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Cooper orders more business closures, K-12 school closures extended to May 15

RALEIGH — N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced March 23 that he would sign an executive order extending the closure of K-12 schools for in-person instruction until May 15.

He also said the order will close gyms, movie theaters, health clubs, hair salons, massage parlors, barbers, nail salons, tattoo parlors, spas, skating rinks, bowling alleys, bingo parlors, gaming establishments and all commercial indoor and outdoor pools, effective 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25.

In addition, Cooper said the executive order would lower the threshold of allowable mass gatherings to less than 50 people. Previously, mass gatherings of 100 people or more were banned.

“We know these cause hardship and heartache, but they’re necessary to save lives,” Cooper said.

The order is in effect for at least 30 days, according to its text.

Grocery stores and restaurants with takeout and delivery options would remain open, Cooper said. Last week, dine-in options at restaurants were banned.

The order also mandated further visitor restrictions for long-term care and nursing home facilities, according to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Secretary Mandy Cohen. All visitors are banned from long-term-care facilities, which includes skilled nursing facilities, adult care homes, family care homes and mental health care homes.

Responding to a reporter’s question, Cooper said he is not at this time issuing a “shelter in place” order in which state residents who are considered non-essential personnel are ordered to stay at home under potential penalty.

“We encourage those in the high-risk category to stay at home,” Cooper said.

Cohen issued new guidance passed down by the Centers for Disease Control on who is at high risk for contracting COVID-19.

Cohen said the list includes people 65 years and older, people who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility, people with high-risk conditions including chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma, or heart disease with complications, people who are immunocompromised, people of any age with severe obesity or certain underlying medical conditions, particularly if not well controlled, such as those with diabetes.

“This expanded definition for high risk further emphasizes the need for each of us to commit to social distancing,” Cohen said. “We are working on additional interventions we can do here in North Carolina to protect our higher risk community members.”

“The CDC also advises that women who are pregnant should be monitored since they are known to be at risk with severe viral illness; however, to date data on COVID-19 has not shown increased risk,” Cohen said. “While children are generally at lower risk for severe infection, some studies indicate a higher risk among infants.”

Regarding K-12 education, N.C. State Board of Education Vice Chairman Alan Duncan said that right now, the current benchmark is to resume in-person K-12 instruction May 18.

“We will reopen schools if, and only if, our public health experts say so,” Duncan said.

As for instruction from home, Cooper said he had a conference call with internet service providers to get internet service to students who need it “as soon as possible.”

“We must maximize the time left in the year as much as possible,” Cooper said.

Cooper said he’s working on a plan to make sure school employees are kept safe and will “make sure they get paid.”

Tweetsie Railroad postpones opening day

BLOWING ROCK — Tweetsie Railroad announced March 19 that it was postponing its opening day from its planned Friday, April 3, date.

“Tweetsie Railroad is postponing its park opening date to adhere to the current recommendations from the CDC and the state of North Carolina,” the theme park states on its website. “We will continue to monitor the situation with guidance from public health professionals to determine when the park will open.”

Previously, the park intended on opening for the 2020 season as scheduled, saying it had increased the number of hand sanitation stations across the park.

The Blowing Rock-based Wild West Adventure theme park attracts more than 250,000 visitors annually and 2,000 on its biggest days, Robbins said on opening day in 2018.

Founded in 1957 by Grover Robbins, Tweetsie Railroad opened on July 4, originally with just the No. 12 locomotive. The wild west theme was adopted in 1958 and the current three-mile train loop was created.

Three COVID-19 cases confirmed in Watauga, statewide case count continues to climb

BOONE — A third Watauga County resident has tested positive for COVID-19, according to a March 24 AppHealthCare announcement, as the number of tests administered rose in the last week.

According to AppHealthCare, the district health department for Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties, the case had travel history, has been in isolation since being tested and is improving.

“The local public health staff have identified the close contacts, who have been quarantine for several days,” AppHealthCare stated on March 24.

The announcement comes six days after the last positive case announcement in Watauga County on March 18. The second Watauga County case was exposed to a known positive case and the first case. The first Watauga County case, reported on March 15, is a Samaritan’s Purse employee with a travel history.

