A year into COVID vaccine distribution, NC leaders reflect on progress, a return to the “red zone”

DHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen

Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the very first COVID vaccines being distributed in North Carolina. Over the course of 12 months, more than 12 million doses have been administered along with nearly two million booster doses. Sixty-nine percent of the state’s adults are fully vaccinated.

But with winter approaching, COVID cases have been rising in recent weeks.

Outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said she is worried heading into the holidays.

“Our highest rates have been in children and young adults, which are our least vaccinated age groups,” said Cohen.

Less than 20% (or one in five) children age 5-11 have received the COVID-19 vaccine since it became available.  The vaccination rate among young adults (age 12-17) stands at 46%.

“And unfortunately North Carolina is back into the CDC’s red zone with higher levels of community transmission.”

The increase in cases and hospitalizations are still being driven by the delta variant, not the newer and more contagious omicron variant.

Cohen said with the holidays approaching and extended families and friends getting together, there is a greater risk of getting and spreading COVID-19.

To minimize one’s own risk, Cohen suggested North Carolinians take three simple steps.

“First, get vaccinated as soon as possible, and get boosted as soon as you are eligible. Second, get tested. Before you attend an indoor gathering get tested, and before and after traveling,” advised Cohen. “Third, wear a mask. Everyone should be wearing a mask in public indoor places.”

Cohen believes people can gather safely this holiday season, if they taken an active role in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

“But I am still worried about our hospital capacity. We are seeing a more contagious version of COVID in the omicron variant on the horizon. We know we are going into the winter, which is what the COVID virus likes. And we know it is also flu season”

CDC data shows NC in the red zone for COVID transmission. Source: NCDHHS

Currently, North Carolina is seeing more influenza activity than at any time since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

Earlier this week, the state recorded the first reported flu-related death of the 2021–22 flu season. An adult in the western part of the state died due to complications of influenza.

In this case, the person tested positive for influenza and negative for COVID-19.

“So there are a lot of strains on our hospitals as we go into these winter months, so we definitely do need to be vigilant,” cautioned Cohen.”But this year we have tools. We just need to use them. That’s why you keep hearing the governor say our focus is certainly on vaccines and on boosters.”

The CDC recommends flu vaccination every year for everyone 6 months and older.

Flu and COVID-19 vaccines can be administered at the same visit. The CDC recommends COVID-19 vaccination for everyone 5 years old and older and COVID-19 booster for everyone 16 years of age and older when eligible.

Cheney: What Mark Meadows knew about January 6th siege on the Capitol, when he knew it, and why contempt charge is fitting (video)

The bipartisan House committee investigating the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol has voted to recommend contempt charges against former North Carolina Congressman and Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Meadows who initially signaled he would cooperate with the panel did an about face and refused to answer further questions.

But Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) the panel’s vice chairwoman shared on Monday texts Meadows did receive that day, and why he cannot hide behind executive privilege now.

Here’s an excerpt of Cheney’s opening statement:

“We believe Mr. Meadows is improperly asserting executive and other privileges. But this vote on contempt today relates principally to Mr. Meadows’s refusal to testify about text messages and other communications that he admits are not privileged. He has not claimed, and does not have, any privilege bases to refuse entirely to testify regarding these topics. Let me give just three examples:

“The violence was evident to all. It was covered in real time by almost every news channel. But for 187 minutes, President Trump refused to act when action by our President was required, essential, and indeed compelled by his oath to our Constitution.

“Mr. Meadows received numerous text messages, which he has produced without any privilege claim – imploring that Mr. Trump take the specific action we all knew his duty required. These text messages leave no doubt. The White House knew exactly what was happening here at the Capitol. Members of Congress, the press, and others wrote to Mark Meadows as the attack was underway.

“One text Mr. Meadows received said, quote, ‘We are under siege up here at the Capitol.’

“Another, quote, ‘They have breached the Capitol.’

