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State Of Emergency: NC Counties Had Plans For Crises, But We've Never Seen Anything Like This

Emergency Management Coordinators Conor Bake (left), Taylor Jones and Catherine Hughes listen to a webinar presented by Division Director Don Campbell from his office in Greensboro during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, May 14.
Scott Muthersbaugh
Guilford County Emergency Services

North Carolina is no stranger to emergencies. When severe weather moves in — be it an ice storm or hurricane — there's a predictable path, an event that's relatively short, and a recovery that's pre-planned based on years of experience.

This is different. A stealth raider moves across the state in invisible waves. And for the first time, all of North Carolina is under a federal state of emergency as a global pandemic takes root. The state has recorded more than 19,400 cases (as of Tuesday May 19) and the virus has spread across all 100 of the state's counties. There have been 682 deaths from COVID-19, according to DHHS figures.

And yet the adage that "all disasters begin and end at the local level" remains true. Different outbreaks have led to different responses. It's not about urban or rural, large or small, it's about the challenges that each county faces when trying to keep COVID-19 at bay.

What's more, it's the local governments that provide some of the most essential services to residents across the state. When the White House or Gov. Roy Cooper hold press conferences, it naturally gets the most media attention. And not totally without merit. After all, it's those levels of government that hold the levers to the most amount of money. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law by President Trump on March 27, provided more than $2 trillion in relief funding to spread across the nation. Chunks of that money fund the Paycheck Protection Program and other initiatives of the federal government, but a lot of the money was directed to states and local governments.

North Carolina will receive more than $4 billion to use at its discretion. On May 4, Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law the first disbursement of North Carolina's portion. As with the federal disbursements, the state allocated certain funds directly to state agencies, but some $631 million was specifically directed to county governments to use at their disposal. Charlotte, the state's largest city, is included in that direct funding, and there's another at least $150 million held in reserves that could go out to counties in the future. Charlotte was the only North Carolina city to receive direct assistance.

Why Local Government Matters

While Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN rarely give much attention to local governments, it's exactly this level that impacts Americans in the most direct way. It's the local governments that establish emergency operations centers during disasters. It's local police departments and sheriff offices that enforce stay-at-home or social distancing orders. It's waste management and water and sewer departments that make sure trash is collected and clean water gets to homes.

"The sewer pumps still need to pump. 911 still needs to operate. Law enforcement still need to patrol the streets. Garbage still needs to be picked up," says Norma Houston, a UNC-Chapel Hill lecturer in public law and government who specializes in local governments. "Providing those essential services has been incredibly challenging."

It's exactly because this COVID-19 pandemic is so different from the kinds of disasters North Carolina is used to that makes it so difficult to fight.

Certainly, no hurricane or ice storm is welcomed here. But local governments have a playbook for how to fight these disasters. They've seen them before and have learned from mistakes in the past.

"You give us a hurricane here down east and we know what to do," said Houston, who lives in Dare County and commutes to Chapel Hill. "And it can be very devastating, no doubt about it. But operationally, people know what to expect and they know what to do."

A county by county breakdown of where the most COVID-19 cases have been seen. The darker shade indicates higher COVID-19 instances.
Credit N.C. Department of Health and Human Services
A county by county breakdown of where the most COVID-19 cases have been seen. The darker shade indicates higher COVID-19 instances.

As it relates to COVID-19, however, what residents knew about their local situation often varied in the initial weeks. Most counties put out regular, if not daily, updates. But they varied in how much information they provided. Forsyth focused on total cases and number of deaths and how they tracked with the state totals. Mecklenburg County's twice-a-week updates provided information on positive tests, but only those from Atrium and Novant health systems.

Rockingham went further, providing information in their daily report about hospitalizations and recoveries. While Forsyth did not disclose outbreaks, Rockingham announced that their first 19 cases were all tied to a youth rally.

