RALEIGH — As COVID-19 cases and deaths rise in North Carolina, the state is asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to activate a non-congregant sheltering program, which could mean patients with minor symptoms could be housed in hotels and collegiate dormitories, N.C. Emergency Management Director Michael Sprayberry announced April 2.

“Implementing this kind of temporary housing would help reduce the surge of people to our state’s hospitals and help sick people get the care they need,” Sprayberry stated.

The program would be for patients “who have been exposed or tested positive for COVID19, but do not need hospitalizations (or) for those who are symptomatic and awaiting results,” Sprayberry said.

“Sheltering specific populations in non-congregate shelters should be determined by a public health official’s direction or in accordance with the direction or guidance of health officials by the appropriate state or local entities,” FEMA’s website states. “The request should specify the populations to be sheltered. Non-congregate sheltering of health care workers and first responders who require isolation may be eligible when determined necessary by the appropriate state, local, tribal or territorial public health officials and when assistance is not duplicated by another federal agency.”

Watauga County Emergency Services Director Will Holt said on April 2 that officials have “put some feelers” out to local hotels regarding non-congregant sheltering, but said no schools with dormitories had been contacted yet. Rob Hudspeth, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System senior vice president for system advancement, said there have been conversations about utilizing space at Appalachian State University and Lees-McRae College and other sites “if the surge in patients necessitates it.”

Holt added that he hasn’t been contacted by other counties regarding potentially housing patients in Watauga at this point.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper had previously activated, is helping with facility assessments to find suitable locations, Sprayberry explained.

According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, out of the 87 percent of reporting hospitals in the state, 7,156 of the 21,222 inpatient beds are empty and 635 of the state’s 3,223 Intensive Care Unit beds are empty as of 11 a.m. April 2. Out of the state’s COVID-19 patients, 184 were hospitalized as of April 2, the N.C. DHHS stated.

Hudspeth said on April 2 that the local health care group, which includes Watauga Medical Center and Cannon Memorial Hospital, has developed a four-phase surge plan to address incremental increases in COVID-19 inpatient cases.

“This plan incorporates potential triggers, facilities, staffing, care decisions, management, supplies, support services, security/access and communication as COVID-19 inpatient numbers increase,” Hudspeth said.

Two new dedicated isolation units with 20 beds have been created with plans to develop additional isolation units at Watauga Medical Center and Cannon Memorial Hospital in later phases, according to Hudspeth.

Random testing

N.C. Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican, has expressed his desire to conduct random COVID-19 testing in North Carolina.

“Leaders are making decisions without reliable data on COVID-19’s real prevalence in the population and true fatality rate,” Berger stated on March 25. “The only way to fix that is to immediately conduct random sample testing to scientifically estimate how many people have COVID-19, and then to conduct antibody tests as soon as practicable to estimate how many people had the virus.”

AppHealthCare, Watauga County’s district health department, said it would generally be in favor of more testing similar to what state and federal agencies currently do for influenza.

“Should we see increased access to personal protective equipment and testing capability in the future, we would certainly support testing as a key strategy to help us apply containment strategies like asking people to isolate and telling close contacts to quarantine,” AppHealthCare’s Melissa Bracey said. “We are continuing to provide this direction to people who are known or have suspected COVID-19. Based on the current circumstances and the fact that we know community transmission is occurring in North Carolina, we believe that using mitigation strategies like social distancing to reduce the spread along with other methods to track the virus, similar to our influenza tracking, is our next best step.”

As of April 2, the N.C. DHHS reported 28,679 tests completed by the N.C. State Laboratory of Public Health and reporting hospital and commercial labs. N.C. DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said on April 1 that there were about 5,100 tests pending.

COVID-19 numbers

The COVID-19 case count in N.C. rose to 1,900 people with at least 184 people hospitalized and 17 dead, including one in Wilkes County, according to the Raleigh News & Observer at 3:30 p.m. on April 2.

The number was higher than the 1,857 positive cases reported by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services as of 10:55 a.m. April 2.

The newspaper’s numbers are updated throughout the day while the N.C. DHHS numbers are only updated once a day.

N.C. DHHS officials have acknowledged that the case counts do not fully represent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state. County and state health departments said last week that they were prioritizing people with urgent medical needs and health care workers for testing.

An additional Watauga County resident has tested positive for COVID-19, which brings the total positive cases of COVID-19 in Watauga County to seven among residents of the county, plus an additional person who is not a permanent resident of the county but who is isolating in Watauga.

In nearby counties, Wilkes County has had four reported cases of the virus, according to the N.C. DHHS. Caldwell County has three positive cases, according to N.C. DHHS. Johnson County (Tenn.) has two positive cases, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Ashe and Avery counties still had no reported positive test results as of 9 a.m. April 2.

AppHealthCare reported that it had collected 69 tests in Watauga County as of April 2, while outside agencies had reported a total of 153 tests in the county. In Ashe County, the health department had collected five tests by April 1, while outside agencies had collected a total of 26 tests to date for the county.

Deb Gragg with Toe River Health District, serving Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties, reported on April 1 that 47 tests had been conducted in Avery County, with 34 negative results and 13 results pending.

Nationwide, Johns Hopkins University & Medicine reported 234,462 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. as of 3:30 p.m. April 2, with 5,607 reported deaths, continuing the upward trajectory of American pandemic numbers. The university also reports that 8,849 patients have recovered from the virus nationwide.

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