“In a third, ‘Mark, protestors are literally storming the Capitol. Breaking windows on doors. Rushing in. Is Trump going to say something?’

“A fourth, ‘There’s an armed standoff at the House Chamber door.’

“And another, from someone inside the Capitol, ‘We are all helpless.’

“Dozens of texts, including from Trump administration officials, urged immediate action by the President.

“Quote, ’POTUS has to come out firmly and tell protestors to dissipate. Someone is going to get killed.’

“In another, ‘Mark, he needs to stop this. Now.’

“A third, in all caps, ‘TELL THEM TO GO HOME.’

“A fourth, and I quote, ‘POTUS needs to calm this [shit] down.’

“Indeed, according to the records, multiple Fox News hosts knew the President needed to act immediately. They texted Mr. Meadows, and he has turned over those texts.

“Quote, ‘Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home. This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy,’ Laura Ingraham wrote.

“’Please get him on tv. Destroying everything you have accomplished,’ Brian Kilmeade texted.

“’Can he make a statement? Ask people to leave the Capitol,’ Sean Hannity urged.

“As the violence continued, one of the President’s sons texted Mr. Meadows.

“Quote, ‘He’s got to condemn this [shit] ASAP. The Capitol Police tweet is not enough,’ Donald Trump, Jr. texted.

“Meadows responded, quote, ‘I’m pushing it hard. I agree.’

“Still, President Trump did not immediately act.

“Donald Trump, Jr. texted again and again, urging action by the President.

“Quote, ‘We need an Oval Office address. He has to lead now. It has gone too far and gotten out of hand,’ end quote.

“But hours passed without the necessary action by the President.

“These non-privileged texts are further evidence of President Trump’s supreme dereliction of duty during those 187 minutes. And Mr. Meadows testimony will bear on another key question before this Committee: Did Donald Trump, through action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress’s official proceeding to count electoral votes? Mark Meadows testimony is necessary to inform our legislative judgments.

“Yet he has refused to give any testimony at all—even regarding non-privileged topics. He is in contempt of Congress.”

The House could vote as early as today to refer the charges to the Justice Department, which will ultimately decide whether to prosecute the former North Carolina congressman.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the House panel, summed it up this way:

“Whatever legacy he thought he left in the House, this is his legacy now. His former colleagues singling him out for criminal prosecution because he wouldn’t answer questions about what he knows about a brutal attack on our democracy. That’s his legacy.”

NC Health Secretary: Medicaid expansion, public investments key to state’s COVID recovery

DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen addresses legislators.

With less than a month left in her tenure, state Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen settled in Tuesday for more than two hours of legislative questions about how her department handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sec. Cohen said to fully appreciate where we are today, lawmakers need to look back to where the state and nation were pre-pandemic.

“We didn’t have PPE. We didn’t have testing. We didn’t have vaccines. We didn’t have treatment. We didn’t know a lot,” reflected Cohen.

“By the winter we were very lucky to have one of the greatest scientific achievements of getting vaccines out quickly to people, which is just incredible to think about.”

Cohen said at a time when the state was starting to feel positive, the next wave arrived in June.

“This virus was not done with us. It changed, it got more contagious. And then we had the summer surge with the delta variant and frankly came the closest in this pandemic to overwhelming our healthcare system.”

As the pandemic evolved, Sec. Cohen said the state responded by launching a public dashboard, optimizing data systems, and building a vaccine management system. Policies like the statewide masking requirement and the “dimmer switch” approach to re-opening helped control community spread.

“This was a whole-of-government response,” said Cohen in praising partnerships with hospitals and other state agencies.

Today, 62% of North Carolina’s total population has had at least one dose of the vaccine.

Senator Todd Johnson (R-Union) took aim at the StrongSchools Toolkit promoted by Sec. Cohen as a resource to help schools safely re-open.

Sen. Todd Johnson

“While there is no statutory authority for the toolkit, your office threatened Union County with legal action for not following the toolkit regarding contact tracing. For the record, is the toolkit a recommendation, a law or just a suggestion?”