Yadkin County Manager Lisa Hughes says the state helped the transparency issue by creating a dashboard that allows people to find not only their local data but any of the counties surrounding them.

"It can help alleviate fears," she says. "But I also think they can say, 'Hey, it really is around me, so I really do need to practice social distancing. I really do need to think about wearing a mask when I go to the grocery store.' So it gives you a little bit a different perspective when you have more information."

Add in the prolonged nature of this disaster, and it layers on even more complexity for local governments. Consider social services home inspections, for instance. These social workers must enter dozens of homes to check on children or elderly adults who have been placed in protective custody. When required to keep a safe social distance, that becomes incredibly challenging.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. But more importantly, we have no idea where and what the finish line looks like. - Guilford County Emergency Manager Don Campbell

Guilford County emerged as a hotspot in North Carolina not just because of its early heavy caseload but also from the fact that it was hit by hundreds of job losses in the restaurant and hospitality sector in the opening weeks of the shutdown. Some of the rural counties surrounding Guilford and Forsyth were weeks away from their first cases but they eventually came. The Tyson poultry plant outbreak in Wilkes county contributed to case numbers across the region including Guilford, Forsyth and Yadkin counties. So far rural counties have managed with the limited ICU space they have but that could change if hospitalizations ramp up heavily.

Local Government's Role While The State Re-Opens

As Gov. Cooper begins to ease restrictions, it will add pressure on local governments to properly enforce the restrictions that are still in place, but also get the counties back to work.

"In emergency management and emergency response, there's the fact that all disasters start and end locally," says Darshan Patel, the Wake County emergency operations manager. "The local response is always the first one engaged and we're the last ones to go home. And a pandemic is no different."

Patel says Wake County has been stockpiling personal protective equipment and ramping up its testing capabilities and contact tracing program – important measures to have in place in order to stave off a second wave of COVID-19 infections as the state opens back up.

"I think with all of that combined, we can say we will be ready as the phased approach starts to come into play," he says.

With Wake County Public Libraries closed, county workers have been doing Storytime Anytime, making it possible to consume some of the library's popular programs at home.
Credit Wake County / Twitter
With Wake County Public Libraries closed, county workers have been doing Storytime Anytime, making it possible to consume some of the library's popular programs at home.

He also commended Wake residents for largely following health guidelines, which he says helped to keep infections in check.

"We recognize that some of the decisions we made were very hard on our community or hard on our economy. But none of the flattening of the curve things that we implemented would have been possible without the support of our individual residents, visitors, and those who work in Wake County," says Patel. "Making sure that they understood the importance of things like the stay-at-home order, and actually following those stay-at-home orders is really probably the biggest part that helped us continue to push the peak of this off and make sure that our hospitals were not overrun. And we did not have hundreds of thousands of cases just in Wake County, which could have been possible and in an unmitigated scenario."

On Monday, the Wake County board of commissioners allocated nearly $62 million in federal funds to cover the county's COVID-19 response through June 30.

In law enforcement, it's exactly because it's the local government response that matters most that could dictate a possible second wave. Johnston County Sheriff Steve Blizell called the state's 10-person limit on in-person church services "unfair" and "morally wrong," before encouraging people to "HAVE CHURCH!"

And indeed, churches around the state opened their doors, and the coast had more beachgoers spotted around the sandy shores than at any other time during the pandemic. As crowds began to gather in some areas, it made some health directors nervous that it could cause a pickup in the spread of the virus.

It's exactly because this is such a new kind of fight that allows uncertainty to spread. But as with everything else about fighting the coronavirus, local emergency response leaders were taking new challenges head on.

"This is a marathon, not a sprint," says Guilford County's Emergency Manager Don Campbell. "But more importantly, we have no idea where and what the finish line looks like."

Below are county-by-county snapshots, and a breakdown of COVID-19 cases, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services on May 18.