AppHealthCare stated that it wanted to remind the public to share credible, reliable information and practice prevention measures like hand washing, covering the mouth when coughing and sneezing, and cleaning frequently touched surfaces.

COVID-19 positive cases reported for the state have continued a rising trend in recent days, as the number increased to at least 475 cases as of 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24, according to reports from the Raleigh News & Observer.

This number varies from reports provided by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, as the agency reported 398 positive cases as of March 24, with its reporting process occurring as a single daily update. The News & Observer is compiling the numbers of cases announced by counties throughout the day, noting that cases reported by county health departments can take up to 48 hours before they are included in the state’s numbers.

On a statewide level, NCDHHS reported a total number of 8,502 tests had been conducted for the coronavirus as of March 24, which were conducted at the N.C. State Laboratory of Public Health and did not include tests at university and commercial laboratories.

According to Melissa Bracey of AppHealthCare, depending on the volume at the labs, turnaround time can vary from 24 hours to seven days.

“We have noticed the fastest turnaround has been from the N.C. State Lab for Public Health, but we know all labs are quickly adapting to the increased testing volume,” Bracey said.

Both Ashe and Avery counties have yet to report a positive case of the virus within their borders.

Johns Hopkins University and Medicine reports a total of 51,542 confirmed cases in the United States as of 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24, a jump of more than 4,000 cases since noon and 20,000 in the previous 72 hours.

The total represents the third-largest total of cases worldwide, trailing only China and Italy. The university reported that there had been a total of 674 deaths across the country to date related to COVID-19 as of Tuesday, March 24.

To date, no deaths within the state of North Carolina have been reported, according to NCDHHS.

On March 24, Bracey said that recommendations on testing have shifted from broad-based testing to testing those who have urgent medical needs and demands for care.

“Individuals who are sick or ill can remain at home and call their provider to receive additional guidance as needed,” Bracey stated. “People with mild symptoms consistent with COVID-19 do not need testing and should be instructed to stay at home to recover. Mild symptoms include: fever and cough without shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. If you experience shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, blue lips, difficulty breathing or confusion, call 911 or your doctor right away.”

“Testing is most important for people who are seriously ill, in the hospital, people in high-risk settings like nursing homes or long-term care facilities and health care workers and other first responders who are caring for those with COVID-19.”

AppHealthCare reported that it has collected a total of two tests in Ashe County, while outside agencies have collected a total of 22 tests to date for the county. In Watauga County, AppHealthCare reports that it has collected a total of 62 tests to date, while outside agencies have reported a total of 95 tests for the county.

H.R. 6201 – The Families First Coronavirus Response Act – states that group health plans and health insurance issuers “shall provide coverage, and shall not impose any cost sharing (including deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance) requirements or prior authorization or other medical management requirements” for COVID-19 testing during the current emergency period. The act also seeks to waive cost sharing under certain Medicare and Medicaid programs for certain visits relating to testing for COVID–19.

According to the hospital representative and advocacy group American Hospital Association, H.R. 6201 has a new option for states to expand limited Medicaid eligibility to the uninsured for the purpose of COVID-19 testing and related services.

According to AppHealthCare’s website, it accepts all patients regardless of ability to pay, saying that most private health insurance plans require the patient to pay a copayment to the provider and meet an annual deductible.

“AppHealthCare will work with any patient, regardless of their ability to pay for testing. As is our usual day-to-day practice, a patient will not be turned away due to inability to pay,” Bracey said on March 21. “Thankfully, many insurers are also providing support for their members to remove any barrier to care.”

Effective March 24, visitors will not be allowed at any of Appalachian Regional Healthcare System’s hospitals in order to help protect its patients, family members and health care workers from the spread of COVID-19, including inpatient and outpatient facilities at Watauga Medical Center and Cannon Memorial Hospital.

Exceptions will be made on a case-by-case basis for hospitalized minors (maximum of two family members per day); patients at the end of life (maximum of two family members per day); patients needing help with communication, decision making or mobility; and patients giving birth (maximum of two family members or support people per day).

For more information, visit apprhs.org/covid19.