COVID-19, Education

State lawmakers receive an earful about what schools need to cope with COVID-19 crisis

COVID-19 (Image:CDC)

Freebird McKinney gave a group of lawmakers a lot to think about Thursday as they considered ways to respond to school closures because of  the COVID-19 crisis.

McKinney, the new director of legislative affairs and community outreach for the State Board of Education, said his bosses are weighing legislative requests for calendar flexibility to allow schools to open in early August for the 2020-21 school year and possibly 2021-2022.

In North Carolina, schools can open no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11.

Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools until May 15 or possibly later to slow the spread of the contagious virus.

School closure has disrupted public education, forcing state lawmakers and educators to develop plans to continue to educate students, feed them and to provide broadband access while they are home waiting for the threat to subside.

McKinney said COVID-19 has presented the state with challenges but also opportunity.

“There is an opportunity to re-envision and re-imagine what our North Carolina public schools have been, what they are, what they are becoming and what they will be in the future,” said McKinney, a former state Teacher of the Year.

The SBE will meet today at 11 a.m., to discuss possible legislative requests related to COVID-19 and other virus-related matters.

McKinney made his remarks to a working group of lawmakers assembled to consider the impact COVID-19 has on the state’s public schools.

The House Select Committee on COVID-19 has additional groups addressing the impact of the virus on health care, school safety, the prison system and other government areas.

McKinney said several requests are possible: for state testing waivers, suspension of K-3 reading diagnostics mandated under the state’s Read to Achieve law and waivers to hold schools and districts harmless from the state’s controversial school report cards.

“One of the issues being discussed is to not issue A-F school performance grades for the 2019-2020 academic school year,” McKinney said. “And what that could possibly mean is holding schools and districts harmless under these accountability requirements and also any designation of low-performing schools that would otherwise subject our schools to being included on the Innovative School District (ISD) list.”

Schools with lowest test scores are at risk of being put on the ISD list for a possible takeover by the state.

McKinney said the SBE has also discussed waivers for the 185-day or 1,025-hour minimum required classroom instruction. Under such a waiver, school employees would be paid as though they worked a full calendar year, he said.

Anticipating legislative pushback on some of the possible SBE requests, State Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who co-chairs the working group on education, said no decisions have been made.

“Don’t take any of these things that we’re looking at as fact, that we’re going to do this or we’re going to do that,” Horn said. “That would be wrong-headed and inappropriate for some people who are going to get worked up over this, that or the other.”

Before the group met, House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, reminded it of its purpose. Read more

COVID-19, News

Medical professionals share challenges, urgent needs with lawmakers as COVID-19 cases rise

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.”

Donald Gintzig, President and CEO of WakeMed

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.

Leah Burns

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.

COVID-19, News

Duke adopts decontamination technology, allowing reuse of N95 face masks in short supply

As state officials scramble to acquire more personal protective equipment for workers on the front line of treating COVID-19 patients, there is good news from Duke Health.

Researchers and clinical teams have confirmed a way to use vaporized hydrogen peroxide methods to decontaminate the masks and allow for them to be reused.

Duke Health made the announcement on Thursday. Here’s more from their release:

Photo: Duke Health

The decontamination process should keep a significant number of N95 masks in use at Duke University Hospital as well as Duke Regional and Duke Raleigh hospitals, easing some of the shortage and curbing the need for other alternatives using unproven decontamination techniques.

The use of hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate N95 masks was tested and published by others in 2016, but did not result in widespread adaptation. The earlier studies did not include fit testing after cleaning – basically sizing the masks for individual wearers – to prove efficacy in the real world, which Duke has now done.

The decontamination process requires specialized equipment that aerosolizes the hydrogen peroxide, and a closed facility where the masks can be exposed to the vapor. No toxic byproducts result, because hydrogen peroxide breaks down to water.

“The ability to reuse the crucial N95 masks will boost the hospitals’ ability to protect frontline health care workers during this time of critical shortages of N95 masks,” said Cameron Wolfe, M.D., associate professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist.

Monte Brown, M.D., vice president at Duke University Health System, said the Duke team is working to spread the word about the technique, making the protocols widely available. He said several health systems and many pharmaceutical companies already have the needed equipment, which is currently used in different ways, and could ramp up operations to come to the aid of their local hospitals.

