Wilson Medical Center
Wilson Medical Center in Wilson is one of eight North Carolina hospitals operated by Duke LifePoint, among the dozens it operates in 22 states across the country. The company's impending merger with a private equity firm has received minimal media attention, despite its potential to change the mission of these health care facilities. Calvin Adkins / Carolina Public Press

A sweeping executive order by Gov. Roy Cooper gives broad authority to rapidly increase the number of hospital beds, acquire imaging equipment and expand the health care workforce to brace for the influx of COVID-19 patients.

One change further codifies a ruling signed by N.C. Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry and Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen last month, which waived the typical process for increasing hospital bed capacity. Under that process, more than 2,000 hospital beds have so far been approved at several hospitals throughout the state.

As COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, spreads through congregate facilities, Cohen also said health care workers in those settings will soon be required to wear cloth face masks while interacting with patients.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

“We will require all facilities to close communal areas and restrict all nonessential personnel,” Cohen said Wednesday afternoon.

A later order will require daily screenings of residents and staff, and require all congregate facilities to notify their county health department of new or suspected cases of COVID-19.

Cooper expressed concern during Wednesday’s press conference about substantial outbreaks at long-term care facilities, including an Orange County nursing home that has had more than 60 confirmed cases. Carolina Public Press is also reporting Thursday on major outbreaks at adult care homes and nursing homes in Northampton, Moore and Henderson counties, all of which have deficient track records, according to state or federal inspections.

“If an outbreak happens, quick and aggressive action must also follow,” Cohen said. “I know this is a particularly hard week as folks look forward to the holidays,” Cohen said. “This year will have to be different. Please keep your family and loved ones safe by staying home.”

The governor’s executive order expands the types of health care facilities that can seek and receive bed increases and grants flexibility in where beds can be located. Facilities need to send a request to the state Division of Health Service Regulation.

An analysis by data scientists released earlier this week says if social distancing ceases at the end of April, there’s a 1-in-2 chance that the sick will overwhelm the hospital system. Health officials have nearly pleaded with people to stay home and obey the governor’s order in an effort to prevent too many people from becoming sick at the same time.

Aaron McKethan, Duke University adjunct professor and CEO of NoviSci, on Monday likened forecasting a pandemic to that of a hurricane, except our actions can have a direct impact on the trajectory and severity of the storm. He and other scientists have been working on a model to inform state leaders on how to move forward as the pandemic progresses.

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The executive order signed Wednesday would give the hospital system breathing room as facilities and the pool of qualified workers stretch to cope with a surge of patients.

Outpatient surgery centers will also be able to seek additional beds, as well as adult care homes, nursing facilities, rehabilitation facilities and others. The bed increase will last 30 days after the end of the state of emergency caused by the widely spreading new coronavirus.

The professional health care licensure board is also given wide latitude to waive or modify regulations for nearly two dozen professions, including nurses, pharmacists, mental health counselors, respiratory therapists, translators and more.

If North Carolina requests help from out of state, those people will be considered as licensed in their fields, and licensing will not be required for those working in emergency management positions, the order states.

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

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