Biden orders tougher mask rules as part of overhauled COVID-19 strategy

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s first policy focus after being sworn in? Overhauling the disjointed federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which claimed another 4,400 American lives on his first day in office alone.

“The brutal truth is, it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated,” Biden said Thursday. “So while we increase vaccinations, we’re going to take steps necessary now to slow the spread of the disease.”

One of the initial executive orders he signed Wednesday requires mask-wearing and physical distancing in all federal buildings, on all federal lands, and by federal employees and contractors, plus a broad call for Americans to mask up during the next 100 days.

He followed that on Thursday with another mask-wearing directive — requiring their use on airplanes, trains and other public transportation — as well as rolling out a national strategy for combating the virus. 

Those steps by Biden mark a sharp shift from his predecessor, who repeatedly downplayed the public health threat and refused to wear a face mask. The Trump administration had left it up to states to craft their vaccine distribution plans, but didn’t push Congress to provide additional money, even as state officials sought more help for the mammoth task before them.

States also have complained about receiving too little or shifting information about vaccine shipments from Operation Warp Speed, the task force set up under the last administration to deliver vaccine doses.

More vaccine centers, more masking

Biden’s plan calls for more masking, testing, treatment and data.

He’s seeking to give states a boost in their vaccination efforts; fix supply shortages; support school reopenings; and improve equity in the pandemic response across racial, ethnic and geographic lines.

He aims to get 100 new federally supported vaccine centers operating by the end of February, and to provide staff to help run them.

Perhaps most of all, his administration says it wants to rebuild trust in the federal government’s statements about and response to the pandemic.

“Our national strategy is comprehensive. It’s based on science, not politics. It’s based on truth, not denial. And it’s detailed,” Biden said Thursday afternoon as he outlined his new coronavirus actions.

Among other changes, Biden’s 10 COVID-related executive orders and other directives would: Read more

NC prison inmates and staff started getting vaccinated this week

The Department of Public Safety announced that it will finish administering the inaugural 1,300 doses of vaccines it received this week at a press conference today.

As of Wednesday, 534 staff and 49 inmates had been vaccinated within 24 hours after the DPS received the doses from the Department of Health and Human Services, said Todd Ishee, Commissioner of Prisons. Ishee said both staff and residents exhibit an increased level of interest in being vaccinated.

Inmates aged 75 and older are among the first group eligible to be vaccinated. Individuals are free to decide whether they wish to be vaccinated or not.

“We see the vaccine as a pathway out of this terrible and tragic pandemic,” Tim Moose, chief deputy secretary at of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice said at the press conference.

Moose said DPS will have vaccinated health care workers and those over 75 by the end of next week, and then move on to the 65–74 age group.

Central, Maury, Scotland and Alexander prisons serve as the four regional hubs for distribution to the 55 correctional facilities statewide. Ishee said the process, in which the National Guard has partnered with DPS, has gone “extremely smooth.”

Prisons medical director Dr. Les Campbell said DPS will receive weekly allocations based on the previous week and the availability of vaccine shots from the CDC until its has fully vaccinated the population. He maintained that the department also conducts rigorous contact tracing and has been using single cells and spreading out inmates for social distancing purposes to curb outbreaks.

At present, 536 prison staff members are off work because of COVID infection themselves or exposure to the virus. As of Thursday, about one-third of the 108,614 offenders connected to overseen by DPS (inmates, probationers, individuals under post-release supervision) have been tested with 404 active cases. There have been 41 reported deaths related to COVID-19 at 17 correctional facilities statewide, according to DPS.

NC Health Secretary praises Biden pandemic plan, stresses need for greater vaccine access

North Carolina Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen praised President Joe Biden’s executive mask mandate on Thursday saying that it goes hand-in-hand with the what North Carolina has been doing for more than six months.

“We know how this virus spreads, we know that masks work. That consistent message about masks is going to be really, really critical,” Cohen said.

(North Carolina Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen)

Cohen said she appreciates the “broad strokes” of the Biden administration’s plan, and has shared concerns about the need for better communication about the allocations coming to the state.

Dr. Cohen said a discrepancy in CDC data shows North Carolina has only administered 38% of the vaccines it had received.

“Our own vaccine dashboard shows more than half-a-million vaccinations, CDC does not reflect that. We need better communication and coordination of the same information.”

Another area where North Carolina is seeking federal support is in increasing access to the COVID vaccines.

North Carolina receives an average of 120,000 vaccines a week with local shipments coming in on Wednesdays. Health departments and community partners often don’t know until the end of the week the quantity that they will have for the following week.

Still state officials are urging local health providers not to hold back any of the vaccine that they have on hand.

“We’ve worked through getting out the vaccines that we have on the shelf, and I think you are going to hear more and more ‘We need more’,” said Cohen. “That has been our consistent message, is that we have limited supply and it’s going to take some time for us to get vaccine to everyone who wants it.”

Executive orders signed by President Biden on Thursday will give the states clearer projections on vaccine availability.

