Courts & the Law, COVID-19, News, public health, race

Congressman, State Senator talk “dire” state of COVID response, looming Supreme Court fight in town hall

“The situation is dire,” Rep. David Price (D – N.C.) told a virtual town hall Wednesday night. “I’m not going to sugar coat it in any way.”

The event, held by progressive group ActionNC, brought together Price, State Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Durham) and progressive advocates to talk with North Carolinians about COVID-19, the future of the Supreme Court and what it means for health care and the Affordable Care Act.

Rep. David Price

“I can’t possibly overstate the magnitude of this loss,” Price said of the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, calling her “a giant” who left a lasting impact on the law, women’s rights and voting rights.

The push by President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans to replace Ginsburg less than two months before the November election is a hypocritical “power grab” that threatens the legitimacy of the court, Price said.

It also imperils the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans hope to overturn through legal challenges.

“This November the Supreme Court will hear a case that could determine the future of the Affordable Care Act,” Price said. The outcome of that case could mean a return to patients being denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, life-time caps on coverage and the loss of coverage for millions who have come to rely on it.

The rush to replace Ginsburg and constant assaults on the ACA are indicative of “the Republican Senate becoming a graveyard for so much that the country needs,” Price said.

Price and Murdock both said lawmakers — in Washington and in Raleigh — should instead be concentrating on helping Americans during an ongoing pandemic that has already claimed 200,000 lives and devastated the economy.

“North Carolina is facing billions of dollars in revenue shortfalls over the next few years,” Murdock said. “If Congress doesn’t pass a bill with significant aid soon it will force more devastating cuts to food assistance, unemployment benefits, health coverage and other support for struggling families, just when they need help the most.”

State Sen. Natalie Murdock

Price agreed, saying what’s been proposed by Republicans in Congress simply won’t get the job done.

“If they stopped to take one look around, they’d see Americans are clearing food bank shelves, facing threats of eviction and receiving unemployment benefits that don’t come close to paying the bills,” Price said. “They would see small businesses forced to close their doors as demand isn’t keeping pace. Americans can’t afford to wait or suffer any longer. They need a comprehensive relief bill, similar to the Heroes Act. And they need it now.”

Alexandra Sirota, director of the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center, said direct federal aid to people, state and local government is urgently needed.

“”Bolstering state and local infrastructure with federal funds can ensure that every community has what is needed to support families and sustain a response to COVID-19 and the economic downturn until recovery is secure,” Siota said. “North Carolina can’t afford to meet needs alone. The state has already allocated all of the previously provided federal dollars and still there are too many unmet needs, like rental and food assistance. Inaction by the Senate and White House will only extend the harm for people and prolong the downturn.”

The North Carolina Budget and Tax Center is a project of the non-profit North Carolina Justice Center, of which Policy Watch is also a part.

Black and Latinx people are most impacted by the pandemic and its economic fallout, said Mary Williams-Stover, executive director of NC Council for Women & Youth Involvement.

“The COVID pandemic is impacting everyone, but it’s not impacting us all equally,” Williams-Stover said. “All the data shows women are struggling with the aftermath of the pandemic more than men and Black women, who already faced the greatest employment and health care barriers even before COVID due to pre-existing health disparities, are significantly impacted by the pandemic.”

An April report by the Budget and Tax Center found Black people are about 22 percent of the state’s population but make up 38 percent of cases and 37 percent of COVID-infection related deaths. More than 13 percent of Black women in North Carolina are uninsured, ActionNC pointed out, making them particularly vulnerable.

The numbers for Latinx people were even more grim. They make up about 10 percent of the state’s population but 46 percent of COVID cases.

Both Price and Murdock emphasized the need for the North Carolina General Assembly to expand Medicaid in the state. Their refusal to do so has prevented North Carolinians from accessing care that would otherwise be available to them even as other Republican-led states have opted for expansion, they said.

That’s particularly dangerous during a pandemic that imperils both peoples’ health and their economic stability, Price said.

“I’ve always said – and economists of all stripes will back me up on this – the danger is never doing too much,” Price said. “The danger is doing too little.”

Commentary, public health

New poll: Closing the coverage gap is wildly popular in North Carolina

In case you missed it, 75% of North Carolinians support closing the coverage gap, according to results from a poll commissioned by Care4Carolina — a coalition working to improve health care and expand access in North Carolina. The survey of 612 registered voters, conducted by Harper Polling and The Stewart Group from August 26-27, found that a solid majority want to ensure that more have access to health care, while only 16% oppose. This support is not limited to singular political ideologies as 64% of self-identified Republicans, 76% of unaffiliated voters and 83% of Democrats favor closing the coverage gap in the state.