Sec. Cohen said while it is critical to keep children in the classroom learning, it must be done in a safe way.

“And any kind of quarantine is an absolute last resort. If kids are vaccinated, they do not need to quarantine. If they are wearing masks, they don’t need to quarantine,” responded Dr. Cohen. “And the places that are using those tools have had to quarantine very few kids.”

Cohen said vaccines were first and foremost the best thing parents could do to keep children in the classroom learning safely.

Rep. Erin Paré (R-Wake) questioned why public health officials have a tendency to “overstate the reliability of data.”

Sec. Cohen said she has tried to be clear throughout the pandemic about what metrics the department was using to make its decisions.

“Just as I was answering that last question about omicron. We don’t know yet exactly what this will mean. It doesn’t mean our scientists aren’t smart or the data’s not good. Sometimes it just takes time.”

Sen. Kirk deViere

An hour later it was Sen. Kirk deViere’s (D-Cumberland) opportunity to question the outgoing DHHS Secretary.

“What would you say would play into the impact of the recovery if we do expand Medicaid?” he asked.

“We know we have more uninsured here, and we are not availing ourselves of federal support that exists. We know that we can bring coverage to half a million people every single year – these are working North Carolinians – if we do this,” she encouraged.

Cohen said Medicaid expansion is critical to ensuring rural residents have access to medical care when they need it.

“I do think that it is linked to our health and well-being, but also our economic recovery. I do think we should absolutely avail ourselves to the $4 billion annually that would come to North Carolina.

That’s money that not only goes to people to seek healthcare, make themselves healthier, but that’s economic generation there.”

Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have accepted federal funding to expand Medicaid.

Sen. Joyce Krawiec

Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth) broke from her conservative colleagues in their questioning of Cohen’s handling of the pandemic.

“I just want a moment of personal privilege,” Krawiec opened.

“As Chair of Health, I just want to take a moment to thank you for your service to us here in North Carolina, particularly for your willingness to work with us, your accessibility at all times. You and your staff were always available to us anytime we needed you. I’m going to miss you. I really am.”

Cohen leaves the office at the end of this month. Stepping into the role will be Kody Kinsley, who currently serves as the Chief Deputy Secretary for Health at NCDHHS.

For more on how Secretary Cohen and NCDHHS approached the pandemic from Winter 2020 to today, see the graphic below:

Source: NCDHHS

 

From the latest hurdle for the Leandro school funding suit to the departure of Sec. Mandy Cohen, it’s the week’s top stories on Policy Watch

In this issue:

1. NC Court of Appeals rules state doesn’t have to fund $1.7B school improvement plan

The plaintiffs in the state’s long-running school funding case were dealt a setback Tuesday when the NC Court of Appeals ruled the judge overseeing the case doesn’t have the authority to require the state to spend $1.7 billion on a public-school improvement plan.

Superior Court Judge David Lee had ordered State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican, State Controller Linda Combs and state Budget Director Charles Perusse to release state money to fund the first two years of a state-wide school improvement plan that grew out of the decades old Leandro v. State of North Carolina. The State Supreme Court ruled in that case that the state was not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide children with sound basic education.

Tuesday’s Appeals Court ruling came on a 2-1 vote with Republican judges Chris Dillon and Jefferson Griffin agreeing that the state Constitution “permits” but does not require the General Assembly to “supplement” existing sources of school funding. Combs had asked the Court to dismiss the order. [Read more…]

2. State Court of Appeals hears arguments in challenge to legislature’s limits on hog nuisance lawsuits

Eastern NC residents say industry-initiated prohibitions in 2017 and 2018 Farm Acts are unconstitutional  

On Wednesday afternoon, a 90-minute court hearing boiled down to an essential question: Do the Farm Acts of 2017 and 2018 — still controversial years after their enactment — provide a “right without a remedy”?

