By Anne Blythe
Though it’s only April, Gov. Roy Cooper and his public health team are looking ahead to the Fourth of July.
Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told reporters Tuesday that over the next week they will develop a forecast for what North Carolinians might expect for the summer holiday.
As more people get vaccinated and the number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations has plateaued, North Carolinians want to know how much longer the mask mandate will be in place.
They also want to know, at what point is it safe to lift all coronavirus restrictions?
To date, Cohen and Cooper have resisted setting any benchmarks for what percentage of people would have to be vaccinated to declare herd immunity.
Cohen told a legislative committee earlier this year that she was reluctant to use the phrase “herd immunity” because scientists at the time did not have enough information to know how long the vaccines protect people from serious illness related to coronavirus.
Late last week, Pfizer and BioNTech released data from the analysis of 46,307 COVID-19 vaccine trial participants showing a 91.3 percent efficacy rate for preventing severe illness from the virus for up to six months after the administration of both doses.
Cooper and Cohen held their briefing with reporters on Tuesday, the day before the state opens vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 and older.
The Pfizer vaccine is the only one currently available to 16- and 17-year-olds because the company’s trial included teens that age. Studies of other vaccines are ongoing, but as they’re not completed yet, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved their use in teens or children.
As of Tuesday, 38.4 percent of the North Carolina population that is 18 and older are at least partially vaccinated, according to the DHHS vaccine dashboard. Nearly 26 percent of the 18 and up population are fully vaccinated, the dashboard shows.
Nearly 73 percent of the population that is 65 and older have been at least partially vaccinated. Slightly more than 65 percent of that population are fully vaccinated.
“This trail of research and development of vaccines and the way they have been pushed out across the country and the world has been an amazing story,” Cooper said.
“I give a round of applause to all the researchers and scientists, many of whom were right here in North Carolina, who had a part in vaccine development, also in therapeutic development,” Cooper added, noting that this is the annual National Public Health Week. “The fact that the manufacturing has continued to occur, the fact that we continue to increase our supply, and the fact that these vaccines are so safe and so effective beyond anybody’s prediction, I think we’re in as good a shape that we can be right now.”
As has been the case throughout the pandemic, though, a growing number of people are ready to say goodbye to COVID-19 and all the disorder and devastation the extremely contagious coronavirus has brought.
Cooper and Cohen urged North Carolinians to hang on just a bit longer, while also offering a bit of optimism about the country’s next Independence Day.
“We’re going to continue to examine the four data points that we look at every single day and follow on a week-by-week basis to tell us where we are,” Cooper said. “We’re going to look at how pervasive these variants are out there, and whether there is any concern, and the number of people that are getting vaccinated.”
Other states have seen cases surge. In particular, Michigan had more than 6,400 cases per day for the past week, with upticks in hospitalizations related to more contagious variants circulated widely once that state’s governor raised restrictions.
According to the Michigan Hospital Association, from March 1 to March 23 hospitalizations increased by 633 percent for adults ages 30 to 39 and by 800 percent for adults ages 40 to 49.
Cohen said Tuesday that North Carolina is not seeing as many variants as other states, though. Nonetheless, public health advocates caution that they could quickly produce a setback if vaccinations and testing slow.
President Joe Biden recently ramped up vaccine production and told the country that he hoped enough people would be vaccinated by July 4th to safely hold backyard barbecues and other events.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has upgraded its domestic travel guidance, saying people who are fully vaccinated could travel, though the health officials continued to discourage unnecessary travel.
“We know people want to plan, people who have venues and hold concerts and all of that need to know what kind of atmosphere they’re going to have or capacity limits if any,” Cooper continued. “We want to provide more of a forecast of where we think that is going to go over the next couple of months.”
Alleghany County in the green zone
In addition to measuring whether a county has critical, substantial or significant community spread, DHHS has added a light yellow designation for counties with moderate spread for test positivity rates of 3 to 4.9 percent and a slight impact on county hospitals, and green for a case positivity rate of less than 2.9 percent and low impact on hospitals in the county.
Alleghany County, with a 14-day positivity rate of 1.4 percent, got a special shoutout for getting the alert system’s first green designation.
For the first time since the system was created, North Carolina had no counties in the red tier.
What if it isn’t called ‘Medicaid expansion’?
On Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers in the General Assembly held a briefing for reporters in which they once again called for Medicaid expansion.
This year, though, there might be more willingness among some Republican lawmakers to link arms with those on the other side of the political aisle.
Cooper included Medicaid expansion in his proposed biennial budget that called for spending $27.4 billion in the next fiscal year that begins July 1 and $28.5 billion for the fiscal year after that.
The drive to expand Medicaid has consistently hit a roadblock in the General Assembly, where Republicans have majorities in both chambers.
A standoff between Cooper and the legislature led to the adoption of a series of targeted “mini-budgets” in 2019 and 2020, a gubernatorial and legislative election year, instead of a biennial spending plan. Cooper vetoed the lawmakers’ proposed budget, in part because it did not include the expansion of Medicaid to cover some half-million residents who would qualify for the mostly federal assistance.
Republicans in the General Assembly could not muster the number of votes necessary to override that veto.
The American Rescue Plan would direct nearly $1.7 billion to North Carolina over the next two years, a sum that would make it possible for the state to cover its $350 to $400 million annual price tag for years.
Over the winter, Cooper tapped leaders in health care, the insurance industry, business and lawmakers from both parties to serve on the N.C. Council on Health Care Coverage to discuss how to fill the coverage gap that grew during the pandemic and highlighted longtime economic and racial access disparities.
Sen. Joyce Krawiec, a Forsyth County Republican, was on that commission. This week she signed on as co-sponsor of a bill titled “Medicaid for Twelve Months Postpartum” that would increase coverage from the federal program for new mothers, who currently lose the assistance after 60 days.
Republican senators Jim Burgin (R-Angier) and Kevin Corbin of Franklin County, whose campaign platform in 2020 included Medicaid expansion in a district that went heavily for former President Donald Trump, also signed on to the proposal.
Verla Insko (D-Chapel Hill) and Robert Reives, a Sanford Democrat and House minority leader, were among the sponsors of a similar bill in the House.
Insko told reporters on Tuesday that Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Winston-Salem) expressed his willingness to support the bill. Lambeth was a primary sponsor in the House of prior attempts to extend more coverage to low-income workers.
Rep. Charles Graham (D-Lumberton) and a Lumbee, pointed to the state’s infant mortality rate, showing that Native American and Black babies are 2.5 times more likely than white infants to die during the first 12 months of life.
Sen. Mike Woodard (D-Durham) mentioned the governor’s commission during the Tuesday press conference when asked whether there truly could be bipartisan support for Medicaid expansion.
“It’s all around framing,” Woodard said. “Is it Medicaid expansion? I think that’s always given some of our Republican colleagues a little bit of heartburn to call it that.
“Let’s not really get hung up on the name. We have a coverage gap. We need to close it.”
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:
- 12,173 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 923,430 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 982 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.
- 887,724 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, 11,534,490 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, 2020, 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 (39 percent). While 15 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 83 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
- 218 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
- As of Thursday, 245 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
- As of March 17, 5,275,032 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.