RALEIGH — North Carolina continues to see a rise in COVID-19 cases, and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said on July 7 that she’s concerned that the state’s key metrics continue moving in the wrong direction.
NCDHHS reported on July 3 the state’s highest one-day number of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases with 2,099 cases reported. As of July 7, the state reported 75,875 lab confirmed cases in North Carolina with 989 people hospitalized and 1,420 deaths to date. While the daily cases on that day were down (1,346), Cohen said July 7 presented the state’s highest number of people with COVID-19 who were hospitalized to date. Watauga sat at 96 total cases and 72 active cases as of July 7, according to AppHealthCare.
“Our state needs to stabilize these trends in order to avoid a dangerous spike in the virus that could overwhelm our medical system and risk us going backwards like so many states are doing right now,” Cohen said.
Additionally, Cohen shared concerns of a short supply of laboratory reagents for health system labs, as well as ballooning turnaround times for tests at commercial labs. Wait times for test results is approaching six to seven days, which Cohen said “is far from ideal.” The need for testing reagents and the wait period for test results mean less tests are being processed per day, Cohen said.
Cohen added that supply chains around the country are “tight” on testing supplies, and said she continues to share concerns with federal partners for a coordinated effort to ensure supplies are being appropriately distributed. In addition to helping states with supply chain issues, Cohen said she thought the federal government could help with additional new ways of testing.
“We need to see other kinds of tests come to market that can actually identify COVID-19 in a way that is faster and cheaper,” Cohen said. “The time is now and it is very urgent.”
Cohen announced the launch of two statewide initiatives to improve access to testing for historically marginalized populations that are “being hit the hardest by COVID-19.” According to NCDHHS, the agency has launched the Community testing in High-priority And Marginalized Populations Initiative to increase access to no-cost COVID-19 testing for African American, LatinX/Hispanic and American Indian communities that currently have limited testing sites.
A disproportionately high percentage of North Carolina’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 have occurred among historically marginalized populations, according to NCDHHS. The agency stated that mounting evidence shows the members of these populations experience higher rates of COVID-19 mortality and serious complications.
Cohen explained that a statewide standing order has been issued for COVID-19 testing that eliminates the need for testing sites to require a doctor or other provider referral in order for a community member to be tested. Additionally, the initiative will deploy 300 temporary testing sites throughout the month of July — including drive-thru and walk-up sites.
Cohen recognized that not everyone has a vehicle to access drive-thru sites, and NCDHHS wants testing to be easily accessible. While not all 300 sites will be for walk-up services, the agency is working with community partners to examine what option is best within communities.
NCDHHS stated that state leaders identified two vendors to begin the work at the temporary testing sites, Vidant Health and Orig3n, Inc. Both vendors will deploy the no-cost testing sites to underserved communities identified by DHHS and bring additional lab capacity to the state. The initiative will increase testing capacity in more than 100 ZIP codes, providing testing access for 2.2 million African American, LatinX/Hispanic and American Indian individuals.
Residents of the selected areas could face heightened risk of COVID-19 infection for reasons such as close proximity of housing, challenges to practice social distancing, occupational exposure and barriers in transportation, as well as historical obstacles to access health care, a concentration of unmet health needs and chronic disease burden. NCDHHS stated that many front-line and essential workers are from historically marginalized populations, and they face even higher risk of exposure to infection.
The vendors are required to connect individuals with medical homes and provide services with culturally and linguistically appropriate standards while working within existing trusted community partnerships, stated NCDHHS. The agency added that no payment from the individual will be needed for the testing. Insurance, if available, will be billed but no co-pays or cost-sharing will be asked of anyone seeking testing. Those who are uninsured will have full access to free testing at these sites, according to the agency.
“It is critical we make testing available in trusted and accessible places for North Carolina historically marginalized populations beginning with meeting people where they are, in their communities,” said N.C. Medicaid Chief Medical Officer Shannon Dowler.
To slow the spread of COVID-19, NCDHHS is urging the practice of the 3 Ws — wearing a face covering over the nose and mouth, waiting six feet apart and washing hands often.
Those with symptoms or those who think they have been exposed to COVID-19 — whether or not they have symptoms — should be tested for COVID-19. If a community member thinks they may need to be tested and would like to find a nearby testing place, go to Check My Symptoms and Find My Testing Place. To find nearby short-term testing events, visit the Pop-Up Testing Sites webpage.
To find out more about the response to COVID-19 in NC, visit nc.gov/covid19. Additional data is posted on the NC COVID-19 Dashboard at covid19.ncdhhs.gov/dashboard. Learn more about North Carolina’s strategy to combat COVID-19 at covid19.ncdhhs.gov/about-covid-19/north-carolinas-strategy-combat-covid-19.