States still lag in getting assistance to struggling renters according to federal data

As COVID cases rise, NC adjusts mask guidance for schools

Governor Roy Cooper

It feels like déjà vu all over again when it comes to the coronavirus.

Cases of COVID-19 are ticking upward with 1,434 new infections reported on Wednesday.

Governor Roy Cooper is again appealing to all North Carolinians to protect themselves and get vaccinated.

The problem is that most people who were anxious to get the vaccine have already done so.

As of Wednesday, 60% of North Carolina’s eligible adults had received one-dose of the COVID vaccine.

“The most important work our state will do next month is getting all of our children back in the classroom safely for in-person learning,” Gov. Cooper said. “We want their school days to be as close to normal as possible, especially after the year of disruption they just had.”

Because children under 12 are not eligible yet to be vaccinated, North Carolinians must come together to keep students safe from the virus, said the governor.

The updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit recommends that schools with students in kindergarten through eighth grade require all children and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

The toolkit emphasizes schools with students in 9th through 12th grades ensure that anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated, including students, also wear a mask indoors.

“Studies have shown that masks can slow the spread of the virus among those who are unvaccinated. That has not changed,” Cooper said.

State Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen said the best COVID protective measure remains the vaccines.

HHS Sec. Mandy Cohen

“With only 24% of North Carolinians ages 12-17 fully vaccinated, and because anyone under 12 cannot be vaccinated yet, we still have a long way to go,” Cohen told reporters.

In addition to the guidance on mask-wearing the toolkit offers recommendations on physical distancing, PPE and contact tracing in the K-12 setting.

Sec. Cohen said this layered prevention strategy outlined in the toolkit is intended to make the return to school as safe as possible.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt called the new guidance ‘critically important’ while praising local-level decision making.

“As a proponent of local control, I’ve felt the decision on mask mandates should be made by those most in tune with their student population and know that Superintendents, parents, and school boards will act in the best interest of their students,” said Truitt in a released statement.

Dr. Cohen said 94% of  North Carolina’s new positive COVID cases are in people who are unvaccinated. About six percent are breakthrough cases with individuals who have been vaccinated.

“We have seen counties with lower vaccination rates have higher outbreaks, especially with this Delta variant,” said Cooper. “We’re in a race really against COVID-19 and the Delta variant.”

The challenge for health officials is that vaccine-acceptance varies widely across North Carolina.

Robeson County, where 26% of residents are fully vaccinated, has among the lowest rates in the state.

The Robeson County Health Department has hosted vaccination clinics at local libraries and schools to better distribute shots to rural areas. At some locations, people who get vaccinated and adults who drive them to clinics get $15 gift cards.

The Robeson County Church and Community Center is using a state Healthier Together grant to host two vaccination clinics. At the first, free food and school supplies will be available.

The center is also reaching out to churches, to get their leaders who are vaccinated and talk about it, executive director Brianna Goodwin said in a meeting Wednesday morning of NC Rural Coalition Fighting COVID-19.

Personal connections and word of mouth are what sway reluctant people toward getting vaccinated, she said.

If Jesus were on Earth today, he would take the vaccine, she said.

“It is to protect the people around us. Love God, love others. How can we love others if we expose them to something that can be so deadly?”

To date, North Carolina has administered more than 9.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Learn more about the state’s vaccine distribution at myspot.nc.gov. 

Reporter Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.

Report: One in seven North Carolinians behind on their rent with eviction moratorium set to expire

Image: The Pew Charitable Trusts — Source: National Equity Atlas, PolicyLink, USC Equity Research Institute

A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts news outlet Stateline offers more sobering findings on the national rental housing situation. According to data compiled in the National Equity Atlas, a data and policy tool maintained by the University of Southern California and the research firm Policy Link, the number of U.S. renters behind on payments has doubled from 2017 to 2021.

In North Carolina, from May 24 to June 7, the percentage of renters behind on their payments stayed at 14% — a strong indication that rental assistance is not reaching the hands of struggling North Carolinians fast enough with the end of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) eviction ban set for July 31. The report found a total nationwide rent debt of upwards of $20 billion and more than 5.8 million renters behind on their payments as of June 7.

