••Four cases of COVID-19 in Hoke, 86 tested so far••
By Catharin Shepard •
Staff writer •
The COVID-19 coronavirus and the steps taken by officials to slow its spread continued this week to affect many aspects of daily life in Hoke County, and across the country.
There were nearly 1,500 known cases of COVID-19 across the state as of Monday, with four of those known cases attributed to Hoke County. That total included a soldier from Fort Bragg who lives in Hoke but was isolated on post; another person who is also connected to Fort Bragg, and tested positive after being screened at an urgent care center in Cumberland County; a contractor who works in New York and has not been to Hoke County in a while; and a Hoke resident who became the first known local case on March 18.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statewide stay-at-home order that went into effect Monday. Except for tasks such as going to work at an essential job, buying food or going outside for exercise, everyone in the state should otherwise stay at home, according to the governor’s office.
The changes to daily routine are “really, really hard,” and most people alive today have never lived through a time like this, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said.
“In many ways this is like a war right here at home, and our enemy is this virus,” she said Monday during a live streamed press conference.
The order issued last week was one of a series of gubernatorial edicts that closed North Carolina public schools until at least May 15, shut down restaurant and bar dining rooms and closed many recreation and personal grooming businesses that could not guarantee social distancing. The order also banned gatherings of more than 10 people, in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While the illness has community transmission in the state, it doesn’t appear to be spreading widely from person-to-person in Hoke County at this time, Hoke County Health Department Director Helene Edwards said Tuesday. Surrounding counties also have relatively few cases at the moment.
“That’s a good thing, “ Edwards said. “Hopefully with the latest executive order, with (executive order) 121, we won’t have a lot of problems with just essential people working and doing day to day stuff, going to the grocery store and keeping social distancing.”
A total of 86 people in Hoke had been tested for COVID-19 as of Friday. The majority of those tests, over 50 of them, were taken at FirstHealth of the Carolinas’ Hoke campus emergency room, Edwards said.
Eight people in North Carolina have died from the illness or complications related to it, and more than 150 people across the state were hospitalized for treatment for the virus, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).
More than 23,000 people statewide have been tested for the illness. Physicians were still waiting for the results of another 8,000 tests pending processing. The health agency is also tracking the capacity of hospitals to deal with a potential “surge” in the number of patients requiring care due to COVID-19.
Some hospital systems, such as Cape Fear Valley Health, warned of a strain on the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves to help keep doctors and nurses safe from the infectious disease. Donations of PPE poured in from church ministries last week, and this week a third shipment of PPE from the National Strategic Stockpile arrived in Raleigh, Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said. Members of the National Guard and Air National Guard were helping with the shipments.
Hoke County Emergency Management is working to help keep supplies flowing to the medical agencies that need them, coordinator Andrew Jacobs said.
“Emergency Management’s primary function here in Hoke County is to manage resource requests. We’re working with North Carolina Emergency Management to ensure that our public and private partners are protected as best we can,” he said Monday.
That includes equipment such as n95 masks, surgical masks, gowns, face shields and hand sanitizer, Jacobs said. Those items come indirectly through the state agency and directly from vendors, when they’re available.
“Resources are scarce everywhere,” Jacobs said.
So far the Hoke Health Department’s stock of supplies is holding out, Edwards said. The health department has also made changes to how it sees patients to keep the risk of spreading the illness to a minimum. The department is also taking the temperature of employees and screening them with a questionnaire every day.
“We’re doing business as usual but it’s at a slower pace, with a skeleton crew,” Edwards said.
Due to the limitations – and backlog – of the current tests available for COVID-19, physicians are offering testing only for people who are sick with COVID-19 symptoms and have tested negative for the flu. Currently it’s taking about five days from the time the physician takes the sample to get the test results back, Edwards said. People with symptoms such as a fever, cough and difficulty breathing should isolate themselves and call their doctor or the health department.
While there is a lot of uncertainty, people can take action by following the guidelines to keep themselves and others safe, Cohen said in remarks.
