RALEIGH — At the June 2 COVID-19 media briefing, Gov. Roy Cooper said the State of Emergency for North Carolina needed to continue and would not say when he thinks it will be lifted.
The statewide State of Emergency in North Carolina for COVID-19 was declared by Cooper on March 10, 2020. That order has allowed the governor to issue another 70 other COVID-related executive orders.
“The State of Emergency needs to continue,” said Cooper. “We need to continue to draw down federal funds. We need to continue to do things to make sure people get vaccinated and we still have mask mandates in places that are recommended by the CDC.”
Cooper added there are “many other reasons” to maintain the State of Emergency order but would not give specifics or estimated end date for the order, which, as of June 2, is 449 days old.
Critics have said the governor has abused his executive powers during the pandemic. Complaints and lawsuits have pointed to a lack of metrics for issuing orders, lack of concurrence with the Council of State on his orders as well as disparate treatment by closing some business longer than others, in particular, bars. A bill to require the governor to seek Council of State approval on orders lasting beyond a certain time period is also making its way through the General Assembly.
The briefing was the first time in around 408 days since the press had been allowed inside the briefing room at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh. Only one other reporter apart from North State Journal attended the briefing in person.
North State Journal asked Cooper what metrics needed to be in place for the State of Emergency to be lifted. The governor responded by calling the pandemic an “extraordinary event” that has “required an extraordinary response.”
“The State of Emergency has been able to help us free up resources, personnel, to be able to waive regulations, in order to stem the tide of this virus, to help get people vaccinated,” Cooper said in response to a question from North State Journal.
“We are still in the middle of this pandemic. We still have a large number of North Carolinians who are unvaccinated,” Cooper said. “We still have people in the hospital and dying every day, so there is more work to do to get us to the end of this.”
At the onset of the briefing, Cooper said that overall, North Carolina has seen 1,003,243 COVID-19 cases and related 13,101 deaths in the state. He did not mention the 979,410 cases which are presumed to be recovered as of the end of May, which translates to nearly a 98% recovery rate.
Later on, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDDHS) Secretary Mandy Cohen noted that case positivity rates were down lower than they had been at near the start of the pandemic in March 2020. As of June 2, the state daily positivity rate was listed as 3.5%.
The governor also announced a second round of applications for the N.C. Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions (HOPE) Program has begun.
The HOPE program gives financial assistance to pay rent and utilities to very low-income renters experiencing money issues due to COVID-19. To find out more, including eligibility requirements, program benefits and an online application, visit www.hope.nc.gov
On the topic of vaccinations, both Cooper and Cohen talked about the $25 cash card pilot program to incentivize people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Cohen said over 1,000 cards were given out in the first week of the pilot, which is currently running in Mecklenburg, Guilford, Rowan, and Rockingham Counties.
“Vax up or mask up,” Cohen said while encouraging the public to get vaccinated and to visit MySpot.NC.gov.
Amid cash giveaways and a potential lottery scenario, Cooper was asked about the NCDHHS’ repeated mention of “equity” with regard to vaccine distribution and how he defines the term equity.
“When I talk about equity in vaccinations, everybody should have an opportunity to get vaccinated,” said Cooper. He said there were many “underserved communities” that needed help getting vaccinated and applauded NCDHHS’ efforts.
Cooper said that vaccination rates “don’t match our [state] demographics yet” but that Cohen was working on that.
“It is about access,” said Cohen on the topic of vaccine equity. “Every community has been a priority since day one.”
Cohen also added that NCDHHS spent significant effort on vaccine access for marginalized communities, specifically naming black, Hispanic and American-Indian communities. She said COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on those groups.
As of May 31, the NCDHHS COVID-19 demographics dashboard, however, shows that whites currently make up 61% of the total cases and 66% of all deaths in the state. The next closest group are blacks, with 22% of cases and 25% of deaths. Hispanics accounted for 20% of all cases and only 8% of all deaths.
“If you look at our data, you can see that we are vaccinating at a rate that are near proportional to those folks in our population,” said Cohen. “We have more work to do.”
The current vaccination demographic data displays a vaccination rate of 88.1% for non-Hispanic populations and 7.4% for the Hispanic population. Another 4.5% are labeled “missing or undisclosed.”
North State Journal also asked about whether or not K-12 school children will be required to continue wearing masks when school resumes in the fall. States like New York, where the outbreak of COVID was most severe, have already indicated students will not have to wear a mask to school this fall.
Cohen said masks in schools “will continue until the guidance changes from the CDC.”
The NCDHHS Secretary also said that a “vast majority” of students are unvaccinated and that the CDC continues to recommend that people who are unvaccinated – including children – need to continue wearing a mask indoors.
“I think we will need to see as the summer moves along,” said Cohen. “It may be possible that vaccinations will be available for younger students.” She added that vaccines for young children might be available “late into the fall.”
Cohen said that if any new guidance comes from the CDC, the state will “act on it very quickly.”
No questions were asked about whether or not NCDHHS guidance would be updated to allow students who already have been vaccinated to go maskless for the remainder of the school year or during summer school.
There were also no questions about individuals who remain unvaccinated but have antibodies due to having contracted COVID-19 at some point. Recent studies have shown people who had mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 have natural antibodies that researchers believe may be “long-lasting” and perhaps may have lifelong effects.