6/19/20: AS N.C. COVID-19 CASES CONTINUE TO INCREASE, GOVERNOR CONSIDERS MANDATORY FACE-MASK REQUIREMENT, DR. COHEN REVEALS PEOPLE AGED 25 TO 49 ARE ‘DRIVING’ INFECTIONS. 

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“We do not want to go backward,” Governor Cooper said yesterday about the state’s phased reopening, but North Carolinians, he noted, have to do more to slow the spread of COVID-19 by “wearing face masks and social distancing.”

Yesterday’s press briefing about COVID-19 with Governor Roy Cooper and Secretary of the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen was all about wearing face masks or other face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and whether or not to impose a statewide face-mask requirement.

New lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina continue to increase daily, as do hospitalizations. Today’s reported new case total of 1,652 is the second highest single-day count reported in the state. The previous high was 1,768 on June 12. Hospitalizations have hit a new record-high of 871 statewide. Deaths now number 1,197.

“These numbers continue to concern us,” Governor Cooper said at the top of yesterday afternoon’s briefing in Raleigh, and yesterday’s numbers, which he cited, look good compared to today’s.

For the first time Dr. Cohen publicly acknowledged that the rising number of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina is not “due to [increased] testing alone.”

“Cases are being driven by younger folks,” she said, especially those between the ages of 25 and 49 who “may be asymptomatic and can spread” the virus.

Both the Governor and the Secretary touted the use of facial coverings.

“Wearing a face covering when you’re around other people slows the spread of the virus,” the Governor said emphatically, citing scientific evidence in support of the effectiveness of masks against viral transmission.

“This is a low-cost, low-tech way to protect ourselves and our communities,” he continued. “ . . It’s not the most comfortable thing that you wear, but you get used to it. It’s a piece of protection,” like a glove in cold weather.

“This is the thing that we should do to slow the spread [of COVID-19] and get our economy going,” the Governor stated unequivocally.

The Governor said he is considering imposing a statewide face mask/covering requirement and promised he would announce a “comprehensive plan to slow the spread of the virus in North Carolina” next week ahead of the June 26 expiration of Phase Two of the state’s economic reopening.

To make their point about masks, Dr. Cohen even demonstrated how to put on and take off a face covering, stressing that it must cover both the wearer’s nose and mouth and that wearers must wash their hands after removing it.

The state’s top public-health official advised wearing a face covering “when you’re out at any time” and called it an “incredibly effective tool” to stop the spread of COVID-19.

THE QUESTIONS WE WANT ANSWERED

Governor Cooper’s and Dr. Cohen’s remarks during the briefing lasted only minutes. Most of the 45-minute-long briefing was dedicated to a media Q & A period.

Jonah Kaplan, an investigator reporter with ABC-11 in Raleigh-Durham, asked pointed questions of both the Governor and the Secretary that we all want to ask and hear honestly answered. The responses he received were definitely guarded, but not so political as to be void of meaning.

Of Governor Cooper, who responded to another reporter’s question just before Mr. Kaplan’s inquiry by saying, “We need more people to wear masks. We need to figure out the best way to do that,” he asked:

“What’s holding you back from making this [masks] mandatory this minute?” Why wait until next week?

Of Dr. Cohen, Mr. Kaplan asked:

“Who is getting the virus?”

“What are you learning from the contact tracers?”

“What percentage of the cases are from community transmission?”

And then this zinger: Are “known cases” contracting the virus from “attending mass protests, eating at restaurants, praying at churches, flying on airplanes” or are most people contracting the virus “at workplaces and congregate living settings?”

We will give you the most revealing answer—or perhaps more accurately, the most revealing non-answer—to Mr. Kaplan’s questions first.

Dr. Cohen did not directly respond to the query about who is getting the virus and what the contact tracers are learning because, she said, the “detective work . . . takes a fair amount of time,” and it is still on-going.

But in response to the TV reporter’s zinger about the settings in which viral transmission is occurring, Dr. Cohen replied, “All of the above.”

Restaurants, airplanes, churches, protests, long-term residential facilities, workplaces . . .  all of the above.

The Secretary declined to cite a percentage for community transmission, saying only that, “We are having community spread” at all of the settings Mr. Kaplan listed because they present a “higher risk.”

Whenever “folks are closer together for longer periods of time,” Dr. Cohen said, especially in cooler temperatures (think air-conditioning), the risk of community spread transmission is higher.

The Secretary added meat-packing plants to Mr. Kaplan’s list of “hot spots” for COVID-19 transmission.

As for why Governor Cooper is “holding back” on a mandatory face-covering requirement, when, as he earlier stated, “Clearly, we want people to wear masks,” the Governor, who is an attorney, responded: “There are probably more than a dozen ways you could write a law requiring face masks in different kinds of settings for different kinds of people.”

Before he approves one, he wants the law to “be careful . . . be specific . . . [and] based on the best evidence.”

The requirement must be “well thought through,” the Governor explained, and “be effective with the least intrusion that we can have on people.”

Ultimately, he replied to Mr. Kaplan that you “get better results if you can convince the public heart and soul that this is a good thing to do.”

The Governor is looking to “business leaders, preachers, athletes,” and TV celebrities to “come forward” to do some of that convincing in public-service announcements and other public forums.

He clearly would rather cajole people than legally compel them to do what he knows–and any other well-informed person knows–is best for public health. That he is up for reelection in November cannot be ignored.

The Governor said earlier that he wants to “remove the politics out of all of this,” and started doing his own convincing by observing that “strong people wear masks.”

By wearing a mask, he said, “strong” people show compassion; they show that they “actually care about people.”

During the briefing, he also said that “the mandatory nature” of a face mask/covering requirement is “being considered and studied” by his Office.

Asked specifically by another reporter during the media portion about enforcing a face-mask requirement, the Governor said, “You need to have some kind of enforcement.” Enforcement is “one of the issues we would look at.”

The Governor, Dr. Cohen, and every other state official who spoke yesterday entered the briefing room wearing a face covering. Only the sign language interpreters had their faces uncovered, in order for their lips to be visible.

COVID-19 IN DARE COUNTY: The Beacon will report later today on Dr. Sheila Davies’s videotaped message about the two new COVID-19 cases that have been diagnosed locally since her last update Tuesday. Please see our post yesterday for details about a COVID-19 diagnostic and antibody testing clinic on June 30 in Kill Devil Hills.

Dr. Cohen reported yesterday that there are now more than 500 COVID-19 testing locations in North Carolina. They are listed on the NCDHHS website.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 6/19/20

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