As testing ramps up, state officials scramble to acquire medical supplies, address economic fallout

By: - March 24, 2020 1:19 pm
Image: Adobe Stock

Semi-trucks carrying medical supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile rolled up to a Durham warehouse early this morning, as state leaders try to fill at least 2,000 requests for resources to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The State of North Carolina has ordered $46 million worth of medical supplies, said Mike Sprayberry, state director of Emergency Management, during an emergency Council of State meeting conducted today by telephone. More supplies are scheduled to arrive today; 53 National Guard troops have been activated to help with logistics and transportation, he said.

The Council of State is composed of 10 elected top agency officials: the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Attorney General, Labor Commissioner, Agriculture Commissioner, Insurance Commissioner and Auditor.

There are at least 436 reported cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus; 29 people have been hospitalized. Cases have been reported in 48 North Carolina counties, although Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said she expects to see cases in all 100 counties within the next week.

More than 10,000 tests have been completed, with another 13,000 in the queue.

Gov. Roy Cooper has signed an executive order closing non-essential services, including bars and restaurants, and nail and hair salons, to curb the spread. The order also prohibits gatherings of more than 50 people. Health experts also recommend that people stay home, and if they do have to go out to six feet apart from one another — also known as social distancing.

“I’ll tell you why we’re so worried,” Cohen said. The hospitalization rate for a bad flu season is 2%, she said, but for COVID-19, the rate is much higher, 20%, based on global data. “We’re trying to understand the mortality rate. That’s still unknown because we’re the middle of the pandemic.”

North Carolina has succeeded, so far, in “flattening the curve,” Cohen said, delaying the spread so that hospitals aren’t overwhelmed by the number of cases. “The community spread was much later than in other states,” Cohen said. “Three or four days, a week, it buys us time.”

State Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Tilson said data about the severity and spread of disease is “never accurate until the end of an outbreak,” when more comprehensive information is available. 

Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler asked if rural counties would have fewer cases since they are more sparsely populated. 

Tilson said that while rural residents in effect practice “social distancing,” other factors contribute to the number of cases. In urban areas there is more access to testing, which can result in higher numbers of positive cases. On the other hand, rural areas could have undetected positive cases.

“There’s a testing bias,” Tilson said. “Trying to get a sense of the spread by focusing only on positive cases is not a good strategy.”

Since last week when President Trump misled the public about the use of anti-malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19, pharmacies have seen an “uptick in demand” for these medicines, Sprayberry said.

The FDA has not approved either drug to treat COVID-19; currently they are used to ease symptoms of auto-immune diseases lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Clinical trials are needed to determine whether the medicines successfully treat COVID-19 and in what doses. Improper use of the drugs can be fatal.

In the coming weeks, the legislature will tackle a financial relief bill, guided in part by what the state receives in the federal stimulus package. State Budget Director Charlie Perusse told the Council that some needs will be covered by federal funds. “But there will be federal match requirements,” he said. “And some things the federal government won’t cover but that the state will.” 

Cooper told the Council that he talks with federal officials, both in the Trump administration and Congress, daily. “A lot of money will be coming into the state,” Cooper said, “and we need to continue to be good stewards of taxpayer money during the crisis.”

In addition to the cost of medical supplies, the state will also have to address aid for nutritional programs, small businesses, local governments and unemployment.

Because of the temporary job losses, some of which could become permanent, more than 100,000 people filed for unemployment benefits last week, compared with the average of 3,000.

And some non-essential businesses rely on person-to-person transactions, said Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. “Transactions like notary publics, real estate — they need to be addressed. We’re hearing a hue and cry from the business community.”

State agencies that rely heavily on receipts and fees to fund their operations are also worried about cash flow. Labor Secretary Cherie Berry said that money to pay inspectors of amusement devices and elevators could run out before June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

“We’re trying to inspect elevators in places that are open as much as possible, but we’re going to need funds to keep people on payroll.”

The Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the Department of Environmental Quality and the state Wildlife Resources Commission all have programs that are fee-based. Over the past decade, the legislature has cut appropriations for some state programs, especially at DEQ, and made them reliant on fees.

Perusse said the agencies’ revenue losses are “very much on our minds.”

“This is an unprecedented situation for people of the state,” Cooper said. “There is much suffering going on. Our priority is to protect health and safety of North Carolinians.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.