RALEIGH — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency Tuesday as leaders continue to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.
The state now has seven people who have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, health officials said.
All of the patients are in isolation while officials identify close contacts.
“This is a critical moment” for stopping the further spread of the disease, said Mandy Cohen, the state health and human services secretary, at a noon news conference with the governor. She urged people to avoid big gatherings, particularly if they’re considered at high risk for illness.
Cohen also said the state isn’t recommending closing schools at this time.
“This situation is rapidly changing and recommendations about school closures could change as we learn more, but today we are not recommending any preemptive school closure,” she said. “Perhaps the best thing we can do to protect ourselves, our neighbors and our state is to be sure that we are getting accurate information. Please rely on trusted sources of information.
State officials are not asking the ACC Tournament or other big upcoming events to be canceled but want all event organizers to adopt “lenient” refund policies for sick people, to prevent the disease from spreading.
Cooper says he personally doesn’t plan to avoid big events like sporting events because he’s not a high-risk person, but cautions people to be aware of their own status and to keep following the news for potential updates. “I think people have to make their own decisions about that,” he said.
Dr. Wesley Burks, CEO of UNC Heath Care, the state-owned not-for-profit that operates the UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill, UNC Rex Healthcare in Raleigh and nine other hospitals in the state, is one of many health care experts who have been working with state and local officials on the new coronavirus response.
The emergency declaration “is an appropriate next step with the number of cases that have been identified,” Burks said Tuesday during a meeting at The News & Observer office. The declaration conveys to the public that the illness is enough of a threat that they should take protective measures against it, and it makes the state eligible for federal emergency funding.
“We need to be removing barriers that keep people from getting care,” Burks said, and federal funding can help with that. People who think they may have the virus should not have to worry about whether they can pay for care, Burks said; if they have symptoms and believe they may have been exposed, they should call their doctor’s office.
Burks said epidemiologists estimate that every person who gets infected with the new coronavirus will spread the virus to three more people.
Burks said that, starting Tuesday, UNC Health Care would begin asking people not to visit patients in its hospitals unless necessary.
This week, he said, all UNC hospitals will use mobile home or empty office space to set up temporary triage and testing sites at their facilities where people can come and be screened for COVID-19. On its website, UNC Health Care advises people who have symptoms and have reason to believe they have been exposed to the virus to call UNC’s COVID-19 help line at 1-888-850-2684.
The triage centers will allow health care workers to determine which patients can be sent home and which ones need to be hospitalized. The measure is designed to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed if the spread of illness accelerates. Most people can recuperate at home.
At the governor’s press conference, Cohen says she has spoken with the leaders of nearly every hospital in the state. They all have plans for epidemic outbreaks and are putting them into place, she said.
She said that North Carolina doesn’t have as many tests as it would like to have, but neither do other states. The state is trying to develop a new testing mechanism that, if approved by the FDA, will allow more people to get tested.
At the press conference, officials said the state has tested 44 people for the new coronavirus so far, and has enough kits to test another 300 people. By next week, they said, the state hopes to have the capacity to test another 1,500 people.
An unknown number of people also have been tested privately, and if any of those are positive, the state will be notified.
“We know that there are more cases out there,” Cohen said.
Cooper said the state requested testing supplies from the CDC but didn’t get as many as it needs. “I’ve talked with other governors; I’ve talked with the vice president. Every state is having this issue right now,” he said. Cooper reminded people that epidemiologists have estimated that so far, 80 percent of people who get the illness don’t have severe symptoms and don’t require medical attention. Around 20 percent of infected people need medical care.
Burks, of UNC Health Care, said those who do need medical attention typically need fluids and oxygen.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will run second tests on the new North Carolina patients to confirm results, officials said.
Previous N.C. cases
The state’s first case on March 3 involved a Wake County man who tested presumptively positive. Officials say he was exposed at a long-term care facility in Kirkland, Wash., the site of an outbreak, and then returned to North Carolina.
At the time of his return, he was “not experiencing symptoms” and presented no “identifiable risk” to travelers, according to RDU.
On March 5, a Chatham County man who had traveled to northern Italy, where there’s a COVID-19 outbreak, tested presumptively positive, state health officials said March 6. The man experienced “mild flu-like symptoms” while traveling in northern Italy, but his fever went away, the state said. He flew back to the United States the next day, arriving in RDU via John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
The man was a “close contact” to a case in Georgia, the state said, and Georgia health officials contacted their North Carolina counterparts.
On Monday, officials announced that five more people in North Carolina tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a Biogen corporate conference in Boston last month.
More than two dozen people around the country who attended the conference Feb. 24-27 have tested positive for the virus, including an Indiana resident. The Indiana patient also spent time at Biogen’s Research Triangle Park office last week before driving home, Wake officials said Monday.
Coronavirus is primarily a respiratory disease, with symptoms similar to seasonal flu. According to the CDC, symptoms of coronavirus include fever, cough and shortness of breath.
People with questions or concerns about COVID-19 can call the state’s phone line at 866-462-3821.
This article is published through the N.C. News Collaborative, a partnership of BH Media, Gannett and McClatchy newspapers in North Carolina that aims to better inform readers throughout the state.
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