By Anne Blythe
Gov. Roy Cooper and his top public health official told North Carolinians on Thursday that while they cannot say the COVID-19 pandemic is over, they believe the worst has passed.
Cooper and Kody Kinsley, secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services, recalled the state of the state in March 2020 when the first COVID-19 case was reported in North Carolina as they offered a glimpse into how they plan to chart a new path in the weeks and months ahead.
“Over the past two years, North Carolina and the rest of the world has been through a lot,” Cooper said at a briefing with reporters broadcast on PBS North Carolina. “Personally, I expected many challenges as governor, but a global pandemic was not one of them. Today we can look forward with the belief that the worst is behind us. As we look ahead, it’s important to take stock of how far we’ve come.”
The state faced daunting challenges, Cooper reminded his audience. The federal government’s emergency stockpile of masks, gowns and other protective equipment was nearly depleted. Little was known about the virus sickening people around the globe. Schools went to remote learning and much of the hospitality and retail industry were closed to in-person customers.
Over the course of the pandemic, more than 23,000 people have died from COVID-19 in North Carolina.
‘Threat we can manage’
“Now we turn the page on the pandemic, knowing that we have the tools for people and businesses to make the right choices for themselves,” Cooper said.
There are coronavirus vaccines, treatments, testing supplies and better public health infrastructure in place to help people make choices as they live amid the virus.
“Over the last two years, we’ve written a history of hardship and resilience, setbacks and successes,” Cooper added. “But now we enter the next phase, one of individual responsibility, preparedness and prosperity.”
There still could be COVID surges in the weeks and months ahead. Europe, which is often several weeks ahead of the United States in its coronavirus trends, is seeing surges of the Omicron BA2 variant in Italy, Great Britain, Germany and other places.
“While COVID is now a threat we can manage, it has not disappeared,” Kinsley said. “We will remain vigilant and we will work to equip you with the information and tools you need to make choices that are best for you and your family.
Four principles will guide the DHHS response, Kinsley said, to “ensure a fast and fair response that improves the health, safety and well-being of all North Carolinians.” The guiding principles are:
- Empowering individuals to make informed decisions for themselves and their families;
- Maintaining health system capacity;
- Collaborating with local partners; and
- Prioritizing equity in access to vaccines, treatments and other tools, as well as crucial information.
“People want to return to their normal routines, which they can do because of free and effective vaccines, boosters and other tools that help people manage their risk,” Kinsley said. “We will continue to ensure access to information and resources, especially for historically marginalized populations, people with disabilities and older North Carolinians. Data will continue to drive our response as it has through the entire pandemic, but some metrics no longer measure the moment.”
Wastewater surveillance, other trends
During the next phase of the state’s pandemic response, Kinsley and his team will keep a close watch on seven metrics and no longer put as much emphasis on the percentage of positive tests since many people are testing at home for coronavirus and not necessarily sharing the results with DHHS.
The DHHS dashboard summary will have a new look beginning March 23 to reflect these changes. The state will rely on:
- Wastewater surveillance, which can detect COVID;
- Emergency department reports of people coming in with COVID-like illnesses;
- Hospital admission numbers;
- Case trends;
- Booster shot rates;
- Prevalence of variants; and
- Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on community spread in the states.
Most counties in North Carolina, according to the most recent CDC map, have low levels of community spread of COVID. Ashe County is the only county with high spread and 17 counties mostly in the western and northeastern parts of the state have medium spread.
Only 53 percent of North Carolinians have gotten their booster shot of the vaccine, according to Kinsley, and he encouraged more to do so.
Preparedness and federal aid
To remain prepared and flexible to respond to any surges, Kinsley, Cooper and Susan Kansagra, the DHHS senior deputy director of public health, noted the importance of continued federal assistance with protective equipment, vaccines, COVID tests and treatments.
Last week, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stripped a $15.6 billion COVID relief package from a broader $1.5 trillion spending plan after some Democrats and governors complained that $7 billion of the COVID funds would be taken back from states.
“Staying prepared and having these stockpiles is incredibly important,” Kinsley said. “I am most concerned about our supply of testing in the private markets and the unique ability of the federal government to maintain those levels of supply by pushing and propping up that market. So I hope we will see that funding come. We need it to stay prepared. It’s not the time to take a step back.”
President Joe Biden had asked for $22.5 billion for a COVID preparedness plan he outlined on March 2.
Only a week after Congress failed to pass another COVID relief package, North Carolina is already feeling the impact.
“We are incredibly concerned about what the lack of funding at a federal level means to us at a state level,” Kansagra said. “We know certainly that things like vaccine allocations, purchases of antivirals, those things need to happen in advance with manufacturers to make sure there is enough supply, and we are already aware that that will result in a reduction, for example, in monoclonal antibody availability by 30 percent, starting next week, so we’re starting to see those impacts right away.”
If a new federal funding package is not adopted within five days, health care providers no longer will be able to seek reimbursement for caring for uninsured people sickened by COVID-19 from the Health Resources and Services Administration Uninsured Program because of a lack of sufficient funds.
“Providers across the state have used this program to provide care for those that have needed it and been uninsured,” Kansagra said. “Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to North Carolina providers to provide this care.”
Cooper also is concerned and raised the issue with the White House earlier this week on a call with other governors.
“It is crucial,” Cooper said of the federal assistance. “If we’ve learned any lessons, it’s that we have to be prepared. Federal investment keeps the production of tests and treatments high, which is what we want. We’ve seen how fast a surge can come, so we have to be ready.
Coronavirus by the numbers
- According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:
- 23,030 people in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 2,615,124 cases have been reported in North Carolina since the start of the pandemic. On Thursday, 769 people were 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.
- As of Thursday, 144 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.