And if there is no remedy — in this situation, the right to file a nuisance suit against Smithfield Foods and the plethora of industrialized hog farms it controls, said Burton Craige, attorney for the plaintiffs, — the right “is an illusion.”

Civil rights attorneys Craige and Elizabeth Haddix are representing REACH, a group of Eastern North Carolina residents, in a legal challenge to the Farm Act. [Read more...]

3. Proposed charter school’s application slowed by link to troubled management firm

Previous “compliance” issues of Torchlight Academy Schools leads advisory board to question proposal for Perquimans County charter

A charter school Tony Riddick plans to open in Perquimans County and name after his mother, Elaine Riddick, the best-known victim of North Carolina’s now-defunct eugenics program, has hit a snag because of his relationship with Don McQueen, the operator of Torchlight Academy in Raleigh.

Riddick selected McQueen’s Torchlight Academy Schools LLC to manage Elaine Riddick Charter School to provide parents and students an option to fulfill academic needs he contends are not met by Perquimans County Schools. [Read more…]

Bonus read: State Board of Education suspends Northampton County Schools superintendent over district performance

4. As a leading UNC epidemiologist reiterates the benefits of vaccination, conservative legislators push for Ivermectin

On the same day the U.S. confirmed its first case of the omicron variant, UNC epidemiologist Justin Lessler found himself back before a legislative commission answering questions about ongoing efforts to end the pandemic.

“I remain cautiously optimistic about the direction things are going in the state, but with emphasis on the caution,” Lessler said.”I think we need to be prepared for the possibility of a significant winter wave at this point.”

Lessler, an infectious disease expert at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, said as more people gather indoors for holiday festivities there’s much that remains unknown about the new variant.

“Even with significant immune invasion, it’s important to remember that vaccination will likely remain the most effective way to prevent severe disease and hospitalization even if it doesn’t fully prevent infection,” Lessler testified Wednesday [Read more…]

5. NC Health Secretary Mandy Cohen to depart DHHS, Deputy Secretary will step into leadership role

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the leading voice of the state’s COVID-19 response, will leave her post as Secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services at the end of this year.

News of Cohen’s departure was reported by multiple media outlets just hours before  Tuesday’s briefing with Gov. Roy Cooper and members of the Coronavirus Task Force.

Dr. Cohen, who has two daughters ages 7 and 9, has served as North Carolina’s top health official since 2017.

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve this state at such an important moment in history,” said Cohen. [Read more…]

6. Right-wing extremism hits new lows but “responsible” conservatives remain largely silent

These are, by any fair estimation, divided times in our country. Especially since the onset of the pandemic, the level of venom and bitterness that’s gripped millions of Americans is a sometimes-frightening phenomenon to behold.

This troubling reality has clearly been fueled at times by the relative anonymity provided by internet, but it’s also the case that many of those voicing and spurring on aggression, hatred, and even physical violence are only too happy put their names and faces out there.

From attention-grabbing politicians and loud-mouthed TV and radio talking heads, right on down to the January 6 insurrectionists, and mask-mandate defying and gun-toting vigilante activists, there’s been no shortage of people willing to publicly espouse a message of hostile and violent confrontation.[Read more…]

7. U.S. Supreme Court considers new limits on abortions in Mississippi case

Demonstrators outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday. Justices are hearing arguments in a Mississippi case that seeks to overturn Roe v. Wade. Photo by Jane Norman/States Newsroom.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is weighing potentially sweeping changes to the right to an abortion, after two hours of arguments Wednesday morning on a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The court’s conservatives, who hold a 6-3 majority, appeared through their questions to be sympathetic to Mississippi’s arguments that its law should be upheld—and they also seemed open to the possibility of undoing other precedent-setting abortion cases.[Read more…]

8. Veteran journalist: I read “The 1619 Project.” Critics need to calm down.

You’d have to be completely out of the political loop—and I suspect you aren’t, if you are reading this—to not have heard of “The 1619 Project” and the brouhaha surrounding it.

