Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday extended the state’s stay-home order until May 8, saying there are signs the spread of COVID-19 is slowing, but that could quickly change.
Cooper said if data shows the rate of infection continues downward in the next two weeks, a three-phase plan to reopen the economy could begin on May 9.
“It’s clear that we are flattening the curve, but our state is not ready to lift restrictions yet,” Cooper said during a news conference with the state COVID-19 Task Force in Raleigh. “We need more time to slow the spread of the virus before we can ease restrictions.”
Earlier Thursday, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported nearly 400 new cases of COVID-19 were added to state numbers, the second largest day-over-day increase. The same day, Pitt County’s number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases surpassed 100.
Along with ordering people to stay home, the extension continues other restrictions such as barring dine-in services for restaurants and closing hair salons and gyms. A prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people also remains intact.
Cooper said four metrics will be used to gauge when the state’s economy can begin to reopen, but it will be a measured response that will go well into the summer.
“It is important to get this economy moving, and we are helping with unemployment insurance payments, stimulus money and many businesses that are continuing to be open,” Cooper said. “But I will not risk the health of our people, or our hospitals, and easing these restrictions now will do that.”
Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of health and human services, described the metrics and what benchmarks should be reached:
- A decrease in the number of people seeking treatment because they have COVID-19-like symptoms.
- A decrease in the number of positive tests compared to the number of tests conducted.
- Decreased or sustained leveling of hospitalizations.
- A decreased or sustained leveling of the number of COVID-19 cases.
While the number of lab-confirmed cases has increased over the last two weeks, Cohen said, it’s been at a slower rate.
Especially significant is the slow down in the doubling of cases, she said. At first the number of cases was doubling every four days, Cohen said. Then it expanded to six days and most recently it’s taken 11 days, she said.
The percentage of positive cases in Pitt County’s data set has been decreasing for the past week, Pitt County Public Health Director John Silvernail said in the county’s Thursday morning update, help prior to the governor’s announcement.
As of Thursday, 842 people had been tested for COVID-19 and 102 positive cases is 13 percent of the total.
The county had 21 percent positive cases in its data set prior to April 16, but there has been a steady decline in the tests that return positive since then, Silvernail said.
When asked for comment on the governor’s announcement, a health department spokeswoman said Silvernail would answer questions when Pitt County government holds its next media session on Tuesday.
Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce President Kate Teel said she needs “to review, understand and discuss” the governor’s announcement with chamber members before commenting.
Cohen said the state’s daily COVID-19 testing should double to at least 5,000, contact tracing workers double to 500 and more gowns and high-quality masks are needed, The Associated Press reported.
Under Cooper’s plan, more retail businesses and parks could reopen after May 8. People would also be allowed to leave their homes for more reasons if the state meets 14-day goals on hospitalization rates and other thresholds.
Two to three weeks later, the stay-at-home order could be lifted and restaurants, bars and churches could reopen at reduced capacity if the goals continue to be met, Cooper said.
Activities could largely return to normal with further improvements, perhaps in an additional four to six weeks, according to the governor. But restrictions on nursing homes and other communal living areas would remain, and broader restrictions could return if cases surge.
Cohen said the same metrics will determine when the state’s hospitals may resume elective surgeries.
Wednesday, Vidant Health announced pay cuts and furloughs because of declining revenue. Vidant President Brian Floyd said during the local news conference on Thursday that the health system is working with state and federal agencies to secure assistance.
Health care systems across the country are feeling the pain of readying for COVID-19, he said.
“We are not unique in that; what we are unique in is the fact that ... there is less insurance and a higher disease burden in the population of eastern North Carolina, so we feel these changes a little differently than most systems do,” Floyd said.
Cooper’s approach was criticized by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, his Republican opponent in the November gubernatorial election.
“Gov. Cooper’s one-size-fits-all approach for reopening is not necessary for a state as large as North Carolina,” he said. “This decision will needlessly crush businesses and destroy livelihoods in places that don’t even have a single case of coronavirus.”
U.S. Rep. Greg Murphy, a Pitt County urologist and surgeon, also criticized Cooper’s decision.
“I think we have a wealth of indicators that tell us we can begin using safe measures to slowly reopen segments of our economy,” Murphy said. “Today’s unemployment rate measured 20 percent compared to the Great Depression unemployment rate of 24.5 percent in 1929. Unemployment creates poverty and poverty creates despair. I fear if we continually push reopening down the road, we may pass a point extremely difficult to return from.”