of them are governed by different rules and player protocols depending on the sport that they play,” Cohen said. “I know a lot of our Division I sports are doing a testing regimen that is very aggressive and they’re doing other protocols of trying to cohort folks together. I know it may not be a perfect bubble, but bubble-like activities.”

Cohen said the teams were being told to avoid large gatherings, wear face coverings and undergo repetitive testing.

“It can’t be one-time testing, it has to be repetitive testing if you want to understand if there is viral spread within your athletic team,” Cohen said. “Each sport and each collegiate governing body has different protocols that they’re going through.”

Help with rent, utilities and internet access

As colleges and public schools get used to yet another new normal while the pandemic promises no return to normalcy anytime soon, Gov. Roy Cooper announced the allocation of $175 million to help North Carolinians fight off evictions and utility shut-offs and provide internet access for many in need.

The funding will be distributed through three programs:

  • $94 million will go to the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency to dole out to vetted community agencies to help people with rental and utility bills.
  • $53 million will go to the DHHS Emergency Solutions Grants-Coronavirus Program, which assists families experiencing homelessness.
  • $28 million will go to local governments through the state Department of Commerce for towns with fewer than 50,000 residents and counties with less than 200,000 residents to help with internet access, food distribution, COVID-19 testing and employment training for health care workers.

“COVID-19 has strained family finances across North Carolina, and many people are struggling to make ends meet,” Cooper said in a statement. “People need a safe, stable place to call home, especially during this pandemic, and we must help keep people in their homes and keep their utilities on while our economy recovers.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • 2,570 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 157,741 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,000 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.
  • 136,630 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, 2,102,359  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 COVID-19 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 80 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 371 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes, correctional and residential care facilities.
  • There are 3,306 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 885 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.