COVID-19, News

Six notable expenditures in the Senate’s COVID-19 relief bill

The Senate’s omnibus bill to address COVID-19 gets its first committee hearing this morning.

The 51-page, COVID-19 Recovery Act has dozens of earmarks designed to offer relief to the state. Here are six notable expenditures:

$50 million – for the Department of Health and Human Services to allocate at their discretion. The funds will primarily be used to increase the purchase of items such as ventilators, touch-free thermometers, gowns, disinfectant, sanitizing wipes and more personal protective equipment.

$125 million – for the Golden LEAF Foundation to provide “bridge loans” to assist small businesses with their needs in recovering from this economic hardship

$6 million – to the Department of Health and Human Services to be allocated equally among the state’s six food banks. In turn, the food banks are being encouraged to use those funds to purchase food from North Carolina farmers and vendors

$15 million – would be allocated to Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI) to develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to get to the public as soon as possible

$20 million – would go to Wake Forest University Health Services to be used to expand its COVID-19 study to include syndromic surveillance and representative sample antibody testing, providing policymakers and researchers with near real-time coronavirus prevalence, hospitalization,and fatality data

$5 million – would be used by to the Department of Commerce to help the tourism industry recover. Funds here would be used to develop COVID-19-specific strategies and materials to educate people on how to travel in a safe and socially distant way and prevent community reintroduction of the virus

The Senate appropriations committee will take up the bill this morning at 10:00am. A vote by the full Senate could come as early as this afternoon.

Read Senate Bill 704 here.

COVID-19, News

Tillis: Want to open North Carolina to business sooner? Start wearing a mask.

Sen. Thom Tillis

Senator Thom Tillis told constituents participating in a tele-town hall last Friday if they want to see businesses re-open sooner, they would be smart to start wearing a face mask to help minimize the spread of COVID-19.

In an informal poll of those taking parting in the senator’s town hall, 62% said they would wear a mask when leaving the house, 15% said they were not wearing any protective covering and 23% said they were remaining home.

“Those of you who aren’t wearing masks are potentially exposing vulnerable people to disease that could kill them.”

Tillis recounted the story of a solider recovering from wounds he incurred while deployed, who will be quarantined for months. Others he noted with underlying health conditions were also at great risk because of the coronavirus.

Tillis told those taking part in the call the decision to wear a face covering to help flatten the curve could literally be the difference between opening up the state in early-May versus July.

“If we see a spike in reported cases the governor will have no choice, following President Trump’s guidelines, to keep businesses closed, and we want to avoid that,” said Tillis.

Click below to hear an excerpt from the telephone town hall:

Last week, Governor Roy Cooper extended North Carolina’s stay-at-home order through May 8th, outlining a staggered three phase plan before the state could re-open for business.

As of Sunday, North Carolina had recorded 8,830 positive cases of COVID-19 in 94 counties with nearly 300 fatalities.

COVID-19, Governor Roy Cooper

At-a-glance: Governor Cooper’s three phases to re-opening North Carolina

Gov. Roy Cooper has extended North Carolina’s Stay At Home order through May 8.

Today’s order also extends the closure of restaurants for dine-in service and bars and the closure of other close-contact businesses through the first full week in May.

Cooper shared details about North Carolina’s three-phase plan to lift restrictions in the coming weeks when the data shows that North Carolina’s cases of COVID-19 and other key metrics are headed in the right direction.

Read the governor’s latest Executive Order.

Here’s North Carolina’s plan at-a-glance:

Source: NCDHHS

Commentary, COVID-19, News

The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

1. Pandemic bringing changes to higher education that could be long-lasting

Some say “new normal” at UNC could feature more faculty input, fewer applicants, depleted budgets and an expanded commitment to online instruction

This week Eric Muller dialed in to a UNC-Chapel Hill faculty leadership video conference to wrestle with some heavy topics:  the ongoing pandemic, its effect on teaching, looming budget cuts and an uncertain future.

But when his image popped up on the call it was with a custom, tropical-themed background he’d downloaded just to lighten things up a bit.