A publication of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times, “1619” first appeared in an August 2019 issue of the New York Times Magazine. In May 2020, Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her opening essay. [Read more...]

9. Weekly Radio Interviews and Daily Commentaries:

Click here for the latest interviews and commentaries with Policy Watch’s Rob Schofield 

10. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

 

As a leading UNC epidemiologist reiterates the benefits of vaccination, conservative legislators push for Ivermectin

UNC epidemiologist Justin Lessler

On the same day the U.S. confirmed its first case of the omicron variant, UNC epidemiologist Justin Lessler found himself back before a legislative commission answering questions about ongoing efforts to end the pandemic.

“I remain cautiously optimistic about the direction things are going in the state, but with emphasis on the caution,” Lessler said.”I think we need to be prepared for the possibility of a significant winter wave at this point.”

Lessler, an infectious disease expert at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, said as more people gather indoors for holiday festivities there’s much that remains unknown about the new variant.

“Even with significant immune invasion, it’s important to remember that vaccination will likely remain the most effective way to prevent severe disease and hospitalization even if it doesn’t fully prevent infection,” Lessler testified Wednesday.

He said very preliminary data out of Israel suggests that the current vaccines may work fairly well against the new variant.

“But just to remind you, new variants with immune escape are inevitable, and if this variant doesn’t lead to some cases coming back, ones in the future will. But hopefully those future waves – and probably those future waves – will not result in the kind severe disease you see when people are seeing the virus for the first time and have not been primed from earlier infection or immunity.”

But even as Professor Lessler made the case for vaccines and boosters, it was clear that some lawmakers would not be swayed.

Rep. Mark Brody, a Republican from Union County, questioned whether the vaccines could alter one’s DNA.

Rep. Mark Brody (R-Union Co.)

“There are a lot of people who haven’t taken the vaccine including myself, because we just don’t know what it is.”

Lessler patiently explained that there has been confusion about the technology used to create the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and what’s in the vaccine itself.

“The vaccine itself contains messenger RNA, which never enters the nucleus of the cell, so has no opportunity to quote-unquote ‘edit our genes.’ It is a way to get the cells to express the things our immune system needs to see, to fight the virus without giving it the real virus.”

Rep. Brody asked Lessler if he supported the use of Ivermectin, an animal dewormer, to battle COVID-19.

“Would you support the right to try, along with all the other methods of trying to eradicate and help people with the virus?”

Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic medicine used for livestock. It has not received emergency use authorization from the FDA, which issued its own warning about using the drug for COVID.

“I think there’s a difference between whether I think it’s okay to have the right to do something, and whether I think that’s a good idea,” the epidemiologist offered.

“We in this country have the right to do a lot of things that are bad ideas.”

Rep. Jamie Boles (R-Moore), a funeral home director, said it was frustrating that hospitals were not more willing to try Ivermectin on COVID patients.

“Families are asking for this right, and hospitals are not entertaining that,” said Boles.

“Doctors take an oath to do no harm. And if they give a treatment, they have to have some feeling that it will work and be better than the side effect,” Lessler tried to explain.

Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth Co.)

Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth) pressed on.

“My understanding and I’m certainly not a doctor and don’t know that much about it, but my understanding is those drugs — the Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin have been used for decades and there are very little side effects. Why is there that pushback?”

“I think it may come down to the evidence, and that fact that we might have other things that help. And sometimes doing nothing is the best thing.”

Unlike a livestock dewormer, Lessler said monoclonal antibodies are a proven treatment. He said the nation is very close to having other antivirals to help people fight a COVID infection.

Lessler said we might not defeat COVID but his hope was that it will at some point change to a seasonal nuisance.

“So what role can state and local governments take in hastening that transition?” asked Sen. Deanna Ballard.

“To the extent that they are able to, encourage people to get vaccinated,” Lessler responded. “That is the most long lasting thing that we can do in terms of how we can impact the pandemic.”