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Cooper Says More Testing Supplies Needed

A view of Glenwood South, a normally bustling part of downtown Raleigh, almost completely empty due to COVID-19.
Jason deBruyn

Governor Roy Cooper is responding to the new guidelines for reopening the country announced by President Trump. 

In a state briefing Friday afternoon, Cooper said he was glad to see that the president's criteria largely mirror what North Carolina is doing. And the governor said decisions about easing restrictions will depend on testing.

"But I and other governors around the country have been clear − we still need assistance with testing supplies and personal protective equipment," he said. "The president has left the responsibility to me as governor to make decisions about how and when we ease restrictions. I accept that, but when governors are faced with global supply chain breakdowns when it comes to supplies and equipment, the federal government must help more."

Cooper said he's thankful for the help the state has gotten from the federal government so far, but that it's not enough. The state needs a lot more masks, gowns and gloves. Without those supplies, he said it will be hard to collect the samples and do the testing to reopen the state safely.

Commerce officials also said Friday that North Carolina was tripling the staff handling unemployment claims as the state faces a crush of hundreds of thousands requests. And an outbreak at a North Carolina prison grew to more than 250 inmates.

Cooper said Friday that more than 73,000 coronavirus tests have been performed by public and private labs around the state, but testing still needs to increase to allow him to evaluate when restrictions can be eased.

The governor's stay-at-home order that limits nonessential businesses is in effect through April 29. Earlier in the week, he announced a framework for gradually reopening the state's economy that will hinge on more widespread testing, extensive efforts to track down people in contact with the sick and slowed case and hospitalization rates.

On Friday, the state's employment security division announced it will have increased its staffing to 1,600 by the end of next week to handle unemployment claims, more than triple its normal workforce. That includes temporary staff and private call center workers. The state has received a surge of more than 630,000 unemployment claims in the past month, most of them attributed to the economic slowdown spurred by efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Some out-of-work residents have complained of difficulty getting their claims processed.

"This will be the largest number of people working to provide unemployment benefits in North Carolina's history," Lockhart Taylor, assistant secretary of the Division of Employment Security, said in a statement.

State health officials reported more than 5,800 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Friday, up by about 400 since the previous day. The state said about 150 people have died and more than 400 are currently hospitalized.

State and federal corrections officials are also fighting outbreaks at prisons in North Carolina. State prisons Commissioner Todd Ishee said during a media briefing that 259 inmates had tested positive as of Friday afternoon at Neuse Correctional Institution, a state prison in Goldsboro. He said none currently require hospitalization and that 98% of those testing positive were asymptomatic. All 700 inmates have been tested but some test results are pending. Those who test positive are being separated from inmates who don't have the virus, and additional medical and security staff are being sent to assist at the facility. Ishee said no coronavirus-related deaths have been reported at any state prisons.

Meanwhile, the federal Board of Prisons reported that more than 50 inmates and 25 staff have tested positive for the virus at the medium-security federal correctional institution in Butner, making it among the largest outbreaks in the federal system. Another 14 inmates have tested positive at the nearby low-security prison in Butner, and the two facilities have a combined four deaths.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, and the vast majority survive. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause pneumonia or death.

The Associated Press contributed.

Cole del Charco is an audio producer and writer based in Durham. He's made stories for public radio's All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Marketplace. Before joining Due South, he spent time as a freelance journalist, an education and daily news reporter for WUNC, and a podcast producer for WFAE in Charlotte.
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