Muller, a UNC law professor, has been doing what professors, students and administrators have all been doing for the last month — the best he can. [Read more…]

2. COVID-19 bills take shape ahead of General Assembly’s return April 28

A North Carolina House Select committee working group took its first steps toward crafting a COVID-19 response bill Thursday, establishing a list of priorities and areas of concern that it will shape into bills the General Assembly can pass when it convenes at the end of this month.

The Health Care working group has been meeting since last month, hearing from experts across the state on everything from the needs of front-line medical workers to overwhelmed rural hospitals and racial health disparities during the pandemic. [Read more…]

3. Pro Publica report: Senator Richard Burr sold D.C. townhouse to donor at a rich price

This story appeared originally on the website of ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, has come under fire in recent weeks for unloading stock holdings right before the market crashed on fears of coronavirus and for a timely sale of shares in an obscure Dutch fertilizer company.

Now the North Carolina Republican’s 2017 sale of his Washington, D.C., home to a group led by a donor and powerful lobbyist who had business before Burr’s committee is raising additional ethical questions.

Burr sold the small townhouse, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, for what, by some estimates, was an above market price — $900,000 — to a team led by lobbyist John Green. That is tens of thousands of dollars above some estimates of the property’s value by tax assessors, a real estate website and a local real estate agent. The sale was done off-market, without the home being listed for sale publicly. [Read more…]

4. Federal COVID-19 checks: What they mean and who might get left out


Much has been made of the direct cash payments included in the CARES Act, passed by Congress to provide relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. Providing emergency aid was the right move, but this step alone won’t solve the financial challenges facing North Carolina families or pull the state out of a rapidly deepening economic hole.

The first and largest issue with these cash payments is they are simply too small to get families through this time of crisis. The cash aid included in the CARES Act will cover only the cost of basic living expenses for a few weeks, grossly inadequate in the face of a pandemic likely to last months. [Read more…]

5. In their own words: North Carolina prisoners share experiences from the inside during COVID-19 pandemic

Many media outlets, including Policy Watch, have reported on the actions and statements of the Department of Public Safety as it grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s rare that audiences get to hear from the people serving time. This compilation is meant to provide a glimpse of life in prison during this historic moment. Policy Watch knows the names of the incarcerated people, but is not publishing them because they fear retribution in prison for talking to media. Some of their stories have been edited and condensed for publication.

Story 1 – Catawba Correctional Center:

I’m not so worried for myself. There are a lot of people over the age of 60 here.

The way they’re handling this thing is not the way the government is reporting. We don’t even sleep 4 feet apart; I am 36 inches from the person in the bed next to me. The day room is constantly packed. [Read more…]

6. Advocates, experts: DPS COVID-19 initiative not enough to save incarcerated peoples’ lives
Advocates and criminal justice experts acknowledge the North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s announcement yesterday to release some incarcerated people from prisons is a small step in the right direction, but said it is not enough.

To put the announcement in perspective, a staff attorney at Forward Justice noted that more than 50 prisons in North Carolina are potentially releasing 500 incarcerated people — the number DPS is reviewing — but that wouldn’t even remove 10 individuals from each facility. [Read more…]

7. Let the people vote!


Health pandemic will put democracy itself at risk unless we act

American elected leaders will have to make a lot of complex decisions in the coming weeks and months in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Know-it-all commentators and internet trolls will try to push “simple” solutions or try to convince us that the situation is overblown and that we should simply suck it up and get back to work. But the truth is that societal recovery will likely be a frustrating and painstaking process with plenty of difficult calls and gray areas.

Our public health experts and scientists – the people who study and think about this stuff for a living – tell us that the virus is likely to ebb and flow for several months – a fact that is going to require widespread patience, determination and creativity. As former Vice President Biden noted in a Monday New York Times op-ed that had obviously been informed by consultations with knowledgeable professionals, “Things will not go back to ‘normal’ right away. As public health experts have said, we should expect activity to return gradually, with sites like offices and stores reopening before arenas and theaters.” [Read more…]

8. COVID-19 pushes Postal Service’s finances to the brink

Everything from pharmaceutical deliveries to mail-in ballots could depend on whether Congress can shore up the agency’s finances.

