Governor Roy Cooper today extended North Carolina’s stay-at-home order until May 8 and outlined a three-phase plan for “reopening” the state, but he made clear that “science, data, and facts” will determine when the first phase of that plan begins.
“We’re not there yet,” he emphasized at an afternoon press conference in Raleigh.
“It is clear that we are flattening the curve” of COVID-19 cases in the state, the Governor said, “but our state is not ready to lift restrictions yet. We need more time to slow the spread of the virus before we can ease the social restrictions.”
The Governor did not loosen any restrictions that he has imposed by executive order in the past month and said he would be addressing the reopening of K-12 public schools tomorrow, along with the N.C. General Assembly’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget.
The initiation and progression of the Governor’s three-phase plan, which, he said, is designed to stimulate the economy while also protecting public health, would be based on four metrics—or “data points”—that Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), presented and discussed at the conference.
Although the State is seeing “a lot of positive signs,” Dr. Cohen said, the trend trajectories of three of the metrics, all of which serve to quantify the prevalence, threat, and health-care demands of COVID-19 in North Carolina, are not moving in the right direction yet. (The Beacon will elaborate on this below.)
THE THREE PHASES OF ‘REOPENING’
The earliest Phase One of the Governor’s plan could begin would be May 9. The next 15 days will give the Governor and his coronavirus task force team a “window,” he said, to “look at the trends” of COVID-19 and to decide if May 9 is an appropriate time to initiate the plan or if it is still too early.
PHASE ONE: As the Governor explained, Phase One would leave the stay-at-home order in place, but modify it slightly to encourage more essential businesses to operate and more people to exercise outdoors. It would reopen parks that have been closed, but it would not reopen any non-essential businesses, such as restaurants, bars, hair salons, and other “close-contact” businesses that have been closed, and it would continue physical distancing and the restriction of mass gatherings to 10 people or fewer.
Phase One is simply the beginning of “the process of moving forward,” the Governor said.
PHASE TWO: If the science, data, and trends support progression to Phase Two, it would occur two to three weeks after initiation of Phase One, the Governor explained.
In Phase Two, he said, the stay-at-home order would be lifted, and those non-essential businesses that have been closed would be opened on a limited basis.
Restaurants, bars, and other businesses that have been closed because of customers’ proximity to each other would be required to reopen with “reduced [customer] capacity or with specific restrictions requiring social distancing,” the Governor said. Physical distancing between people remains key to controlling the spread of COVID-19.
PHASE THREE: Phase Three would occur four to six weeks after Phase Two, the Governor said, and would allow “increased capacity” at restaurants, bars, houses of worship, entertainment venues, and other close-contact businesses and venues.
If you add up the required time between phases and determine a best-case scenario, restaurants, bars, and other entertainment venues that Outer Banks vacationers like to frequent would be operating at diminished customer capacity until at least June 20.
The Governor did not discuss a Phase Four resumption of what some may think is normalcy as we experienced it before the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, he said, “This virus is going to continue to be with us until we have a vaccine,” and all North Carolinians must continue to be vigilant about physical distancing and observing other infection-control measures, such as thorough hand washing and disinfection of surfaces.
He also cautioned that if the metrics indicate a regression—for example, if COVID-19 cases spike—“We may have to move back to a previous phase to protect public health.”
THE CRITICAL COVID-19 METRICS
Dr. Cohen cited four statewide “metrics” as critical objective determinants “to guide our decisions” moving forward and exhibited graphs of the trajectories of each one. They are:
- The number of COVID-19-like syndromic cases over a 14-day period.
- The number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases over a 14-day period.
- The number of positive COVID-19 test results over 14 days.
- The number of hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients over 14 days.
North Carolina has not seen a surge of cases or a peak, Dr. Cohen said, because it initiated infection-control measures, such as physical distancing, early enough to slow the spread of COVID-19; but neither have the number of cases in the state plateaued or declined. The daily numbers continue to rise.
Although she said “North Carolina is in a very good place,” Dr. Cohen also noted that, “We want to see a decrease or substantial leveling of cases” before going into Phase One.
She reiterated what the Governor said: “We have flattened the curve, but we’re not there yet.”
Of the four metrics, Dr. Cohen said, only the first, which she called the “surveillance metric,” is moving in a positive direction—downward.
The lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state are “still going up,” she said, and positive COVID-19 test results have yet to decrease as a percentage of the total tests done. Hospitalizations are “largely level,” she said, but the task force would like to see a downward trend, not just a leveling.
The NCDHHS secretary also discussed testing and tracing capacity in the state and the availability of personal protective equipment.
She said there should be 5,000 to 7,000 tests conducted every day, “but we’re not there yet” (only 2,500 to 3,000), and 500 people doing contact tracing—twice the number who are currently doing it. There also are shortages in medical face masks, gowns, and other protective equipment.
The bottom-line message that Governor Cooper delivered today was that “we can rebuild the damage that this virus has done to our state,” but it is going to take time and “hard work” by everyone. Fortunately he said, North Carolinians “are tough.”
The Governor urged people to stay safe, to stay at home, and to look after each other for as long as necessary.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 4/23/20