Amid a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 200,000 Americans and has infected almost 180,000 North Carolinians, voters in the state continue to recognize the importance of health care access. Most voters see dealing with COVID-19 as the most critical election issue of the 2020 cycle with 61% believing that closing the coverage gap is of significant importance.

Since 2010, the General Assembly has refused to adopt Medicaid expansion, intentionally leaving at least 600,000 of our neighbors without access to quality health care. Even in the midst of a pandemic that has robbed 1.1 million North Carolinians of their jobs, a further 367,000 losing their employer-sponsored health insurance, which pushed 178,000 more into the coverage gap, leaders in the General Assembly have refused to allow legislation to move forward to address this crisis. In fact, during the recent floor debate around HB 1105, Representative Donnie Lambeth, the primary conservative sponsor for closing the coverage gap, proclaimed that the state could not expand Medicaid because the program itself was going through transformation and was broken. This thinking does not seem to square with the rest of North Carolina, let alone his home county. Voters in Senate District 31 (Forsyth and Davie) approve closing the coverage gap 69 % to 26%.

Why do legislators continue to deny expanding Medicaid when voters continue to support it? This past short session addressing state needs around the pandemic was an incredible opportunity to expand Medicaid. Too many North Carolinians are wondering what they would do if they get sick and need access to health care. A $335 check is not going to provide the working mother of one, earning minimum wage, the health care she needs. It is our sincere hope that during an economic downturn caused by a global pandemic that our state leaders would come back to session and do what is right by their constituents. They need to expand Medicaid.

You can find the full poll results here.

William Munn is a policy analyst in the the North Carolina Justice Center’s Health Advocacy Project.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News, public health

App State launches new COVID-19 dashboard, minus promised enhancements

Last week, in the wake of UNC-Chapel Hill announcing it would move all undergraduate courses online in the face of mounting COVID-19 infections, Appalachian State University Chancellor Sheri Everts sent a message to her university community.

While expressing optimism about the campus’ relative position with regard to COVID outbreaks, Everts did address deficiencies in the school’s COVID-19 informational dashboard that students, staff and faculty have been pointing to for weeks.

“In the coming days, we will add enhancements to our reporting dashboard so our university community will have access to additional public health information, including percentages of positive test results,” Everts wrote.

On Monday App State launched its new, revised dashboard — without the promised enhancements.

The new dashboard does not give the number of tests performed, the percentage of positives or other information that is provided on the dashboards of other UNC System schools, including those of UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University.

Information available through other dashboards but not provided by the App State dashboard includes isolation and quarantine room capacity, the number and percentage of courses now being taught in-person vs. remote, the availability of community protective equipment and information about on-campus housing occupancy.

App State’s dashboard appears to simply add two colorful graphs representing information  — cumulative cases on campus and active cases — that was already available before the update.

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COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News, public health

COVID clusters, infections mount at UNC schools as pressure increases to move online, institute universal testing

The UNC System continues to see rising COVID-19 numbers and clusters of infections, particularly in residence halls and Greek organization houses.

Troubling new data raise the question of whether and when other universities in the system will follow UNC-Chapel Hill in shifting classes online and reducing on-campus housing, as some members of the UNC Board of Governors call for universal testing for students.

Late Wednesday N.C. State announced six houses in its Greek Village were being placed under precautionary quarantine. The houses are affiliated with the Alpha Delta Pi, Beta Theta Pi, Delta Gamma, Kappa Delta, Sigma Nu and Zeta Tau Alpha organizations.

The move followed the announcement of two infection clusters — defined as five or more infections in a related location — within the Greek Village. There were six infections at the Kappa Delta sorority house and seven at the Alpha Delta Psi sorority house. A third cluster was reported at an off-campus house on Clark Avenue in Raleigh.

The campus reported 41 new positive COVID-19 tests in a single day on Wednesday — all among students. That followed Tuesday’s single-day report of 28 new positives — 27 students and one employee.

On Wednesday UNC-Chapel Hill also reported two new infection clusters,  one at Morrison Residence Hall and one at the  Zeta Psi fraternity house at 200 W. Cameron Ave., in Chapel Hill. Unlike other UNC system schools, Chapel Hill is not confirming the number of infections in its clusters as part of its alerts. The two new clusters bring the total number of clusters reported by the school to six.

UNC-Chapel Hill suspended all athletics program activity until 5 p.m. Thursday because of the upward trend of COVID-19 infections.

