By Kari Travis
Carolina Journal News Service
Raleigh – The fight against coronavirus will be a long haul, Gov. Roy Cooper and health officials said after declaring a state of emergency Tuesday.
Five new cases of the novel virus were identified Monday in Wake County. All were linked to a Boston conference last month, raising the state’s total count to seven presumptive positive cases. The state of emergency, a news release says, is meant to enhance coordination among state agencies, make it easier to buy medical supplies, and increase access by the county health department to get state money, among other things.
“While we do expect many more cases, we can limit the number of people who get seriously ill,” Cooper, who has issued an executive order, said in a news conference Tuesday.
Worries over the coronavirus overshadowed the legislature during two Joint Legislative Committee meetings Tuesday. Lawmakers questioned the spread and lethality of the virus, debating increased access to telehealth and departmental funding. But health officials gave few answers about the cost of the coronavirus, as key details remain unknown.
Eighty percent of people who have contracted the coronavirus don’t require medical attention, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said. People considered at high risk for severe illness are adults older than 65 and people with underlying health conditions, such as heart and lung disease, diabetes, or a weakened immune system.
Cohen recommends people in the high-risk group avoid large gatherings as much as possible, including concerts, conventions, church services, sporting events, and crowded social events.
The state is targeting the high-risk population first. The virus’s rapid spread in Italy had Cohen and legislators visibly worried. Italy went from 600 cases to countrywide lockdown in just 11 days.
“That is concerning, and that’s why you’re going to see us step up measures before we have 600 cases,” Cohen said. “We want to do as much as we can, as early as we can, to avoid lockdown of the entire country, but it spreads really fast.”
Facilities for people at high risk should restrict visitors, Cohen said. These include independent and assisted living centers, jails and prisons, nursing homes, and facilities for medically vulnerable children. The department encourages event organizers to limit close contact among participants as much as possible and ensure surfaces are clean.
Cooper recommends the usual precautions: wash your hands, avoid touching your face, keep surfaces clean, stay home when sick, and have a plan to work remotely if needed.
“We do want people to take this seriously, but we also want people to go on living their lives, particularly those not in the higher-risk group,” Cooper said.
Avoid travel and mass gatherings as much as possible, Cooper said.
The Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament, for example, opened Tuesday afternoon in Greensboro. Cooper said he plans to continue attending sporting events, as he’s not in the high-risk category.
“We’re just talking to the public about steps they might want to take and trying to separate people as much as we possibly can,” Cooper said. “We’re not making recommendations about canceling mass gatherings.”
Due to the six cases in Wake County, Triangle residents are encouraged to use teleworking technologies as much as possible, Cohen said. Employers should also encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick and maximize flexibility and sick leave benefits, she said.
The expense to North Carolina remains unclear. Legislators asked Cohen about costs, but her department hasn’t yet received a price for virus testing. Without knowing the severity of the disease, the cost of treatment remains just as opaque, she said.
Private insurers have already begun stepping into the gap. The state’s major insurers have promised to cover the cost of testing, waiving members’ copays, deductibles, and cost-sharing.
“It’s a really hard thing to put our finger on because we just don’t know the extent,” Cohen said. “The biggest unknown for me is the cost of testing and the cost of treatment. We don’t even yet have a price tag on what one single test will be.”
The state isn’t recommending schools close, although this could change, Cohen said. For now, she said, local school districts or individual schools should make that choice. Trinity Academy, a private school in Raleigh, closed Tuesday after a parent tested positive for the virus, WRAL reported.
Colleges are taking precautions, as well. N.C. State University, for example, in an email to some graduate students said administrators are instructing faculty to “begin developing course continuity plans.”
“At its most basic level,” the email says, “this process is having us consider how we would complete the semester if our traditional in-person courses are not able to meet face-to-face for a portion of the semester.”
Students were sent a survey to “help us gather some data about our students’ abilities to actively engage in classes if they need to do so remotely.”
North Carolina should expect an “extended posture” of emergency, compared with hurricane season, she said.
“This is going to be a marathon,” Cohen said. “It could be months.”
Those months could bring any number of consequences for the state’s economy, said Joe Coletti, senior fellow for fiscal and tax policy at the John Locke Foundation. A state of emergency triggers price gouging regulations designed to keep costs from spiking by artificially controlling markets. Under emergency laws, it’s illegal for a business to charge “excessive prices” for goods in high demand.
But that’s the free market at work, Coletti said. People worried about virus prevention and supply chains are snapping up hand sanitizer, face masks, and toilet paper — forcing costs to rise. At the same time, airline ticket and luxury cruise prices are falling due to low demand. No one would recommend an $800 minimum cost for those goods and services, Coletti said, yet people want to penalize businesses that respond to heightened demand in kind.
The consequences of the state’s extended price controls are unclear, but residents should scrutinize any government attempt to manipulate the market, he said.
For now, North Carolina is preparing for coronavirus to spread.
Forty-four people are being tested for the virus, and 25 will head into the lab today, said State Health Director Elizabeth Tilson.
Coronavirus cases are increasing nationwide, but that’s partly because more people are being tested, said U.S. Rep. Greg Murphy in a March 9 video tweet. Murphy, who represents North Carolina’s 3rd District, was chief of the Division of Urology at Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University and spent 30 years in the field before beginning his political career.
“The risk of transmission and the risk of getting sick from this, again, is very, very low,” he said.
The coronavirus is more dangerous than the flu because there’s no vaccine for it, Murphy said. Sixty percent of Americans have been vaccinated for the flu, and the ones who got sick either didn’t get vaccinated or their body didn’t generate a good immune response. Unlike measles, the coronavirus spreads by droplets, not by air, reducing its rate of infection.
The state has 300 coronavirus tests available but recently encountered hiccups in the supply chain, as several states are depending on the same testing methodology, Cohen said. The state is waiting on FDA approval for a second testing methodology and is also partnering with private labs like LabCorp and Quest.
North Carolinians can visit ncdhhs.gov/coronavirus to keep up with the department’s latest updates.