Problems found with list of counties targeted for stricter COVID-19 ordinances

At least 10 counties were left off the list, while some on the list likely shouldn’t have been included

N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services secretary Mandy Cohen briefs media from the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Photo via N.C. Dept. of Public Safety

RALEIGH — An analysis of the counties that received a letter from N.C. Department of Health and Human Services secretary Mandy Cohen shows possible inconsistencies with who received the letter and who didn’t.

North State Journal requested clarification from NCDHHS on how the counties were elected to receive the suggested ordinance and penalties letter.

NCDHHS restated part of their letter, saying that the counties had to meet one of three criteria. The first criterion, however, is two items:

  1. A county that has had 300 or more new cases in the last 14 days and has been identified by the White House Task Force as a county of concern;
  1. County with a case rate greater than 50 cases per 10,000 people;
  2. Or a county that is one of the top three most populous counties in the state.

An analysis of the counties the day after the suggested ordinance letters were sent showed that 10 of them did not meet the criteria listed by NCDHHS. None of the following counties which received a letter appeared to meet the criteria: Burke, Caswell, Chowan, Duplin, Graham, Greene, Hoke, Scotland, Watauga.

These 10 counties may have been identified by the White House Task Force; however, NCDHHS did not provide the list of counties identified by that task force. At the Oct. 29 COVID-19 briefing, Cohen was asked about the White House Task Force but sidestepped the question.

Another 10 counties which were not sent letters actually did meet at least one of NCDHHS’ criteria. Buncombe, Brunswick, Cabarrus, Durham, Forsyth, Harnett, Iredell and Wilson all met the 14-day case criteria. Richmond and Clay met criteria No. 2, being a county with a case rate greater than 50 cases per 10,000 people.

North State Journal asked NCDHHS about the criteria and county letter discrepancies but did not receive a response.

The NCDHHS COVID-19 dashboard was augmented this fall, and the hospitalizations data now includes a toggle for viewing suspected cases, confirmed cases or Adult ICU patients. It even includes some demographic data. While some of this data is useful in separating actual COVID-19 patients from regular patients, the NCDHHS COVID-19 dashboard still does not list length of hospitalization, if a person was readmitted, number of readmittances or the number and dates of persons released from care.

Hospitalization details have been expanded in recent weeks by NCDHHS, but the overall bed count and accuracy have continued to fluctuate. Very rarely has NCDHHS’ dashboard presented 100% of hospitals reporting, and NCDHHS has not published any detailed information as to whether their data sets are missing large urban hospitals or small rural facilities. Depending on the facility size, the hospital bed number could change dramatically.

On March 27, Gov. Roy Cooper issued a stay-at-home order for the state. That same day, NCDHHS added a hospital bed tracker to its website. At that time, the tracker listed 18,256 total beds with 7,184 of them empty. That initial number came with a data disclaimer which said that only 81% of hospitals were reporting. Three days later on March 30, the hospital bed tracker had dropped to 15,398 beds of which 6,235 were now empty. These calculations were based on just 64% of hospitals reporting.

To illustrate the jumps in bed data, by looking at Oct. 27, a day with 97% reporting by hospitals, the tracker listed 25,446 total beds. That’s a jump of 7,190 over the March 27 count from when the COVID-19 lockdown began in North Carolina.

The Oct. 27 bed data breaks down to 15,422 beds in use, 5,452 that were empty but staffed and 4,592 that were empty but not staffed. That same day, the NCDHHS dashboard listed 1,214 people as hospitalized, including 329 adults in the Intensive Care Unit.

These up and down changes in the percentage of hospitals reporting and constant flux of bed numbers has made predicting surge capacity a guessing game for decision-makers and the public.

About A.P. Dillon 325 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_