WASHINGTON — Millions of Americans are relying on the U.S. Postal Service for key supplies while they isolate themselves to slow the spread of COVID-19. But the Postal Service itself faces uncertain times ahead, as the economic fallout of the pandemic and hostility from the Trump administration threaten to hobble it.

“At a time when America needs the Postal Service more than ever, the reason we are so needed is having a devastating effect on our business,” U.S. Postmaster General and CEO Megan J. Brennan said earlier this month. “Sales are plummeting as a result of the pandemic. The sudden drop in mail volumes, our most profitable revenue stream, is steep and may never fully recover.” [Read more…]

9. Your discarded carpet is poisoning the Earth with PFAS

New research shows very high levels of PFAS in construction and demolition landfills, jeopardizing groundwater

When a building succumbs, by age or wind or water or fire, its innards have to go somewhere. Carpet, bricks, drywall, windows, shingles and siding, are hauled to a special type of landfill, known as construction and demolition, or C&D.

New research published in the journal Waste Management this week reported that very high levels of perfluorinated compounds (PFAS) have been found seeping from several C&D landfills in Florida, which has environmental and public health implications for North Carolina.

Johnsie Lang, formerly with the EPA’s Office of Research and Development in Research Triangle Park, is one of four scientists who worked on the study. [Read more…]

10. Restaurants to help Durham feed children learning from home due to COVID-19 crisis

The Durham Public Schools (DPS) will start a new, limited meals program Thursday for students learning at home due to the COVID-19 crisis.

The school district cancelled its meals program earlier this month after an employee distributing meals at Bethesda Elementary School tested positive for the coronavirus and too many workers applied for emergency paid leave.

The new program will be administered in partnership with Durham County Government, the Durham Public Schools Foundation, local nonprofits and restaurants. It will be known as “Durham FEAST.” [Read more…]

11. Weekly micro-podcasts and radio interviews:

 

12. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

 

COVID-19, News

Governor: Key to easing restrictions starts with the three T’s

Gov. Roy Cooper is not ready to set a date for when North Carolina will lift restrictions and businesses can resume their normal operations. But Cooper signaled a path forward on Wednesday that would include testing, tracing and identifying trends.

“Experts tell us it would be dangerous to lift our restrictions all at once. Rather than an on/off light switch, we are viewing this as a dimmer switch that can be adjusted incrementally,” said Cooper.

The three-pronged approach comes as North Carolina has recorded more than 5,100 positive cases of COVID-19 and 117 deaths  in 93 of the state’s 100 counties.

Both the governor and the Secretary for Health and Human Services agreed yesterday that until a vaccine is widely available, the state will need to protect vulnerable residents from a second wave of the virus.

Here’s more on the governor’s plan to move North Carolina forward:

 

TESTING

State planning relies on an increase in testing capabilities to identify, isolate and track new cases of COVID-19. This means having the supplies and lab capacity to do more testing across the state. Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, has brought together laboratory partners from the public and private sector to coordinate efforts to ensure testing – diagnostic and antibody — is widely available across the state while also conserving protective equipment.

TRACING

Tracing requires the state to boost the public health workforce and ability to trace contacts of new cases of COVID-19. Contact tracing can be effective at containing new outbreaks, but it requires more personnel. When a person tests positive, the tracing efforts will help identify who that individual may have been in contact with so those people can get tested and take the right precautions. NC DHHS is working with its partners to increase this critical piece of our public health workforce. New digital tools can also help scale this effort.

TRENDS

In order to ease restrictions, the state needs to understand how COVID-19 is impacting the state and impacting specific populations and regions of the state to determine when to strengthen or ease social distancing policies. Trends that will influence policy decisions will be based on data like the new positive cases, hospitalizations, deaths, as well as available supply of personal protective equipment, hospital capacity.

“Because we acted early and because we acted together, we have averted the devastating scenarios we have seen playing out in other parts of our country and across the globe. We now need to look ahead at how we stay ahead of the curve. Widespread testing, aggressive contact tracing, and data-informed policy decisions are our best tools to keep our communities safe and protect our frontline workers,” Cohen said.