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By Anne Blythe
If you were planning on having more than 10 people from outside your own household for an indoor Thanksgiving gathering, you might want to go over your guest list again.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Tuesday that he was lowering the indoor crowd-size limit across the state to no more than 10 people, 15 fewer than his previous Phase 3 executive order allowed.
North Carolina’s COVID-19 case counts have continued to rise steadily since September. There were 2,582 new lab-confirmed cases reported on Tuesday, bringing the total count since the start of the pandemic to 297,442.
There were 1,230 people hospitalized on Tuesday with severe illness related to the novel coronavirus.
Though the order reduces how large indoor crowds can be, it is aimed more at social gatherings that have been at the root of many of the new cases in recent weeks with Thanksgiving get-togethers on the horizon.
“We don’t want to let the last eight months of sacrifices go to the waste by dropping our guard or ignoring safety measures during family gatherings,” Cooper said during a briefing with reporters.
As people gather around holiday tables in the weeks ahead, whether they do small family gatherings indoors or somewhat larger, more socially-distanced events outdoors, 4,660 North Carolinians who died from COVID-19 will be absent from those occasions.
“I know many North Carolinians are grieving right now, and I continue to think about them as we battle this virus,” Cooper said. “Our trends have avoided spikes, but they remain stubbornly high and that’s troubling. Other states have experienced spikes that have jumped quickly on them and their hospitals, causing sickness and death. To avoid that, we need to focus on bringing our numbers down.”
Through Executive Order 176, which takes effect on Friday, Cooper hit the pause button for a second time this fall on Phase 3 of the N.C. reopening plan.
Business restrictions already in place were not altered by the order, which remains in effect until 5 p.m. Dec. 4.
“The science shows that the transmission of this virus is much greater indoors,” Cooper said. “The more people who are gathered, the easier this virus can spread.”
Cooper also said he hoped to “send a serious signal to families, friends and neighbors across our state.”
“Thanksgiving is just two weeks away and many North Carolinians are focused on how to celebrate the holiday amid the pandemic,” Cooper said. “There will be the usual concerns about who’s carving the turkey and whether you’re going to talk about politics, but we need everyone focused on how to keep safe this holiday season.”
Light in the tunnel
Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, tried to give people with pandemic fatigue optimism with news from pharmaceutical companies.
Pfizer and BioNtech, the German company that partnered with the New York-based pharmaceutical giant, announced this week that an analysis of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate in a Phase 3 clinical trial showed it to be more than 90 percent effective.
An analysis of trial data done by an independent board showed that 94 trial participants out of some 44,000 who either got a placebo or were injected with two doses of the vaccine three weeks apart got sick from COVID-19.
The companies could seek emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration later this month, and if granted could begin distribution of the two-dose vaccine late this year.
In late October, the FDA approved remdesivir as an antiviral therapy that has been shown to shorten the length of hospital stays for COVID patients.
The FDA also has cleared the way for emergency use of a monoclonal antibody drug produced by Eli Lilly, an experimental one-time treatment administered intravenously.
President Donald Trump received a monoclonal antibody treatment after he contracted COVID-19.
“Hope is on the horizon,” Cooper said. “This pandemic will not last forever. As frustrating and painful as it is, we must keep fighting a little while longer.
“We’ve come too far to lose our focus now.”
As Cooper and Cohen have acknowledged previously, the pandemic has altered many traditions during this challenging year. Now they are talking about “light at the end of the tunnel.”
They thanked North Carolinians who have been wearing face masks and adhering to social distancing measures that scientists tout as tools to slow the virus spread, especially as cold weather pushes more people indoors.
“With our continued dedication, by next Thanksgiving, or even sooner, this pandemic can be behind us,” Cooper said. “We can put the sickness and the economic hurt in the rearview mirror if we pull together. That takes everybody committing to a safe holiday even if it means changes this year.”
“Reduce the invite list,” Cooper continued. “Space out your tables. Get a COVID test before the event or better yet connect virtually. I know North Carolinians are creative and will find amazing ways to celebrate the holidays while still keeping our communities safe. Find a way that works for your family, and know that your sacrifice is helping all of our state.”
Will Mandy Cohen join Biden’s cabinet?
There was much focus on North Carolina before the election as the presidential campaigns came in search of votes in what many considered to be a swing state.
Now that Joe Biden has been declared president-elect, North Carolina’s top public health official could be on a short list of people in the running for a cabinet position.
Cooper and Cohen were asked on Tuesday to offer a straight-up “yes” or “no” to a question about whether they were being considered for or planned to take a job with the Biden administration.
“No for me,” responded Cooper, who just won re-election. Cohen could be heard laughing in the background.
Cooper then addressed the floating of Cohen’s name by Politico as a possible secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
“Let me just say on behalf of Dr. Cohen,” Cooper continued. “She is doing an amazing job here. We are fortunate that she agreed to come and join my administration in 2017.”
Cohen came to North Carolina after a stint with the Obama administration in which she served as the principal deputy director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight and then rose to be the chief operating officer and chief of staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Cohen, a New York native who has degrees from Cornell, Yale and Harvard universities, came to North Carolina after the Trump administration took over.
Much of her time here has been spent trying to persuade state lawmakers to expand Medicaid. She advocated for that policy again on Tuesday when asked about several counties trying to sever ties with a managed-care organization for failure to provide quality mental and behavioral health.
The pandemic has added a workload like none other, though, Cohen has told reporters.
“I think she is keeping her head down and doing what she needs to do to move our state forward,” Cooper said. “I think that part of the reason why she would be considered, and I know that her name is all over the news, … is because of the fact that North Carolina has done well, and has done the things that we need to do to create a positive response.
“Anybody would be fortunate to have Dr. Cohen, and of course, I want her right here.”
Cohen, unlike Cooper, did not provide a simple “yes” or “no” to a second question about whether she would consider a spot in a Biden administration.
“As the governor said, I think it’s flattering to see both North Carolina and the recognition of the work of the Department of Health and Human Services in a national context,” Cohen said. “It’s been an incredible effort by the team here in North Carolina and I think everyone should recognize that. You know, I am focused here on making sure the folks in North Carolina stay safe, particularly over the holidays. I’m going to keep focused on that.”
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:
- 4,660 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 297,442 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,231 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.
- 261,719 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 coronavirus who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
- To date, 4,416,365 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 coronavirus tests performed in the state.
- People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (40 percent). While 15 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 82 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
- 419 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
- There are 3,446 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 923 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital. As of Thursday, 325 suspected coronavirus patients were in intensive care units across the state.