State leaders provide updates, announce a series of actions to address rapidly evolving health crisis
Gov. Roy Cooper warned North Carolinians that COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, is going to get worse here before it gets better.
“We need to do everything that we can to work to prevent the spread of the virus and also to mitigate,” he told the Governor’s Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force this morning. “We know that lives are at stake. We also know that all of our lives will change in some way over the next few weeks and months.
“We know that there will be disappointment; we know that there will be loss of income for people; we know that there will be inconvenience. But I think it’s critical for us to realize that we are all in this together, that we will find a way forward for our state, that the number one objective here is to protect the health, safety and welfare of North Carolinians, and we are committed to that.”
Cooper said to expect “unpopular” decisions in the coming days as health officials learn more about the virus and how to best protect vulnerable populations.
The task force, made up of leading officials from government and the private sector (including health care, law enforcement and education), met at the North Carolina National Guard headquarters for an update on the virus and subsequent guidance for closures, testing and policy procedures.
As of Thursday afternoon, the state Health and Human Services office reported 14 positive COVID-19 cases  – seven in Wake County, two in Forsyth County, two in Mecklenburg County, one in Johnston County, one in Durham County and another in Chatham County.
Additionally, there are at least 84 people who were in contact with infected persons who are under DHHS monitoring and 76 travelers currently under monitoring. There have been 72 people tested to date for the virus and there are enough supplies to test about 700 more patients.
Supplies to test an additional 900 patients are on back order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and commercial vendors.
State DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen told reporters Thursday that the state is in a better position today for testing people than it was earlier in the week.
“I am very concerned about our long-term ability to sustain this,” she added, noting that the supply was good for the coming days, but would be inadequate in the weeks to come if not replenished.
The state, like many others, is waiting for a chemical reagent that is used in the lab to test for the virus. Cohen said they have plenty of testing kits that are used to take the actual samples from patients.
Health officials have also been waiting for the FDA to approve an alternative testing method – once that happens, the state will be able to test 1,500 people in the next week.
Cohen said testing criteria have loosened from the original requirement that individuals had to have had contact with a person who was positive for COVID-19. Now, a person can be tested if they have a fever or lower respiratory symptoms and test negative for the flu.
Cohen, Cooper and Dr. Elizabeth Cuervo Tilson, the chief medical officer at DHHS, have noted that the COVID-19 situation in North Carolina is “rapidly evolving,” and information changes “by the minute.”
They recommended starting Friday that event organizers cancel or postpone all gatherings of more than 100 people. The events include large gatherings where people are in close contact, like concerts, sports events, church gatherings and conferences. They also recommended all employers in the state to allow employees to work remotely.
“We do not have the luxury of a wait-and-see approach with this virus,” Cohen said.
It was also announced this week that the state has updated many of its Medicaid policies  – to go into effect Friday – to address pharmacy benefits, supplies and access to care. They are designed to facilitate access for patients experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and to limit close contact for routine care, particularly for those at higher risk of severe illness.
People at higher risk of severe illness associated with the virus are adults over the age of 65, those with underlying health conditions including heart disease, lung disease or diabetes, and people with weakened immune systems.
There have been a number of cancelled sporting events both locally and nationally, as well as other precautionary actions taken by schools, legislative bodies and adult care facilities.
The North Carolina General Assembly announced today it would be cancelling committee meetings in Raleigh until April 1 and allowing staffers to work remotely. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said in a news release that he still expects the annual “short session” to start as scheduled on April 28.
The Administrative Office of the Courts did not immediately respond to an email from Policy Watch asking what its policies were regarding court closures or individual hearings if someone was reportedly sick.
The U.S. Supreme Court announced it would be closed to the public until further notice.
DHHS has not recommended the preemptive closure of public schools. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson said at the Thursday meeting that if schools did close, it would be a decision based on recommendations from the local health departments and local superintendents.
He expected to hold a meeting Friday to discuss technological learning possibilities in the event that schools did have to close.
College campuses around the state are already making the shift from in-person classes to remote learning. Interim UNC President Bill Roper told the Task Force they are trying to strike a balance between “prudent action and panic.”
He said it wasn’t about protecting the health of students, who are not a high-risk population, but rather preventing the acceleration of community spread of the virus. Roper used to be the director of the CDC.
“Panic is not warranted, but at the same time, treating this as a trivial matter and warning against overreaction is not helpful either,” Roper said.
Many of the public health recommendations coming from state officials are to “flatten the curve,” or slow the spread of the disease so as not to inundate systems, especially when it comes to health care.
State Epidemiologist Zack Moore said communities would need to be flexible as they learn more about how COVID-19 spreads. He said right now that one infected person is expected to infect another two to three people, but that could also increase.
“Everyone should expect guidance will change and it should change,” he said.
Information about coronavirus symptoms, community guidance, testing and travel can be found on the state’s DHHS online coronavirus page . Residents can also call 866-462-3821 for questions and more information.