shows a man at a podium gesturing. In the corner to the upper right is a American Sign Language interpreter gesturing
Gov. Roy Cooper spoke to reporters at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh on Wednesday, June 2 with reporters present in the room for the first time in over a year. Photo: PBS NC Screenshot

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By Anne Blythe

North Carolina’s daily number of coronavirus cases have dipped to the lowest they’ve been since last year, with only 268 cases reported on June 1, in contrast to more than 1,800 just a month ago.

Even as cases are dropping, the rate of vaccination has been lagging. 

In an effort to get shots into the arms of unvaccinated North Carolinians, the state is offering financial incentives through a recently launched pilot program in four counties.

As the governor and his Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen work to wind down their pandemic response, politics over Gov. Roy Cooper’s choice for secretary of the state Department of Environmental Quality have revved up quickly. 

And Cooper announced on Wednesday that his administration just opened applications for a new round of rental and utility assistance to help North Carolinians who lost income during the coronavirus pandemic and continue to struggle to pay the bills and stay in their homes.

A lot is happening at once.

Housing crisis ahead?

As Democrats and Republicans argued about the future of North Carolina’s environmental quality, Cooper raised concerns about the potential for a housing crisis on the horizon, given the possibility of a wave of eviction cases crushing the courts in the months ahead.

Cooper’s executive order putting a moratorium on evictions is set to expire on June 30, along with a similar moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The governor said Wednesday that he is considering what to do after that.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many North Carolinians lost jobs and steady income, putting them at risk of becoming homeless at a time when sheltering away from one another was key to stopping virus transmission and saving lives.

North Carolina launched the N.C. Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions (HOPE) Program in the fall using federal emergency assistance to award more than $133 million to landlords and utilities to cover requests from 36,000 applicants.

The federal aid did not cover all the requests in the fall.

In June, after the state poured more federal funds into the program, the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency opened the program for a new round of applications.

On Wednesday, Laura Hogshead, chief operating officer of NCORR, said that more than 8,000 people have applied for financial assistance during the past two weeks. Since then 924 checks have been issued for a total of $1.1 million.

“I strongly encourage landlords and utilities across our state to lend a hand to their communities and to participate in these programs so that we can keep people in their homes with their lights on,” Cooper said Wednesday. “I am proud that North Carolina is taking steps to support families who need it as we emerge from this pandemic.”

Get a shot and $25

To ease out of the coronavirus pandemic with a stronger response against COVID-19, the state Department of Health and Human Services is focused on getting vaccines to the unvaccinated.

From May 26 through June 8, DHHS is offering $25 Summer Cash Cards to people who get a vaccine or drive someone to specific sites in Guilford, Mecklenburg, Rockingham and Rowan counties.

“We have a strong supply of COVID-19 vaccines, and we want to make it as easy as possible for people to get their free COVID-19 vaccine,” Cohen said. “We also want to support those who have made the effort to help family members, friends and neighbors get vaccinated.”

Cooper has been weighing other ideas to incentivize the unvaccinated to join the ranks of those who are, putting the state in a better position to emerge from the pandemic without pockets of coronavirus continuing to crop up and cause severe illness.

Just over 49 percent of North Carolina’s population that is 18 and older is fully vaccinated, according to the DHHS vaccine dashboard. Just over 53 percent of adults have one shot on board.

Now that vaccines are available to children as young as 12, many parents have been getting their middle and high schoolers vaccinated. Nearly 40 percent of the total population in North Carolina is fully vaccinated, the dashboard states.

Since the first lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 was detected in early March of 2020, North Carolina has amassed more than a million cases. As of Wednesday, the total case count stood at 1.003 million. Though the number of deaths from illness related to COVID-19 has dropped dramatically, there have been 13,110 deaths during the pandemic.

Nonetheless, people who are vaccinated are able to do more and more without wearing face masks. Sports arenas have opened to larger crowds, as the Hurricanes hockey team takes to the ice for playoff games against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Restaurants, bars and other places are welcoming back diners for indoor seating and many employers are talking about bringing their employees back into the offices.

As activities pick up, Cohen had advice for North Carolinians.

“Mask up or vax up,” she said.

Tussle over appointments

The politics playing out in the North Carolina Senate over the Democratic governor’s nomination for secretary of the state Department of Environmental Quality was a quick reminder that even as lawmakers and Cooper talk about building North Carolina back stronger after the pandemic, what’s past can quickly become prologue.

A North Carolina senate committee on Wednesday voted to reject Dionne Delli-Gatti, who has been acting DEQ secretary since February, to lead the department under Cooper’s administration.

Senate Republicans, who frequently sparred politically with Cooper in the years leading up to his 2020 re-election, argued in a news release posted to Sen. Berger Press Shop on Wednesday that Delli-Gatti had not articulated the governor’s position on the expansion of natural gas in North Carolina when asked during a previous hearing.

Delli-Gatti was nominated earlier this year by Cooper to replace Michael Regan, DEQ secretary, after President Joe Biden tapped the North Carolinian to lead the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The former Environmental Defense Fund director of regulatory and legislative affairs was at the meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee meeting on Wednesday. But Republicans leading the meeting did not ask her any questions and refused to let Democrats follow through on requests to let her speak.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat from Durham, described the hearing process as “a total sham.”

Cooper, when asked about the situation during a news conference held to update North Carolinians on COVID-19, said he hoped the full Senate, scheduled to take up the nomination on Thursday, would delay a vote.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with her knowledge or qualifications,” Cooper said about the nominee who would become the first woman to lead the department if selected. “She is imminently qualified to do this job. It has everything to do on whether we’re going to have a clean energy future and whether we’re going to protect our air and water.”

If the Senate does not confirm Delli- Gatti, Cooper said he had no plans to change course on the direction that he wanted for DEQ.

“Whatever happens here, I’m going to remain committed to protecting our air and water and to a clean energy future in North Carolina,” Cooper said. “I would hope the Senate would delay this vote. She was there in the meeting today to answer any questions that they have. She testified five weeks ago, and they said they were going to bring her back but they never did.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:

  • 13,101 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 1,003,508 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 610 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.
  • 979,410 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, 13,281,908 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 15 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 82 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state. 
  • 182 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Wednesday, 180 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of June 2, 8,307,696 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus 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.