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Pitt County COVID deaths rise to nine

Pitt County reported two new deaths related to COVID-19 on Wednesday as the total number of positive cases locally passed 700, increasing by more than 100 cases in less than a week.

The number of deaths rose to nine, including one reported on Tuesday by the Pitt County Health Department. The county’s case count sat at 714 by midday Wednesday, up 20 from Tuesday’s total of 694 and up 123 from last Wednesday, when the reported total was 591. The county estimated 473 people have recovered.

Both people who died had co-morbidities and were over the age of 65, Deputy Director Health Amy Hattem said. The department withheld further information about the deaths.

Hattem said the the county continues to conduct contact tracing as the number of cases rise. Additional staff members have been assigned to assist. Workers attempt to locate anyone who had direct contact with an infected person to advise them on precautions, she said.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reports that the first six virus-related deaths in Pitt County occurred on April 5 and 19 and on June 12, 14, 19 and 21. All but one of the six was 65 or older and all had co-morbidities like heart conditions or diabetes, officials said. None of the deaths have been linked to outbreaks at local nursing homes.

The DHHS dashboard indicated that five of the people were white and one was black; three were men and three were women; one was 50-64, two were 65-74 and one was older 75 or older.

News of the deaths came as North Carolina saw its largest single-day increase in coronavirus cases at 1,843 on Wednesday. The total number of cases since the outbreak began in the state now sits at 66,513.

Around 900 people were hospitalized Wednesday, with the number hovering around its high mark for about a week since peaking at 915 late last month. Vidant Health reported Wednesday that 54 people were hospitalized in its facilities in eastern North Carolina, up from 48 on Tuesday.

Also on Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper canceled a planned announcement on how K-12 schools should reopen, instead electing to release a proposal “within the next couple of weeks” so he can get more “buy-in across the board,” the Associated Press reported.

“My No. 1 priority is making sure we reopen those school doors and get our children physically in our schools,” Cooper said in a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “I want to make sure we get that right.”

Cooper offered few details about the decision-making process and specific reopening concerns he’s heard. But he said he wanted to give more time for the state to gather feedback from teachers and students and evaluate new scientific studies that are highlighting the impact of the coronavirus on younger children.

He also hopes the delay will help school districts draft more comprehensive plans for three reopening scenarios the state outlined on June 8. Plan A calls for in-person learning with health and safety rules in place. Plan B mirrors the former but calls for fewer children in the classroom at one time. Plan C provides for remote learning for all.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said she is concerned about teacher safety but confident in studies showing the virus having minimal health consequences on younger children.

“Schools have not played a significant role in the spreading of COVID 19,” Cohen said. “Children, particularly younger children, are less likely than adults to be infected with COVID-19. And for children who do become infected with COVID-19, they seem to be less likely to transmit it to others. We will continue to have to evaluate the scientific research carefully on this, but the current science is encouraging.”

Though no statewide guidance has recently been issued for colleges, Cooper said Cohen has had recent conversations with University of North Carolina System President Bill Roper about how best to resume in-person instruction for college students.

“We are well aware that parents, teachers, students are so anxious to know about school in the fall, and that is from K-12 all the way through our community colleges and universities,” Cooper said. “We’re continuing to get new science and new reports, and a lot of work has been going over the last few months among educators and public health officials.”

While coronavirus cases hit a new high on Wednesday, Cohen insisted the state has not seen “the skyrocketing cases that we’re seeing in other states.” Younger kids and adults are also least at risk of contracting the virus.

Data from the state health department shows nearly four in five of the state’s 1,373 COVID-related deaths to date were among adults at least 65 years old. Only two children have died from the coronavirus in North Carolina since the start of the pandemic, and two others between the ages of 18 and 24 also died, according to DHHS data.

“We don’t want to have to go backwards, and that’s what we’re seeing in Florida and in Texas and in Arizona,” Cohen said. “They have to go backwards. We don’t want to have to go backwards. We want to make progress. We want to get our kids back to school, and that’s why we needed to pause our reopening for now.”

Wood Ducks

Kids run around the bases at Grainger Stadium during a Down East Wood Ducks game against the Winston-Salem Dash on July 2, 2019.

NC GOP blames Cooper for cancellation

While the N.C. Republican Party Convention in Greenville is canceled, the organization will select delegates to the national convention via virtual meetings, its leader said.

N.C. GOP Chairman Michael Whatley blamed Gov. Roy Cooper and his administration for the disintegration of the state convention, to be held at the Greenville Convention Center next week.

In an open letter to Republicans, Whatley wrote that “we are deeply disappointed that Gov. Cooper and his team have made it impossible for us to move forward with a physical convention.”

Whatley said the party had agreed to limit attendance at the convention center to less than 25 percent of capacity, require masks and take other precautions to protect delegates and others.

State Health Director Betsey Tilson recommended to a party attorney this week not to hold the in-person event, especially given the recent increases in the numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, The Associated Press reported.

“The risk of this event could result in a large number of cases and severely ill people requiring hospitalizations and could jeopardize our ability to move forward in easing restrictions.” Tilson wrote Monday.

Tilson had offered ways to modify the event to decrease the risk of transmission because “you insist you will proceed with the event.” Those recommendations would have capped business sessions to about 150 people and meals to 65 people, she wrote. The state GOP had once expected 1,250 people to attend a full convention, according to her letter.

Greenville Convention Center CEO Rhesa Tucker said on Tuesday the state GOP agreed to cut attendance to 600 people. Party officials also committed to cutting it from a multi-day event to one day, Tucker said.

The requirements for mass gatherings are the occupancy be either 50 percent of a room’s occupancy or 12 people per 1,000 square feet, whichever is the smaller number, Tucker said. That meant only 345 people could be in a room designed to hold 3,000.

There also were restrictions around the service of food in a banquet-type setting. The measures to control the spread of the virus made an in person convention it impossible, she said.

In a Facebook posting, Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly, a registered Republican, said he talked to Whatley on Tuesday, “and he is committed to hosting another event in Greenville in the future.”

Connelly said Whatley had positive comments about city and the staff at the Greenville Convention Center.

“Remember dollars are not red or blue and those green dollars all spend the same way,” Connelly wrote.

The GOP convention was originally scheduled for May but the organization pushed it back in March after stay-home measures took hold to curb the pandemic.

The North Carolina Democratic Party held a virtual state convention in early June.