By Anne Blythe
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, may not have said the president’s name out loud Tuesday when she put her hand on the microphone in front of her as she spoke into the camera.
Nonetheless, her message during a briefing with reporters was clear.
President Donald Trump and other elected leaders who have recently held large rallies using a free speech exemption to skirt the spirit of Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order requiring face masks and limiting crowd sizes could show North Carolinians more respect.
“I’m going to use this microphone right here to remind everyone to make sure to do the three Ws,” Cohen said when asked what measures the state can take to protect North Carolinians from virus spread at such rallies where the public health rules are so openly flaunted. “We’ve been talking about it a lot. We know what works. We know we want to protect each other.”
North Carolina, considered to be a political battleground state during presidential election years, has seen Trump and others in his campaign visiting in recent weeks.
“When I see gatherings, close together, with no masks, that’s not respecting the hard work that North Carolinians have been doing over the last number of months,” Cohen said. “That’s not protecting North Carolina. So while they may have an exemption from the executive order and mandates, it’s not about mandates. It’s about leadership, and it’s about respecting North Carolina and protecting North Carolina.”
Trump held a rally on the tarmac of a Winston-Salem airport on Sept. 8. The president did not wear a mask and many people in the stands sitting close together and standing in crowds on the tarmac, also did not have face coverings.
Cohen told reporters at a media briefing several days later that she and the governor had told the White House task force during a call after that visit that “we need national leaders to model effective prevention strategies, like wearing a face covering and waiting six-feet apart, and for them to take these measures to protect North Carolinians when visiting our state.”
Trump is scheduled to be on the stump at Fayetteville Regional Airport on Sept. 19.
“I know that folks care deeply about protecting their families, protecting their communities, and I hope that they will use their good judgment to continue to do that,” Cohen said.
North Carolina, with its high daily case counts and viral spread on college campuses, drew rebukes last week from Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator. But the state has seen favorable signs over the past couple of days.
The percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive has dropped to the 5-percent level, a marked improvement in a state that was added to the White House task force’s “red zone” last week.
Cohen said Tuesday it is too early to know whether the Trump rally or any Labor Day gatherings could have been events where the virus spread. She reminded North Carolinians that any time people get together in crowds and don’t wear face coverings, the potential for COVID-19 transmission is greater.
“I want folks to participate in the political process,” Cohen added. “I think it’s very important, but you can do that safely. Do it at a distance. Do it with masks so that we can be protecting each other as we go forward.”
Vaccines and NC’s Senate race
In a debate on Monday night between Thom Tillis, the Republican U.S. senator running for re-election, and Cal Cunningham, the Democrat campaigning against him, WRAL moderator David Crabtree asked whether the men would take a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available by Nov. 3 or the end of the year.
Tillis said he would get vaccinated, but would not do so until after his daughter, who is a nurse, and anybody over 65 had been given all the access needed to protect the elderly, health care workers and others on the pandemic front lines.
Cunningham was not as certain.
“Look, I’ve got questions,” Cunningham responded. “I think we’ve seen entirely too many times, and especially in recent years, politics intervening in what should be driven by health and science. Whether it’s CDC, Center for Disease Control, suggestions and recommendations on how we deal with this pandemic — we’ve seen politics intervene there.”
Cunningham said that historically and traditionally he has had confidence in the Food and Drug Administration and the processes it goes through to approve a drug.
“But we have seen an extraordinary corruption in Washington,” Cunningham said. “We have seen political and financial corruption that has intervened in and diluted and distorted decision-making in Washington, D.C. So as a senator for North Carolina, I would have a lot of questions of the FDA. I think the American people have a lot of questions about the government of this country, the governance of this country, right now.”
Cunningham questioned whether underlying financial and political influences could undermine safety checks and balances.
He told Crabtree he would be “hesitant” to receive the vaccine if one were available by the end of the year.
“Yes I would be hesitant, but I’m going to ask a lot of questions,” Cunningham said. “I think that’s incumbent on all of us right now in this environment with the way we’ve seen politics intervening in Washington.”
Tillis criticized Cunningham for his hesitance and stood up for the FDA, saying the agency would not risk safety in its drug approval process.
Cohen was asked about Cunningham’s hesitance on Tuesday during a briefing with reporters.
“As I have watched the federal government do hard work around vaccines, I’ve been very impressed with the work that the scientists have been doing, the fact that the federal government has taken on some of the financial risks of trying to get a vaccine out quickly, I think that is all very positive,” Cohen said.
In previous briefings, Cohen has questioned whether a vaccine would be available by early November, as President Donald Trump has speculated. She reiterated that on Tuesday.
“I do think there is a lot more science left to do and research left to do and see,” Cohen said. “But I have heard personally from the career regulators at the FDA. I heard about the process that they’re using, understood the safety and efficacy metrics that they’re going to be using, I feel very comfortable right now as I hear about that process.”
Cohen said the safety work being done in the vaccine trials has shown that to be a priority.
AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical company conducting a Phase 3 vaccine trial through Great Britain’s Oxford University, halted global work last week after a woman in the United Kingdom experienced neurological symptoms that accompany transverse myelitis, a serious, but rare, spinal inflammatory disorder.
Stat, a website focused on health-oriented news, reported that AstraZeneca’s chief executive officer told investors during a recent call that the clinical trial had also been halted in July after a participant experienced neurological symptoms that later were determined to be tied to multiple sclerosis and not related to the trial.
Another company, Pfizer, said it would add another 14,000 subjects to the clinical trial underway for its vaccine candidate. The move was done to gather more safety data, despite the fact that it would lengthen the approval process for that vaccine.
Though AstraZeneca has resumed its trials in Great Britain, Brazil and South Africa, according to Reuters, Stephen Hahn, head of the FDA, confirmed that the company’s trial in this country remains on hold during an Instagram Live interview with Tim Scott, a Republican U.S. senator from South Carolina.
“We don’t have all the facts,” Hahn said when asked about the case that put the trial on pause. “We really need to look into it.”
Get a flu shot while waiting for COVID-19 vaccine
The COVID-19 vaccine was not the only mention of immunizations during Cohen’s briefing with reporters.
Mike Sprayberry, the state director of emergency management, reminded North Carolinians that flu season is here, and of the importance of getting a flu shot amid the pandemic.
For weeks, Cohen has been encouraging all to get a flu shot this year so health care systems will not be overwhelmed with people sickened by influenza, even as COVID-19 remains a viral threat.
Many North Carolinians already have gotten flu shots, Cohen said Tuesday. Data collected by the public health team shows the state is at higher levels of flu vaccines administered this year when compared to the same time last year.
Sprayberry spoke mostly about hurricanes, tropical storms and relief efforts in parts of the state still recovering from disastrous weather events several years ago.
Not only was Tuesday the second anniversary of Hurricane Florence’s landfall in North Carolina, but it also was the 190th day since the Emergency Operation Center activated its response to COVID-19.
In a briefing in which Sprayberry thanked all the volunteers who jumped in to help their neighbors in North Carolina after a storm — and continue to do so, the emergency management director closed his remarks with a nod to “Madam Secretary” and her plea for North Carolinians to do what they can to keep influenza at bay.
“Don’t forget to go get vaccinated against the flu,” Sprayberry said in his avuncular style. “I’ve already got mine, I want to stay on her good side.”
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:
- 3,111 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 186,887 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 928 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.
- 162,257 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. Nor does it reflect the number of so-called “long-haul” survivors of COVID who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
- To date, 2,652,440 tests have been completed in North Carolina. 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 (41 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.
- 345 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
- There are 2,282 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 952 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital.