More COVID-19 deaths at retirement center, Cooper urges schools to reopen as vaccine rollout continues

By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Eight more people at Open Arms retirement center have died after testing positive for COVID-19 as the facility continues battling an outbreak of the contagious illness, health officials said this week.

Eleven of the facility’s residents have died of coronavirus-related causes since the outbreak was first reported in late December, according to the Hoke County Health Department. The deaths are the highest toll from a single known outbreak in Hoke since the start of the pandemic.

The retirement center is conducting frequent testing, and as of last week was still seeing more people test positive for COVID-19. By January 25, 31 residents and 15 staff members had tested positive. Four days later on January 29, 11 more residents and two more staff members had tested positive, according to the Health Department.

Efforts to vaccinate long-term care facility residents and staff members are still underway, coordinated by the federal government and administered by Walgreens and CVS pharmacies.

So far 48 people in Hoke County have died of COVID-19, including 12 deaths since Christmas Day, Health Department Director Helene Edwards said.

Hoke’s COVID-19 deaths in January 2021 included an African-American man who died January 26; an African-American man who died January 24; an African-American woman who died January 24; an African-American woman who died January 23; a white woman who died January 21; an African-American man who died January 19; an African-American man who died January 15; an African-American man who died January 8; an African-American woman who died January 7; an African-American woman who died January 4; and a Hispanic woman who died January 3.

More than 9,500 people in all of North Carolina have died of coronavirus-related causes since the start of the pandemic, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). The state has seen more than 764,200 cases of the virus, with the majority since considered recovered from the contagious illness.

As of Tuesday, Hoke County had seen more than 3,500 known positive cases of the virus since March 2020. That includes 346 new cases over the last 14 days, including 157 new cases over the last seven days.

North Carolina is currently seeing an overall decrease in the number of new cases, the number of hospitalizations and the number of deaths after a weeks-long spike set records in all of those metrics.

By the end of January more than a million people in the state had received at least one dose of the two-dose inoculation again the coronavirus, NCDHHS reported. That includes over 955,000 people vaccinated by N.C. providers, and more than 100,000 people vaccinated through the federal long-term care program.

Cooper urges return to school

State Board of Education members joined North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen Tuesday in urging public schools to reopen for in-person learning, while following safety protocols.

Cooper “strongly urged” that all schools provide in-person learning and maintain strong health safety measures. Students should still have remote learning options for the school year, and teachers who are at risk should have the option to provide remote instruction, but in-person learning is key for students, Cooper said.

The announcement came on the heels of studies continuing to show that children, particularly young children, are less likely to get and spread COVID-19 than adults, Cohen said. When young children do get COVID-19, they typically experience only mild symptoms, and it’s most often the case that they got it from somewhere outside a school, she said.

Even with the thousands of children and teachers attending “We have seen few COVID-19 clusters in our schools,” Cohen said.

Cooper praised schools for their dedication throughout the pandemic.

“Our educators and school staff have never stopped showing up for our students,” he said.

State Board of Education leaders supported the call for a return to in-person learning, noting that many children also rely on schools for meals, social-emotional development and support.

The state is recommending Plan A for elementary students; and Plan B for middle and high school students, to allow for adequate social distancing in school settings, Cohen clarified.

Currently Hoke County Schools are online-only through February 19. The school system plans to resume a hybrid two-day-a-week schedule of in-person classes February 22, with online-only an option for families who don’t want their children to attend face-to-face classes.

Vaccine efforts continue

The Health Department, Cape Fear Valley Health and FirstHealth of the Carolinas continue working to vaccinate more people in Hoke County. Currently the state is vaccinating people in Group 1 and Group 2, which means anyone who is 65 years old or older, and any healthcare worker can receive the vaccine. Supplies remain limited, though providers are set to receive more doses of the vaccine each week.

The Hoke County Health Department received an initial supply of 1,400 first doses of the vaccine, and had fully depleted that supply as of last Wednesday, Edwards said.

“The Hoke County Health Department is doing a superb job with vaccinations,” she said.

The department expected to receive about 900 more first doses Tuesday. Staff members had already started making appointments for people on the waiting list to come in and receive their vaccination.

The Health Department has asked the state if the county can move on to vaccinating people in Group 3, Edwards said. Group 3 includes essential workers who are age 50 or older. People 50 or older who work in grocery stores, food processing facilities, industrial companies, for a school system or in frontline public services would be able to get the vaccine.

In particular, getting educators and school staff vaccinated could be a big help in getting schools back open, Edwards said.

“They really want to get back into school and I really would love to support them in those efforts to go back to school,” Edwards said.

The vaccine rollout requires providers to enter information into the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Management System database in order to confirm and track that the vaccine is being administered to people. Counties that don’t successfully use up the vaccine supply and report that data might receive less vaccine the next week, or could even get put on hold, Edwards explained.

“One of the stipulations that the state has is that for our vaccines, we receive them on a Tuesday, we need to make sure that we get them exhausted and entered into the CVMS system by the following Monday. So if we don’t do that 100 percent, there’s a chance of you losing vaccine from our base from what we get, or you might have a hold,” Edwards said. “So this is one thing to make sure that the data is entered into the CDC and it’s accounted for. We’ve been doing an awesome job with it.”

To help with the vaccine distribution, six Air National Guard members deployed from a post in western North Carolina and have been assisting the Hoke Health Department.

“They help with vaccinating and entering in the data, so we’re very glad to have them,” Edwards said.

It’s not only Hoke residents who are getting their COVID-19 shots at the local Health Department. People from as far away as Florida and even a person from California who was in town visiting family have come in for an appointment, and the department has also vaccinated people from surrounding counties like Scotland and Moore, Edwards said.

The Health Department is also working with the two local hospital systems, which are also conducting their own vaccination programs.

Cape Fear Valley Health is currently offering vaccine appointments for people age 65 or older, and healthcare workers who haven’t been vaccinated yet.

FirstHealth of the Carolinas Moore Regional – Hoke Hospital is working with primary care providers to offer the vaccine through its FirstShot program. Eligible people interested in getting the vaccine through FirstShot can contact their primary care provider.

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