State Epidemiologists Zack Moore warned Monday that the coronavirus pandemic in North Carolina is still accelerating. Moore is seen here at a 2016 event. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services

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It’s been a long two weeks since Gov. Roy Cooper closed all schools in the state and banned gatherings of more than 100 people due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Restrictions have tightened much more since then, with people now urged to stay home except for the most essential tasks and jobs and asked to stay at least 6 feet away from anyone else not in their household.

More than 250,000 North Carolina workers have filed for unemployment since March 16, citing closures and layoffs caused by the new coronavirus as the reason for being out of work. Unemployment checks for many workers will go out this week, Cooper’s office has said.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

As deaths continue to mount across North Carolina, the nation and the world, many people have just one question: When will this end?

Dr. Zack Moore, the state epidemiologist, did not have a comforting answer Monday morning.

“Every indication is we are really ramping up now, and we are in the acceleration phase of the pandemic in North Carolina,” Moore said in a press call.

“We certainly have not peaked. … You can look across the country and the world at the trends. We are still on our way up.”

The actions we take today will matter a great deal in the weeks and months to come, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Her words were almost a plea.

“In many ways, this is like a war right here at home, and the enemy is the virus,” Cohen said. “The only way we can win and save as many lives as possible is if we … stay home.”

Humans do not have immunity to this virus, and an effective vaccine could be a year or more away. “There are many things that are not within our control right now, and it’s really hard,” she said.

“Social distancing is the only tool we have, so fewer people get sick at the same time,” Cohen said.

“I can’t stress it enough. Your actions matter. Staying home matters. Staying home will save lives.”

Just two weeks ago, nobody in North Carolina had been hospitalized by COVID-19, and just 33 people had tested positive for the new coronavirus.

“We didn’t have the luxury of time to know everything we wanted to know about the virus,” Cohen told reporters Monday afternoon. “What we know of it is quite scary.”

By Monday morning, the state said 1,307 people had tested positive for COVID-19, and six with laboratory-confirmed infections had died. The state also said 137 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized. Cohen said she expects COVID-19 to spread to every county in the state within the week.

Forecast models for the pandemic

Meanwhile, state health care leaders are aware of several models for predicting the spread of COVID-19, anticipated deaths and for estimating hospital demand.

Among those models, said Moore, is the University of Washington’s, which predicts the peak for COVID-19-related deaths in the state on April 22, with a median of 56 people per day. Total deaths in North Carolina through Aug. 4 could be 1,721 but could rise to 2,700, the UW model states.

The UW model takes into account when schools were closed, when the statewide stay-at-home order began and when nonessential services were shuttered.

North Carolina could see a shortage of about 278 intensive care unit beds at the peak of the outbreak, and 676 patients will require invasive ventilators, the UW model states.

Cohen has said North Carolina is behind the state of New York by about two weeks. About twice as many people live in New York as North Carolina, and New York City is far denser than any of North Carolina’s metro areas.

That state’s peak for coronavirus deaths is projected by UW for April 10, with nearly 800 deaths per day. By Aug. 4, according to a median estimate, New York state could have around 15,546 deaths.

At the peak of the outbreak, New York state’s hospital resources will be stretched much thinner than North Carolina’s. At the peak of the outbreak, New York will be short by 58,564 beds, 10,352 ICU beds, and 8,855 patients will need invasive ventilators.

Cohen said North Carolina is better off than New York state in many respects. Many of its residents are in rural areas, and North Carolina doesn’t have major international airports as New York does.

“Those are all protective factors for North Carolina,” Cohen said.

But our population is also older than New York’s and “has more chronic medical conditions that puts our population at higher risk,” she said.

Health leaders say they are looking ahead, toward an imperfect view of the peak of the outbreak, which could happen in late April. This new coronavirus is particularly virulent, though less transmissible than the measles, Cohen said. People can pass on the coronavirus without having any symptoms at all.

The height of that peak in North Carolina — how quickly our medical resources will be exhausted — depends almost entirely on how residents act now and in the coming days, Cohen said.

“We are asking everyone to change their lives overnight,” she said.

“My primary concerns are people who live in congregant care facilities” or people who are medically frail.

For those with certain preexisting conditions and who are age 65 or older, COVID-19 can be particularly deadly. Some counties in North Carolina have as many as 1 in 4 residents in that age range.

Mike Sprayberry, director of the N.C. Division of Emergency Management, introduced himself during a Monday afternoon press meeting the way he always does.

“Today is Day 21 of the state emergency operations center for the COVID-19 response,” he said in his low, gravelly voice.

“We are trying to work aggressively to acquire personal protective equipment for our health care workers and first responders,” Sprayberry said, adding that he expected deliveries of gowns, face shields, masks and gloves from the strategic national stockpile.

“We are expecting those supplies to arrive today and tomorrow.”

The state is also marshaling retired doctors and nurses, he said. Already 500 volunteers have been approved so far, he said. At the end of his update on the state’s emergency preparedness, Sprayberry’s message then pivoted from the professional to the personal.

“Remember to call your loved ones each and every day,” Sprayberry said. “Let them know you are doing well.”

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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