The new administration has also pledged to use the Defense Production Act to increase the supply of glass vials and syringes, all necessary components in getting more vaccine into American arms.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert,  told reporters that he still expects most people will be able to get vaccinated by the middle of this year.

Click here to read the National Strategy for COVID-19 Response.

For North Carolinians eligible to get vaccinated now, Dr. Cohen recommends checking with local health department and hospitals to determine when appointments are being offered and if you can be added to a waiting list.

“Again, you don’t have the be confined to your county. Counties can, should and must be serving all jurisdiction,” stressed Sec. Cohen.

For a list of vaccine providers by county, visit YourSpotYourShot.nc.gov.

On Thursday the NC Department of Transportation also announced $2.5 million in Coronavirus Relief Funding would be allocated to local transit agencies across the state to help pay for rides for individuals who need transportation assistance to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Find your local transit agency online.

North Carolina recorded 7,187 new COVID cases on Thursday with 3,666 people hospitalized. While that’s the lowest hospitalization number since the first week in January, the coronavirus has claimed 139 lives in our state in the last 24 hours.

In ad, Elmcroft Senior Living tries to profit from COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has provoked a great deal of unseemly behavior in many places, but as Adam Searing of the Georgetown University Health Policy Institute’s Center for Children and Families pointed out in a weekend tweet, a national senior living chain may have just taken the cake.

Oregon-based Eclipse Senior Living manages facilities in 25 states, including North Carolina, where it runs a dozen locations operating under the Elmcroft Senior Living brand.

Recently, in an apparent effort to recruit new residents when many people are understandably hesitant to enter congregate care (seven of the 12 Elmcroft locations in North Carolina are on the state’s most recent list of COVID outbreaks in congregate living settings), the firm bought online advertising in which it implied to prospective customers that they could gain priority for COVID vaccinations by moving into one of its facilities.

Searing saw the ad and copied it from a local news website.

As you can see at left, the ad read:

“This is your shot!…By making the decision to become a part of our community now, you’re also ensuring that you can receive the vaccine before millions of others.”

The company’s come-on is, in a word, revolting.

COVID vaccines (which are free of charge and for which seniors are already a priority) should be distributed exclusively pursuant to transparent public criteria and priorities – not the actions of companies who seek to profit by helping (or implying they can help) their customers to jump the line ahead of others.

Let’s hope the company takes down the ad immediately and that state official investigate if it doesn’t.

NC to focus on speed and those 65+ in effort to expand COVID vaccinations

State health officials are moving to get COVID-19 shots in arms faster with a number of large scale vaccination events over the next few days.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says more than 45,000 vaccines are expected to be given through these new partnerships with health systems, local health departments and community health centers.

Source: NCDHHS

As of Thursday, 326,198 vaccinations had been given statewide. Fewer than 45,000 North Carolinians have completes the two-shot vaccination series.

New guidelines from the federal government will allow those 65 and older to begin receiving the vaccine.

“I do want to remind folks that the vaccine is limited. When you think about high-thru put events, we’re getting only about 120,000 new doses every week. It’s not going to be something that can run 24-7,” explained NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen on Thursday.

Large scale vaccination events will be held in the following communities:

  • Bertie County: Bertie County Health Department (Albemarle Regional Health Services)
  • Buncombe County: Buncombe County Health Department in partnership with Western North Carolina Community Health Services, and Western Carolina Medical Society
  • Cabarrus County: Atrium Health
  • Camden County: Camden County Health Department (Albemarle Regional Health Services)
  • Chatham County: UNC Health
  • Chowan County: Chowan County Health Department (Albemarle Regional Health Services)
  • Currituck County: Currituck County Health Department (Albemarle Regional Health Services)
  • Durham County: Duke Health
  • Forsyth County: Forsyth County Department of Public Health
  • Gates County: Gates County Health Department (Albemarle Regional Health Services)
  • Guilford County: Cone Health
  • Henderson County: Blue Ridge Community Health Services, Henderson County Department of Public Health, Mountain Area Health Education Center, Pardee Hospital (UNC Health)
  • Hertford County: Hertford County Health Department (Albemarle Regional Health Services)
  • Johnston County: UNC Health
  • Madison County: Hot Springs Health Center, Madison County Health Department, Mountain Area Health Education Center
  • Mecklenburg County: Atrium Health
  • Orange County: UNC Health
  • Pasquotank County: Pasquotank County Health Department (Albemarle Regional Health Services)
  • Perquimans County: Perquimans County Health Department (Albemarle Regional Health Services)
  • Pitt County: Vidant Health
  • Wake County: UNC REX Healthcare, Duke Raleigh Hospital, and WakeMed in partnership with community-based physician practices, Advance Community Health, NeighborHealth and others

Websites listed by county can be found covid19.ncdhhs.gov/findyourspot.     

The vaccine is being offered free of charge, regardless of access to health insurance or one’s legal status.