Medical professionals stress that this will not solve the shortage of equipment we are seeing nationwide, but it will ease some of the strain on the system if a mask can be safely decontaminated and reused once or twice.

COVID-19, News

Obama stimulus watchdog: ‘Bad guys’ will make play for COVID-19 relief cash

Image: AdobeStock

WASHINGTON — Earl Devaney is feeling déjà vu.

Devaney, a former longtime federal watchdog, was hired in 2009 to police the distribution of $840 billion in federal stimulus spending for the Obama administration. He had previously worked for the U.S. Secret Service, the EPA’s environmental enforcement division and as the Interior Department’s inspector general.

Now happily retired and living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Devaney has nonetheless been offering guidance to House and Senate committees as they’ve hammered out the details of a far more ambitious spending package to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Senate late Wednesday night passed a $2 trillion spending bill that could be signed into law as early as this week.

“It’s an awful lot of money,” Devaney said. “It seems a little bit like déjà vu, that’s for sure.”

Democrats have pressed to ensure that an inspector general and congressionally appointed board monitor the funds loaned out to industries under the program.

Devaney, who led such an effort in the past, said fraudsters will undoubtedly try to game the system.

“As you and I are talking right now, hundreds of bad guys are forming LLCs in various states … with the intent of applying for this money as soon as it becomes available,” Devaney said. “You put $2 trillion on the table, every self-respecting fraud artist in the world is going to show up for it.”

Watchdogs may not be able to get their oversight operations up and running as quickly as some lawmakers are promising to dole out cash, Devaney said. It took his team about six months to set up an analytical platform to watch where the money was going.

If another inspector general is brought on to monitor the cash spent by this bill, Devaney said their job will be like “straddling barbed wire.” If they fail, they will be in “big trouble.”

And sometimes problems exposed by watchdogs can be embarrassing for politicians. “It works both ways,” Devaney said, noting that the Obama administration was “not happy” when his team began to show that some of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds went to companies that “went belly up” after they took the money.

The Obama administration came under intense scrutiny when the California-based solar company Solyndra went bankrupt after it received a $535 million loan from the government, leaving taxpayers on the hook.

“That was embarrassing for the administration,” Devaney said. “On the other hand, the public deserves this kind of transparency. It’s an enormous amount of money and you’d like to think that they could guard it somehow.”

Commentary, COVID-19

Gun rights proponents need to calm down about Wake sheriff’s action

The coronavirus pandemic is requiring big individual sacrifices from just about all North Carolinians. Across our state, people are giving up their jobs, freedom of travel, and, in many instances (e.g. health care providers, first responders and even store clerks), putting their lives and health on the line every day to keep society functioning.

At such a time, the last thing we need is for the always-dissatisfied extremists in the NRA and their allies to start railing about modest delays in access to new firearm permits.

Amazingly, though, that’s what’s been happening in Wake County. When Sheriff Gerald Baker put a temporary, common sense hold on issuing new handgun permits to help curb the fast-growing crowds that had been gathering at his office to apply (and thereby threatening their own health and that of his deputies), several gun advocates went ballistic, calling it a massive assault on the 2nd Amendment.

Opportunistic politicians like State Sen. Warren Daniel blasted Baker’s action as being part of some monstrous plot to undermine the Constitution.

These critics need to chill out and stop fomenting paranoia.

Just yesterday, Baker’s office announced that 11 deputies are having to self-isolate because they’re experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Even Republican House Speaker Tim Moore pointed out this week that “we don’t people lined up at the DMV right now.” The same is obviously true with respect to sheriffs’ offices.

As Raleigh’s News & Observer reported:

The suspension will help the Sheriff’s Office and the Wake County Clerk of Courts clear the backlog of 755 pending applications.

The rush to apply for permits in Wake County led to lines out the door, which also made it difficult to maintain the social distancing that is needed to help prevent the spread of corronavirus, Curry said.

“We have to limit folks coming in contact with each other,” he said. “It was also a health concern for our staff.”

Similar action has been taken in other jurisdictions around the country.

The bottom line: Eligible applicants will get their permits in due time. But, for now, would-be gun purchasers need to understand that they – like everyone else in this extraordinary moment – may need to make some modest personal sacrifices for the common good.