While the CARES Act and two other emergency rental assistance packages enacted by the federal government have directed billions of dollars to individual states in hopes of getting rental and utility assistance into the hands of Americans in need, the distribution process has not been going smoothly in many places — chiefly because state and local agencies were not adequately prepared to deal with the distribution of such large sums in such short order. As a result, the timing for approval of an application for rental assistance can take anywhere from hours to months, depending on where you are located and what organization is helping you.

Since September 2020, the CDC eviction ban has served as a safety net preventing evictions for these renters. The ban has been extended multiple times, but with final expiration now just days away, many advocates and experts foresee a tidal wave of evictions and other negative consequences throughout the country. These fears would appear to be well-founded. When North Carolina didn’t have an eviction ban in place for the 11 weeks prior to the advent of the CDC’s order, the state saw in excess of 15,000 COVID-19 cases and 300 COVID-19 deaths related to evictions according to a study published by the Social Science Research Network. When the current eviction ban expires on July 31 this influx of cases and deaths could happen again.

Despite the recent sobering data, it’s important to note that the current rental housing affordability crisis predates the pandemic. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in March of 2020, (i.e., pre-COVID) only 36 affordable and available rental homes existed for every 100 extremely low-income renters in need. But, of course, the pandemic made things significantly worse. Almost seven in 10 Americans who are behind on their rental payments lost employment at one point during the pandemic according to the research done by the National Equity Atlas.

While the current bleak situation is forcing families to make tough choices between paying the rent, putting food on the table, and paying the electric bill, there are policy options that would go a long way toward protecting renters from short-term and long-term harm. Here are two:

  1. Evictions in North Carolina should be paused while every effort is made to make sure landlords and tenants access the hundreds of millions of dollars of rental assistance that remain available in the HOPE (Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions) program to resolve non-payment of rent eviction cases.
  2. The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should act to seal the eviction records and rental debt of those hardest hit by this pandemic. Doing this would make that information private and help prevent tenants who have struggled during the pandemic to pay rent  from being rejected for future housing applications based upon pandemic related financial hardships.

Raquel Harati is a Housing and Health Policy Intern at the N.C. Justice Center.

NC Department of Labor adopts new federal worker safety standards boosting protection for healthcare workers

The North Carolina Department of Labor announced Wednesday that it will adopt the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s COVID-19 standard, which serves as an enforceable framework to bring employees into workplace safety compliance.

The federal emergency standard is limited in its scope, only applying to healthcare workers. It requires employers in the healthcare industry to develop COVID plans, provide Personal Protective Equipment, make testing available, and remove sick workers while providing normal benefits, among other things.

“We understand that interpreting and implementing these new requirements may be challenging for employers in the healthcare industry, and we stand ready to assist stakeholders who have questions about the new standard,” Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson said in a news release.

Former Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry

As Policy Watch previously reported,  NCDOL failed to inspect the majority of workplaces that received COVID-related workplace safety complaints due to a lack of enforceable standards. Yet former Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry denied workers’ rights groups’ petition for rulemaking that urged the agency to adopt either temporary or permanent standards. Berry ignored evidence indicating clusters of COVID cases in certain industries, such as agriculture and meat processing; She insisted, instead, that the coronavirus is widespread and not specific to workplaces. [Note: The parent organization of Policy Watch, NC Justice Center, represented the petitioners.]

The petition is now under judicial review in the Wake County Superior Court at the request of the petitioners. At an earlier hearing for the review, state counsel for the agency pushed back against the notion of more enforcement and emphasized the department’s role in education. If a judge rules in favor of petitioners, NCDOL would have to engage in the rulemaking process.

“It’s disappointing that the federal government didn’t adopt a broader rule to protect all workers, but NCDOL could still do so,” Carol Brooke, a staff attorney at the Justice Center representing the workers’ groups said in an email.

Instead, the state went no further than the federal regulation.

North Carolina regulates workplace safety with its own state plan, which requires the state’s occupational safety and health program to be at least as effective as the federal OSHA program. Verbatim adoption of the federal emergency standard for COVID ensures the state remains in compliance with the state-plan agreement, the state agency stated in a news release. The new COVID emergency standard will take effect in North Carolina on July 21.