“There are many things that are not within our control right now and that’s really hard. But there are some things we can do,” she said. “We can act where we can. Stay home. We can make sure that we’re the healthiest we can possibly be. We can do this. We’re strong, and we’re in this together.”
<02>Unemployment a reality
<01>As North Carolina and many other states across the country put measures in place requiring businesses to shut their doors, hundreds of thousands of employees faced sudden layoffs or reduction in the number of hours they work. The N.C. Division of Employment Security has received an “unprecedented” number of unemployment insurance claims since March 17, according to the state. More than 270,000 people filed claims over the last two weeks, most of them related to COVID-19, compared to the more typical 7,500 unemployment benefit claims filed during the first two weeks of March.
“Thousands of workers have lost jobs, but their bills don’t stop. My administration is working overtime to get unemployment checks out now. We’ll keep pushing every day for more state and federal help to save our workers and their families,” Cooper said in a media statement.
Local and regional numbers for recent claims aren’t available yet, so it’s not clear how many people in Hoke County have filed for unemployment insurance in the last two weeks, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Commerce said.
The first unemployment checks were expected to go out this week to people who lost work due to COVID-19, the governor’s office announced. The state was also seeking guidance from the federal government about how to implement an additional $600 a week unemployment payment, as included in the recently approved federal CARES Act.
“The state expects those payments to begin approximately two weeks after that guidance is provided,” Cooper’s office said in a press release Monday.
It takes about 14 days to receive first payment after filing an unemployment insurance benefits claim. The additional $600 in federal benefits will be for weeks ending April 4-July 31, and benefits owed will be paid retroactively, according to the Employment Security’s website.
<02>Even funerals affected
<01>For people grieving the loss of a loved one, holding a large public funeral or memorial service might be impossible at the moment due to the restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather in the same place. There have also been a few other issues cropping up, Crumpler Funeral Home director Kel Crumpler said. The funeral home was assisting a family in having their loved one interred at Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery, only to come up against a COVID-19 restriction.
“They will not allow any of the family members to go to the cemetery, so we’re having to carry him to the cemetery with no family members, and after the service they can come to the graveside,” Crumpler said.
Some funeral homes are taking strict precautions. Crumpler’s brother-in-law works at another funeral home that checked the temperature and recorded the name of each visitor who arrived for a service, and also kept the number of people allowed to a minimum, Crumpler said.
The Crumpler Funeral Home chapel is still open for now, but the few burials the funeral home has handled recently have been graveside services, Crumpler said.
Buie Funeral Home’s chapel is also open, but they’re following the restrictions on gatherings too, Gloria Buie said.
“We had to make changes, we have to have smaller services,” she said.
Buie Funeral Home has additionally moved to doing some business over the phone instead of in person, such as taking information from families.
• County, city offices keep operating
• Hoke County and the city of Raeford local government offices are still open and providing services, but all county buildings are closed to the public. County Manager Letitia Edens announced in a public notice that beginning Tuesday, some offices would allow face-to-face business by appointment only.
“Hoke County Government will be implementing additional steps to limit the exposure of our staff and citizens to COVID-19 and other infections. Our main priority is the safety and security of our community,” Edens wrote in the notice.
Some of the agencies only seeing people by appointment include the Department of Social Services, Senior Services and Planning and Zoning.
Additionally, any events planned for Hoke County facilities must follow the governor’s mandatory rule of canceling all events with over 10 people. That’s subject to change based on future updates, Edens wrote in the notice.
The Raeford City Council postponed its upcoming meeting in April, moving it from April 6 to April 20. The city also sent word that it had closed its public playgrounds, but said parks and walking trails remain open at this time.
“Please maintain social distancing, avoid gathering in groups and practice frequent hand washing at all times. The city’s priority is protecting the health and safety of our residents and continuing to serve you,” the announcement said.
The city and the county elected to temporarily pause water service cut-offs for nonpayment during the state of emergency. Duke Energy and Lumbee River EMC likewise have halted disconnections for nonpayment at the moment. However, the bills must still be paid and will accrue if unpaid. There is no waiver of normal billing amounts.
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