The Pitt County Board of Commissioners again voted down a resolution seeking local authority over reopening local businesses after Vidant Health’s leader warned about an increase in hospitalizations.
The 6-3 vote against the resolution on Monday fell along party lines with Democratic Commissioners Alex Abright, Ann Floyd Huggins, Melvin McLawhorn, Christopher Nunnelly, Mary Perkins-Williams and Beth Ward voting against the resolution and Commissioners Tom Coulson, Michael Fitzpatrick and Lauren White voting in favor.
During updates on the community’s COVID-19 response Pitt County Public Health Director Dr. John Silvernail said he believed a larger swath of businesses could open if they followed proper social distancing resolutions and wore protective equipment such as masks and gloves.
Vidant Health CEO Dr. Michael Waldrum said there was a troubling uptick in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the health system. Hospitalizations and deaths are the best indicators to gauge efforts to control the virus, Waldrum said. And eastern North Carolina’s numbers are growing.
For most of the last two months, Vidant hospitals have averaged about 40 patients with COVID-19. Last week the number rose to the 50s and on Monday Vidant had 78 patients systemwide. The number since has dropped to 66, according to Vidant’s website.
At Vidant Medical Center on Monday there were 37 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, of which 10 are in the ICU, Waldrum said. “I think all of this data makes us concerned that we are still on the upside of the growth of this curve.”
Later in the meeting, as the commissioners speculated on the possibility of new spikes in positive COVID-19 cases, Waldrum said, “We are not going to have a resurgence because we are still in the surge.”
He expressed understanding business owners have about reopening. Vidant Health has also sustained financial losses and is working to reopen medical practices and resume surgeries. It’s not easy to use data to determine the best approaches for managing how businesses should open, Waldrum said.
Trends show cases are increasing in eastern North Carolina, which Waldrum defines as the 29 counties served by Vidant Health system.
Eastern North Carolina makes up 16.5 percent of the state’s reported COVID-19 cases, a figure that he says is in line with the fact that those counties make up 15 percent of the state’s population. In the last seven days eastern North Carolina has seen a 22 percent increase in confirmed positive cases, Waldrum said. “And Pitt County has seen a similar trend of the same data.”
Silvernail said Pitt County is averaging slightly more than three new positive cases of COVID-19 daily. Data released by his department on Tuesday said 218 virus cases have now been confirmed since March 12, with seven new cases reported between Monday and Tuesday. Data showed 31 people tested between Monday, May 11, and Sunday were positive for the virus, a daily average of about 4.4.
The positive cases represent about 7.5 percent of all tests performed in the county. Silvernail said there has been trouble getting the total number of negative cases from the state, because some are closed before they are reported. He said if the county could get the total of all tests administered, the percent of positive cases would likely decrease.
Fitzpatrick asked Silvernail if the county could reopen more businesses if it’s done in a safe manner. Silvernail said yes, but the increase in hospitalizations was concerning because of how rapidly it increased. “For the most part I feel pretty good about where we are at in Pitt County,” Silvernail said.
The Pitt County Board of Health on May 12 directed Silvernail to prepare a reopening strategy for the community, Silvernail said. He has been working on the report and could have it completed in days, he said.
White said she would like to see the Board of Health meet later this week to review and approve the document, which the commissioners could then incorporate into local reopening plans. Ward and Huggins wanted to give Silvernail two weeks to complete the document.
Silvernail said it would be up to Board of Health Chairman Dr. Keith Ramsey and a majority of the board to agree to hold a special meeting.
Silvernail said for personal care businesses, such as barbershops and tattoo businesses, both employees and customers would have to wear masks and building occupancy would have to be limited and spread out.
At gyms and other sports venues clients should arrive in their workout clothes and equipment should be six feet or more apart and there would be a low risk for transmission.
As for churches, he’s consulted with his pastor and their plan is to have people sit in every other row, family groups spaced six feet apart, with no singing and no recitation. The elderly should also remain at home.
“Of course all this starts with if you are sick, stay home,” Silvernail said. “We stress the importance of maintaining spacing. If you are not close enough to transmit the virus that goes a long way to interrupting it,” he said.
Waldrum said he wishes businesses would implement policies requiring staff and customers to wear masks.The hospital’s own data shows that wearing a mask, even a simple one, limits the spread of the virus, he said.
If Pitt County could get 60 percent or 70 percent of its population to wear a mask, “you can shut the virus down and control the spread,” Waldrum said.
“Frankly, some people say they are not going to wear it ‘because it isn’t going to protect me’ but it will protect someone else and it’s a way to show respect for your fellow citizen,” Waldrum said.
During discussion about the resolution, Nunnelly said he wrote a draft supporting a regional approach to reopening. However, after Gov. Roy Cooper said on Monday he and his health advisers would weigh taking a regional approach if it turns out the state wasn’t ready to enter phase 2 on May 22, Nunnelly said he didn’t think a resolution was needed.
The governor’s orders trump local decisions, but Coulson said he believes the only reason Cooper is now discussing a regional approach is because surrounding counties and municipalities have adopted resolutions calling for local control.
Pitt County must add its voice so the governor knows it too wants to govern its own reopening, White said. She called recommendations to wait two weeks on Silvernail’s reopening plan stalling tactics.
“We need to learn to proactively live with this virus,” Fitzpatrick said. He added that recent figures showed only 56 percent of people who have filed for unemployment assistance in the state have received benefits.
When the commissioners concluded their meeting, White addressed the business community.
“I am sorry that while you continue to struggle and are uncertain what the future holds for you the government continues to hold the strings and call the shots on businesses that they had absolutely no part in creating,” White said. “And I’m truly sorry that your local government failed to support you tonight.”