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Cooper sets route to ease restrictions, warns of 'new normal'

RALEIGH — North Carolina will need more widespread COVID-19 testing, extensive efforts to track down people in contact with the sick and slowed case and hospital rates before movement and commerce restrictions can ease, Gov. Roy Cooper said on Wednesday.

Cooper, who must decide soon what to do with a stay-at-home order that expires April 29, also warned that any improvements for businesses and the public will be incremental, and could be turned on and off like a dimmer switch, depending on the data.

“I know the changes that we’ve all made in our lives seem to have happened very quickly,” Cooper said at a media briefing, but “undoing those changes won’t happen as fast. To protect our health and long-term economic prosperity, we have to act with care, rather than haste.”

The governor said any “new normal” could include partially-full restaurants and concerts and sporting events without audiences in the name of social distancing and safety. And residents most vulnerable to the new coronavirus still must be protected until a vaccine or effective treatment is available.

Cooper and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen didn’t give many specifics on what would equate to meeting testing, tracing and statistical goals. But Cohen said there were good developments on testing access, and the case count shows the stay-at-home order is working.

State DHHS data shows there were over 5,100 positive COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday morning, which was only a 1 percent increase compared to Tuesday. The number of COVID-19-related deaths grew by nine to 117, while current hospitalizations increased slightly to about 430.

Cohen said efforts were underway to expand the workforce to join local health workers who already track down people in contact with those testing positive in order to control the virus’ spread. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, and the vast majority survive. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause pneumonia or death.

Cooper released his parameters on reopening the day after dozens of protesters unhappy with the stay-at-home order stood together near their cars in a parking lot within sight of the Executive Mansion. One person was arrested who refused to leave after Raleigh police told the crowd repeatedly that they were violating Cooper’s executive order requiring social distancing.

The order and an earlier ban on dine-in service at restaurants and bars, like those in other states, have contributed to a massive economic setback. Nearly 600,000 initial unemployment benefit claims have been filed with the state in the last four weeks.

Several Republican lawmakers, in particular Senate Leader Phil Berger, have urged more widespread testing to better determine the extent of the virus within the population.

The General Assembly’s decision to spend $100,000 to help jump-start an effort by Wake Forest University to collect data on people who have developed immunity to the virus is part of that effort. The money will be used to purchase and send 1,000 at-home antibody kits to a sample of state residents.

“Without hard data to back up the opinions that are being expressed, people are increasingly going to be reluctant to comply with government-mandated shutdowns,” Berger told reporters on Wednesday. The data also may show that the spread of COVID-19 is not as great as leaders have feared, he said.

Cohen said she wasn’t aware of the Wake Forest activity until it was announced earlier this week. She emphasized collaboration with the state and researchers to share data on various components of the virus for maximum benefit to the public.

Deaths continue to accumulate in North Carolina nursing homes. Franklin County health officials said Wednesday that three more residents at the Louisburg Nursing Center have died, bringing the total of resident deaths to five. Six residents at the Springbrook Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Johnston County have also died, officials said.

Four prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19 at the medium-security federal correctional institution in Butner have died, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said. Forty-six inmates and 27 staff members there have tested positive there so far.

Through CARE.BOX effort, businesses, volunteers provide 36,000 meals

An initiative that started in Boone with an original goal of packing 100 food boxes for service workers temporarily laid off due to COVID-19 has grown to just under 900 boxes of food with the potential to launch in other locations.

Ransom Pub, Wine to Water and Vincent Properties partnered together to launch CARE.BOX — an initiative that gives boxes of food and hygiene products to local service industry workers. With one week of planning, the three partners launched its first CARE.BOX pickup and put together 400 boxes of food for the community.

Booneshine co-owners Tim Herdklotz and Carson Coatney heard about CARE.BOX and reached out to the project’s leaders to express interest for Booneshine employees. The business is running at a fraction of its typical operation since it’s only able to offer to-go options. In CARE.BOX’s first week, Herdklotz said he and Coatney picked up 40 boxes and brought them to Booneshine for employees to pick up.

“Our first priority is trying to make sure we’re doing everything we can do take care of our staff,” Herdklotz said. “(CARE.BOX) provides the basics that you need. Having access to food right now is extremely important. It’s a given that we’d do anything that we can to help our employees with that.”

Surprised by the immediate need for food and the reaction to the CARE.BOX initiative, Todd Hendley — a managing partner of Ransom — said organizers took the following week off to regroup and make a plan. CARE.BOX is now in its fifth week of operating and fourth round of food box pickups, and is expected to have distributed roughly 900 boxes by the end of April 17. With roughly 40 meals provided in each box, CARE.BOX will have provided around 36,000 meals.

Included in this amount is 50 boxes for businesses in Raleigh. Hendley said that a few Raleigh restaurants had heard about the CARE.BOX initiative and wanted to partner as well. During the last two weeks, CARE.BOX leaders have been developing a framework that would help businesses in other locations launch similar programs. The group has even received interest from a few locations across the country who also want to start similar programs.

Hendley said there’s a need for these food boxes, so the group is trying to “run” as fast as it can to meet as much of the need as possible.

“You couldn’t have told me six weeks ago that we’d be doing anything called Care Boxes,” Hendley said. “You couldn’t have told me four weeks ago that we’d have interest in other cities other than Boone. You couldn’t have told me last week that we’d be launching Raleigh this week. It blows my mind.”

