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By Anne Blythe

Gov. Roy Cooper issued his plan Wednesday for how he would like the state to spend the next $5.7 billion coming to North Carolina from the federal government for coronavirus relief and recovery, describing the injection of American Rescue Plan Act funds as having the potential to bring revolutionary change to the state. 

As vaccinated people shed their masks and ease back into life with fewer restrictions on where they can go, crowd sizes and who they can be around, Cooper reminded North Carolinians of the many inequities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic.

“This pandemic brought us a once in a generation challenge and these funds have brought us a once in a generation opportunity,” Cooper said. “Let’s use them to make transformational change for our state.

“Simply put: We can revolutionize North Carolina. We can train workers, educate students, connect communities, and improve health.”

In presenting his spending plan, Cooper divided it into five themes and funding amounts associated with each. They were:

  • $1.379 billion for Assisting Individuals and Families Hardest Hit;
  • $2.335 billion for Upgrading Infrastructure;
  • $1.010 billion for Preparing the Workforce;
  • $680 million for Promoting Business Development and Innovation; and
  • $312 million for Positioning Government to Best Serve North Carolinians.

While none of the categories directly mentions health, the governor’s proposed plan for spending the federal funds would direct millions of dollars to local public health departments, early childhood programs, wellness promotion, food security, affordable housing, eradicating lead and asbestos in child care facilities and schools, investing in broadband infrastructure that can open access to telehealth, and academic research.

Among the proposed investments are:

  • $300 million to expand pre-K education and child care access to children from birth to age 5.
  • $160 million for lead and asbestos testing and remediation in schools and child care facilities;
  • $50 million for the Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Development Initiative, or READDI, at the UNC-Chapel Hill to help develop therapeutics for COVID-19 and other viruses that could be pandemic threats.
  • $10 million to Winston-Salem State University for research and infrastructure at its Center for Excellence for the Elimination of Health Disparities.
  • $15 million for the NC Policy Collaboratory to set up a research grant program for Historically Minority-Serving Institutions.
  • $100 million to the State Health Plan to offset costs incurred from the pandemic such as for testing, vaccinations and treatment for COVID-19.
  • $65 million to the state Department of Health and Human Services, the state Department of Administration and state Department of Public Safety to provide grants to vulnerable individuals and families affected by COVID. Those people would include people at risk of becoming homeless, young people transitioning out of the state’s foster care programs, the elderly, people with disabilities and their caregivers, domestic violence victims and children in the juvenile justice system.
  • $50 million to improve ventilation and other health and environmental concerns at state Department of Health and Human Services facilities, as well as at those run by the Department of Public Safety.
  • $18 million to North Carolina’s seven state-recognized American  Indian tribes to help with community needs caused by the pandemic. None has received federal COVID-19 relief funds directly.

Cooper also proposed investing $250 million in grants of either $250 or $500 that would be distributed to low- and middle-income families with children.

North Carolina legislators included a similar grant program in their spending plan for a previous round of federal COVID relief funds sent to the state from money appropriated by Congress in December. All families with children, under that plan, were to receive $335 checks under the Extra Credit Grants program.

Cooper’s proposal would not send checks to all families, but he said Wednesday he is open to discussions with lawmakers about where there is give and take in getting a plan that works best for the state.

Lawmakers to start filling in numbers

North Carolina lawmakers have not released their proposal for spending the federal funds that started arriving in the state this week.

President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act on March 11. The federal guidance for how those funds could be used were issued on May 10.

On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee is set to meet in the morning to discuss Senate Bill 172. That lays out the framework for how they propose to spend the federal relief funds.

This year, Cooper and Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives and Senate have told North Carolinians they would work in a new spirit of compromise as budgets and spending plans are hammered out for the months and years ahead.

The governor and lawmakers were in a standoff for much of the past two years over a budget that Cooper vetoed and lawmakers never mustered enough votes to overturn his veto in both chambers.

That resulted in a series of “mini-budgets” being adopted for different departments, with neither political side giving in on their stances over Medicaid expansion, supported by Cooper, or the size of teacher raises, which the governor wanted to be higher than lawmakers proposed.

Some of the proposals that Cooper has put forward are recommendations for one-time investments, but some call for renewed spending in years ahead, a recommendation that can sometimes rankle Republican lawmakers who like to keep the state purse strings tighter than many Democrats.

“We have five years in which to invest this money over a five-year period of time,” Cooper said. “We’re trying to emerge from the pandemic, so we need a shot in the arm. Particularly in the area of education and workforce training.”

Cooper’s proposal calls for scholarships that would be available for more than one year to try to help those who either lost their jobs or want to go in a different career direction because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“If we get five years down the road and we see that we don’t need to continue with this investment any more, then we won’t,” Cooper said. “But when you look at the demand that we have for skilled workers in all of these jobs that we’re creating, and the challenges that our children have had doing remote learning and trying to catch up, we do need to invest in things that we could continue to invest in in the future but recognize that it could be for a finite period of time.”

Bringing vaccines to people

In recent weeks, the state’s vaccination rate has slowed after several months of intense demand. During the week of May 10, providers in the state only administered 241,723 shots, compared to a peak of 681,586 vaccinations given during the first full week of April.

North Carolina public health teams are trying to increase interest in vaccinations by joining with organizations and businesses to hold events that might include give-aways such as a shot with a shot or free food, celebrations and other reasons to visit the sites.

Vaccine on the Green will bring coronavirus shots to the new Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh this Friday, May 21, through Sunday, May 23. Free Pfizer vaccines will be available to anyone 12 or older, with both appointments and walk-in slots available. There also will be music, food trucks and games on the lawn. 

Another event is set for May 20 to 22 at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. Anyone who comes for a shot between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. will also get a ticket for a future visit to the Zoo. Another vaccine event will be held there from June 10 to 12.

Currently, the only way to visit the zoo is to have a reservation. 

“What better place to Bring Summer Back than the North Carolina Zoo! Families can get the double gift of protection from COVID-19 and a free day at the zoo,” NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said in a statement included in a press release announcing the vaccination opportunities.  “Please get vaccinated so we can get back to the people and places that we love – like the zoo.”

Appointments are available at StarMed.care and walk-ins are welcome. Visit nczoo.org/vaccine to learn more.

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:

  • 12,938 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 993,547 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,117 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with coronavirus 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.
  • 963,539 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, 12,959,749 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 COVID-19 tests performed in the state.
  • People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (39 percent). While 14 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 83 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state. 
  • 232 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Wednesday, 232 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state, with a total of 802 in the hospital. 
  • As of May 18, 4,058,877 people have had the first shot of their two-shot regimen, another 287,332 North Carolinians have received a single-shot coronavirus vaccine. In sum, 41.4 percent of the population has had at least one dose of vaccine.

Anne Blythe

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.