Medical professionals shared concerns about the lack of protective equipment, the potential for hospitals to be overwhelmed with patients and the need for a statewide stay at home order, at the first meeting of the NC House Select Committee on COVID-19 Healthcare work group Thursday morning.
They also encouraged lawmakers to hold a special session earlier than their scheduled return on April 28. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) has said he is open to that and lawmakers are trying to figure out how to do that safely and within the law.
“This is the first time we’ve conducted meetings like this,” Moore said of Thursday’s committee meeting, which all members attended via teleconference or video conference. “The constitution didn’t envision participating remotely.”
North Carolina needs Gov. Roy Cooper to issue a statewide stay at home order as has already been done in Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Durham and Forsyth counties, said Donald Gintzig, president and CEO of WakeMed Health and Hospitals.
“We’re at that point, maybe a few days past,” Gintzig said.
As of 11 a.m. Thursday there were 636 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. There have been 12,910 completed tests. This week the state reported its first two deaths related to the disease.
All of those numbers are on track to increase dramatically.
“We haven’t experienced anything like this in our lifetime,” Gintzig said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “There hasn’t been anything like this since 1918. This isn’t your usual flu situation or even MERS. This one spreads very fast which is why we need extraordinary measures to slow the spread, buy us time.”
The number of infected people is doubling every 2.5 days, Gintzig said — and those are the best numbers we have, given the availability of testing.
“It doesn’t take long to see where we will be in 10, 20, 30 days,” Gintzig said. “If we can get it to double every 4.5 days, if we can get it to double every 6.5 days that gives us the bandwidth to deal with what we face.”
“Shelter in place is very important,” Gintzig said. “One infected person infects four. The value of a shelter in place is slowing that spread. If we can get it from one to four, to one to two, we can start to flatten the curve.”
One of the biggest challenges medical professionals face on the front lines of the pandemic is a lack of personal protective equipment (or PPE) like face masks gloves, gloves, gowns and shoe covers. Without them, medical providers are risking their own health and that of their families as they try to test and treat people.
Dentists and other non-frontline medical professionals who have that equipment have been donating it, said Leah Burns, senior director for Government Relations for the North Carolina Healthcare Association. But the the need is overwhelming, and supplies from the federal government are going first to areas of the country that are experiencing earlier and greater spikes in cases, like New York and Washington state.
“Right now the state has a stockpile and is able to fulfill about 30 percent of PPE requests,” Burns said.
Burns’s report to the committee also detailed how hospitals across the state are restricting visitors and postponing non-emergency surgeries to both preserve needed protective equipment and limit possible exposure to the virus. Unfortunately, Burns told the committee, the loss of payments from those non-emergency surgeries is creating a cash flow problem for hospitals and private practices that are stretched thin by the demands of the pandemic.
“We’re talking about thousands, hundreds of thousands of surgeries being put off across the state,” Burns said.
Shortages of supplies have also kept medical and nursing students from being able to complete their clinical hours at a time when they are badly needed in the workforce, Burns said.
Shortages also include the swabs needed to perform COVID-19 tests, Burns said.
The Atrium, Duke and UNC health systems are performing their own tests, Burns said.
The average wait time for test results through the UNC health system is four to six hours, Burns said. Wait times at the state lab are now at one to two days, she said, while private lab wait times are closer to a week.
Chip Baggett, director of legislative relations for the North Carolina Medical Society, said the legislature needs to act before April 28.
Bagget’s report to the committee detailed the steps being taken in the state and the impact they are projected to have on the number of cases and overwhelming of hospitals.
“I have had more calls in the last two weeks from NCMS members than I’ve ever had in my career,” Baggett said. “They are desperate. They’re saying ‘I can’t get through the normal channels to get to PPE.’ They are furloughing and laying off critical staff.”
“Members are saying, ‘Even if I do have the PPE I need, should I go home to my family? Stay in the garage?'” Baggett said. “What if I’m told I have one mask for five days? Am I jeopardizing the health and safety of my family?'”
Lawmakers assured the medical professionals that they will act swiftly and decisively.
“It is our intention to put together legislation and needs so we’re ready for either a special session of the NCGA or the short session at the end of April,” said Rep. Josh Dobson (R-McDowell), co-chair of the committee.
Co-Chair Rep. Carla Cunningham (D-Forsyth) expressed her gratitude to all the medical providers and essential workers, organizations and individuals who are volunteering to help those struggling during the pandemic.
“I believe in each of you,” Cunningham said. “I believe each of you has something to contribute during this difficult time. I believe we will get through this together because I believe in the resiliency of the people of North Carolina.”
Co-Chair Rep. Donny Lambeth (R-Forsyth) agreed. “In North Carolina we are a resilient group,” Lambeth said. “We routinely deal with tragedies from deadly hurricanes, floods, wildfires, ravaging tornadoes — and we recover. We bond together. We put our boots on and go to work.
“By golly, we’re going to work together and we’re going to get through this,” Lambeth.said. “We need to not panic. We need to reassure our kids that they’re going to be okay and will get to see their classmates and teachers again. We have to reassure our businesses and those who have lost their jobs we are here to listen and help. To our doctors and essential healthcare and protective services we say, ‘Thank you.’ We owe you a huge debt of gratitude. We are here to listen and support you. We are fortunate in North Carolina to have some of the very best medical professionals in the world.”
“We are not giving in to this virus,” Lambeth said. “We will beat you.”
The work group’s next scheduled meeting is next Thursday. Policy Watch will continue to cover these work groups as they meet.