East Carolina University last updated its COVID-19 dashboard on Monday, showing data for the previous week. At that time it had recorded 31 new cases — 29 among students and two among employees. Sources on campus, including students and those with direct knowledge of student health services, told Policy Watch that those numbers are up significantly this week, rivaling the percentage increases seen at N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill.

ECU students have begun writing chalk messages all over campus encouraging the school to move online as it sees mounting infections.

Among student, faculty and staff concerns at ECU — and across the UNC System — is the fact that universities are not requiring all students to ne tested either when returning to campus or at established intervals. Therefore, the reported number of positive tests record only those students who choose to be tested, those who are tested off-campus and report it to their school, and those who are tested when identified as those identified as close contacts of those who already infected. This likely represents only a portion of the true number of infections.

UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis is advocating universal testing for students — a position also taken by White House Coronavirus Task Force leader Dr. Deborah Birx in a private call with state and local leaders this week.

“Each university not only has to do entrance testing,” Birx said in the call, a recording of which was obtained and reported by the Center for Public Integrity this on Thursday. “What we talked to every university about is being able to do surge testing. How are you going to do 5,000 samples in one day or 10,000 samples in one day?”

Experts with UNC Health advised against this earlier this summer in the face of similar calls from student and faculty, arguing that a negative test only represents negative status on the day it was taken. That could lead to a false sense of security, they said, and could also mean nothing if the person tested is infected the next day.

But universal testing could help schools quarantine those already infected and prevent their being introduced to residence halls and social situation on campus, Kotis said in an interview with Policy Watch this week.

“We have no idea how many of these students are positive when they come to campus, so we have no idea how many of them are encountering it in dorms or at parties or anywhere else,” Kotis said.

Two other members of UNC Board of Governors told Policy Watch they would be for universal testing this week, though they asked not to be identified out of concern of getting ahead of policy set by the board or UNC System President Peter Hans.

Education, Higher Ed, News, public health

Chair of UNC-CH faculty: “a serious breach of trust” campus not aware of Orange County health recommendation

The chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty sent an email to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin Wednesday expressing “dismay” faculty were not made aware that the Orange County Health director last week recommended the school move to online-only instruction and restrict student housing due to mounting evidence of widening COVID-19 infection.

“It feels like a serious breach of trust to have kept such recommendations from the campus community of faculty, staff and students,” wrote Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty.

In the email, whose subject line is “Dismay,” Chapman goes on to say that she has personally changed her plans to hold an in-person orientation for doctoral students this week and that the class she planned to teach in person this semester will change to remote.

“I could not possibly do otherwise in the face of such a letter from our local health department,” Chapman wrote.

Chapman pointed to already rampant flouting of mask and distancing rules on campus, in student stores and at off campus gatherings.

“These look like off ramps to me,” referring to the term UNC-Chapel Hill has used to indicate things that would lead them off of their “roadmap to return” and back to the online-only instruction of last semester.

Policy Watch has reached out to UNC-Chapel Hill, the UNC System office and UNC Board of Governors for response to the Orange County health director’s letter. They have not yet responded.

Chapman’s letter, in its entirety:


Dear Kevin and Bob:

This morning members of the FEC had the attached letter forwarded to us. We are  completely shocked that such a letter would’ve been received last week and that none of us have known about it until now – hours before it has turned up in the News and Observer.  It feels like a serious breech of trust to have kept such recommendations from the campus community of faculty, staff, and students.

Yesterday, I received word from a faculty member that in student stores, which was packed, only a third of people there were wearing masks.  Just now I received a video from a citizen who videotaped a line of what appeared to be sorority women – at least 50 – coming out from an indoor, unmasked gathering at 210 Ransom Street.

These look like off ramps to me. For myself, I am changing my plans to hold a in in person orientation for our doctoral students tomorrow, and my class that was planned to be delivered in person will change to remote.  I could not possibly do otherwise in the face of such a letter from our local health department.

Since assuming this role, it has been my intention to interact collaboratively.  I recognize that people occupying roles such as yours are balancing many competing priorities and, that in the current environment, the choices are very difficult.  However, with outside guidance from public health authorities such as is included in this letter, to proceed without completely candid discussion with your faculty, as well as other interested parties, feels like a betrayal.  I urge you to call a meeting of the general faculty immediately and to address the concerns that are outlined in this letter. Or if you would like me to call it, I will.  If the implications of this letter means that we must send some students home, that is how it will have to be.  If it means bringing this information to the BOG so that they might grapple with the implications of ignoring these warnings, then by all means do that, and I will stand with you.

I look forward to speaking soon.

With best regards,