Since the start of CARE.BOX, the Booneshine co-owners have communicated with their staff to notify them of food pickup times at Ransom in the case their employees needed more food. Employees have also been able to order meals from Booneshine on the days the business is open, Herdklotz said.

“We’re caring for our employees the best that we can, whether it’s financially or helping them emotionally,” Herdklotz said. “We’ve communicated with all of our team that we know this is going to be hard and we have to help each other through this, but we’re going to remain positive. We’re going to make the best of it and come out at the end of this even stronger as a family here.”

CARE.BOX originally started with a focus of “serving our service industry,” to give food to those in that field. While this remains the target audience for CARE.BOX, Hendley said anyone in need can come get a box.

During CARE.BOX’s first week, Hendley said the three partners were willing to front the cost of the initiative with a website link for people to donate if they wanted to help offset some of the costs. With a total of $30,000 donated for CARE.BOX as of April 16, the program has become fully funded by the community, according to Hendley. All of the proceeds from the donations go directly to CARE.BOX.

Hendley emphasized that money raised in the High Country will be used for the local community. Businesses starting CARE.BOX initiatives launched elsewhere will be responsible for their own fundraising. To donate to CARE.BOX, visit give.winetowater.org/boxprogram.

Additionally, local businesses and groups have donated food items for the boxes. Stick Boy Bread Co., Conrad’s Coffee, Hospitality Mints, Horton Hotel, First Baptist Church of Boone, Lost Province, The Cardinal, F.A.R.M Café and Mellow Mushroom have all given food items or bags to CARE.BOX at least one week during its duration.

“It’s just so cool to see how the community and different organizations are stepping up to make sure 36,000 meals can get out to people,” Hendley said.

The project wouldn’t be successful without its 40 or so volunteers, one of which is Kari Mace, Hendley said. Mace stated volunteering with CARE.BOX on March 19 and has been present each packing and pickup day to ensure the process runs smoothly. She said she helps to lead the other volunteers and organize how the food is being packed and where it goes.

Mace is a nanny for local children, and is currently unable to carry out her duties due to COVID-19. She saw a post about CARE.BOX on social media and said she felt it was a great way to spend her time to give back to the community.

“I believe there’s a really big need and just want to do anything I can do to help,” Mace said. “It’s so shocking, driving around town and looking at different businesses that aren’t open, knowing that so many people have lost their jobs at once. It’s not because they weren’t doing a good job or they’re not employable. It’s something outside of themselves they can’t control.”

Volunteers come together to pack boxes on Wednesdays to allow people to pick the food up on Thursdays and Fridays. Those who come to pick up Care Boxes seem grateful, but Mace guessed that they might feel self-conscious, too.

“We try to just let them know that ... we’ve got something you need and we’re all trying to do this together,” Mace said.

Mace has lived in the area for 25 years, and said while she isn’t surprised that Boone has shown up in this way for its community, she certainly hasn’t experienced anything like it.

For more information about CARE.BOX, contact care.box40@gmail.com. To volunteer, sign up to receive a CARE.BOX or to donate, visit give.winetowater.org/boxprogram.

AppHealthCare addresses future staffing demands, plans for 'new normal'

BOONE — In a press conference on April 15, Gov. Roy Cooper said that statewide restrictions will not be lifted all at once, but instead will be incrementally eased as the state “enter(s) a new normal.” He said officials will focus on key areas surrounding COVID-19 testing, tracing and trends before the state fully reopens.

Cooper added that in order to focus on testing, tracing and trends of the virus, health facilities across the state need to increase their supplies, lab capacities and working personnel.

AppHealthCare, the Appalachian District Health Department, has not hired additional people as part of its response effort, but it is actively considering the best way to add capacity as it continues participating in statewide efforts to respond to the pandemic, according to Melissa Bracey, director of communications.

“The staff is lean. We are able to meet our challenges today, but without a doubt, the demand often outweighs the additional capacity that is so critical for everyday activity and response,” Bracey said.

As discussions progress and decisions are officially made, AppHealthCare plans to work closely with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and health departments across the state.

“Our public health director, Jennifer Greene, is participating in planning efforts, along with other public health and health care leaders as these plans quickly evolve to be put into place,” said Bracey, noting that this team will be focusing on the “epidemiology priorities,” which include the previously mentioned testing, tracing and trending aspects.

While AppHealthCare has not yet received the $620,540 that was awarded by the federal CARES Act, it has received a grant totaling $95,074 from the N.C. Division of Public Health from a federal CDC grant that was awarded due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are working to evaluate the best way to utilize these funds, but it will include how we are addressing workforce needs including our contact tracing efforts for isolation and quarantine,” Bracey said, noting that most received funds will go toward purchases of personal protection equipment and other needed supplies.

“There may be additional funding opportunities available in the future to hire workers and increase testing, but at this time, we do not know exactly what that will look like or what the timeline will be,” Bracey said.

Bracey said “partnership opportunities (with other organizations) could actually provide additional support to our team,” especially with remote-based programs.

AppHealthCare is accepting medical volunteers to assist in the COVID-19 pandemic. Bracey said that to date, the health department has been “so encouraged by the medical volunteers who have reached out.”

Health care workers who are interested in volunteering can visit www.terms.ncem.org/TRS, and call or email AppHealthCare at (828) 264-4995 or preparedness@apphealth.com for assistance in registering.

As of 5 p.m. Thursday, April 16, 5,602 people in North Carolina had tested positive for COVID-19, and 145 had died with the virus, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.