Ongoing COVID-19 emergency declaration is keeping thousands of NC residents better fed

Image: AdobeStock

Enhanced SNAP benefits are taking a bite out of hunger

The extended COVID-19 state of emergency in North Carolina declared by Gov. Cooper means that people who need help buying food will continue to receive enhanced benefits from the federal nutrition program.

Residents of states with emergency declarations receive “emergency allotments” from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which used to be called food stamps.

The American Rescue Plan extended the emergency allotments to September 1. The boost in food purchasing power hinges on both federal and state declarations of emergency remaining in place.

According to information North Carolina provided the federal government, the state expected 784,261 households to receive emergency allotments in June that total $134.7 million. The state estimated that 797,102 households would receive emergency allotments in July that would total $138.4 million.

Some states have canceled their emergency declarations, triggering the end of their supplemental SNAP benefits.

All SNAP households receive emergency allotments that added at least $95 to their monthly benefits. The additional benefits were included in the March 2020 federal coronavirus response act. Some households were excluded by the Trump administration. The Biden administration made all SNAP households eligible. Additionally, federal legislation from December 2020 added 15% to the maximum benefit. The US Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, estimated that the 15% increase for North Carolinians amounts to an average of $28 per month for each person.

SNAP benefits were temporarily increased after the Great Recession. USDA researchers found that low-income households increased spending on food by 5.4% and that food insecurity declined by 2.2 percentage points from 2008 to 2009.

Food insecurity increased as the COVID-19 pandemic forced people out of work. Eighteen percent of people who responded to an NC Central University poll last fall said they had been running short of food.

As infections drop with vaccine distribution, some routines of pre-pandemic life have returned. But people still need help getting all the food they need, said Jacquelyn Blackwell, co-coordinator of End Hunger Durham and executive director of the food bank Feed My Sheep.

The increased SNAP benefit has especially helped older people who without the extra emergency money often must choose between buying vegetables and fruits and buying meat, Blackwell said.

“It’s really helped stretch their budgets,” she said.

Feed My Sheep is open every second and fourth Saturday. In June, the food bank was continuing to see 100 to 125 people come in on those days, numbers largely unchanged from the height of the pandemic. More people come to the food bank at the end of the month when federal benefits are depleted, she said.

Lindsey Haynes-Maslow

The increased food benefit can have a huge impact on people’s lives, said Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, associate professor and extension specialist at NC State University.

The USDA ran a demonstration project starting in 2011 that provided monthly food benefits of $30 a month or $60 a month to children in the summertime when they did not receive free or reduced-price meals at school. It found that as little as $30 a month reduced food insecurity and resulted in the children eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

A nutritious diet is key to maintaining good health, Haynes-Maslow said. Unhealthy diets have been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes.

“If we don’t end up investing in the prevention side, we might end up paying on the insurance side,” she said. “You pay a little now, or you can pay a lot later, if there are health related issues.”

In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last August, California researchers wrote that increased food insecurity in Black, Hispanic, and low-income households will likely outlast COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

More people in North Carolina reported sometimes or often not having enough food in June than they did in April this year, according to the US Census Household Pulse Survey.

The California researchers said the deeper and longer-lasting food insecurity brought on by the pandemic could result in increased illness and death.

A food program called P-BET that provides additional food benefits for children who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price school meals has been extended through the summer in North Carolina.

Researchers at the Sanford Center for Public Policy at Duke University in research published in 2018 found a connection between performance on standardized tests and the timing of food benefits.

They said their findings suggested that increasing benefits would help improve academic achievement for low-income students.

Looking at North Carolina students’ end-of-grade test scores, they found that test performance peaked  for children whose families used SNAP a few weeks after their families received their benefit transfers. EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards, which look like debit cards, are used to buy groceries.

The test score peaks were at 19 days post-transfer for math and at 17 days for reading.

Students were more likely to achieve scores showing grade-level proficiency when they took the reading test 16 days after benefit transfers. They were most likely to show grade-level proficiency in math when they took the test 20 days after benefit transfers.

The findings suggested that increasing benefits would improve academic achievement for low-income students, the researchers wrote.