Forsyth County

Public Money

  • Revenue lost from the shutdown (sales taxes, fees, etc.): $10 million (of a $458 million budget)
  • Budget adjustments to deal with pandemic: $500,000
  • What was the money used for? Largely for the costs of employees shifting to work from home.
  • How was it paid for? From county contingency fund
  • State assistance prior to May 1: $0
  • Federal assistance prior to May 1: County public health and emergency services each received just over $225,000 to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the coronavirus outbreak.


Criminal citations for noncompliance: None

The Snapshot: Forsyth County got its first confirmed two cases of COVID-19 on March 12 and as of May 18 had 698 laboratory-confirmed cases and five deaths. More than 200 people had recovered from the disease. Forsyth was the first Triad county to record a COVID-19 fatality.

Guilford County

Public money

  • Revenue lost from the shutdown (sales taxes, fees, etc.): $13-14 million of a $628 million budget. 
  • Budget adjustments to deal with pandemic: Undetermined
  • What was the money used for? Unbudgeted expenses incurred due to COVID including protective equipment, cleaning services and supplies, and staff time.
  • How was it paid for? Reimbursement through CARES Funds.
  • State assistance prior to May 1: $0
  • Federal assistance prior to May 1: $300,641 in April 2020 as part of a state funding allocation for public health to support personnel costs, shelter-in-place costs for the county's homeless population, personal protective equipment, and testing, medical, and other supplies.  (These were originally federal funds, they went to the state first and the state then allocated some of them to Guilford County.) There was an additional $332,600 from the EMS CARES Act to help address EMS service revenue loss


  • Criminal citations for noncompliance: Four people charged in March for not dispersing during abortion protest.
  • Civil actions for noncompliance: Cease and desist orders were sent to a few local businesses that were open despite being deemed non-essential, including at least one vape shop.

The Snapshot: Guilford County reported its first case March 17 and as of May 15 had 768 cases and 45 deaths. 

Davidson County

Public money

  • Revenue lost from the shutdown (sales taxes, fees, etc.): About $17 million
  • Budget adjustments to deal with pandemic: $125,000 
  • What was the money used for: Additional PPE, contact tracing
  • How was it paid for: Contingency fund


  • Criminal citations for noncompliance: none
  • Civil actions for noncompliance: pending

The Snapshot: Davidson County reported its first case on March 19 and as of May 15 had 270 cases and 10 deaths. County officials say the biggest challenge has been finding protective gear for first responders and health care workers. 

Yadkin County

Public money

  • Revenue lost from the shutdown (sales taxes, fees, etc.): Sales tax revenue through March did not appear to be significantly impacted but the county could lose an estimated $2 million in motor vehicle and property taxes.
  • Budget adjustments to deal with pandemic: None 
  • What was the money used for? The county did buy some protective gear for first responders.
  • How was it paid for? From existing budget without adjustments. 
  • State assistance prior to May 1: $0
  • Federal assistance prior to May 1: $0


  • Criminal citations for noncompliance: None
  • Civil actions for noncompliance: None

The Snapshot: Yadkin County got its first case on March 28 and as of May 15 had 95 cases and one death. There has not, as of this point, been a major outbreak within the county but some cases can be traced back to the spread of the virus in a Tyson poultry processing plant in Wilkesboro.

New Hanover County

Public money

  • Revenue lost from the shutdown (sales taxes, fees, etc.): Estimated $9 million dollar loss out of this fiscal year's $398 million dollar budget.
  • Budget adjustments to deal with pandemic: So far, Commissioners have appropriated $1 million for material supplies and staff time. The anticipated shortfall will be made up from the reserve fund.
  • State assistance prior to May 1: $0
  • Federal assistance: $0


  • Criminal citations for noncompliance: None
  • Civil actions for noncompliance: None in the county, but a "handful" of citations in Wrightsville Beach for violating beach and parking restrictions were issued. 

The Snapshot: The first lab-confirmed case in New Hanover County was on March 18. As of May 17, there have been 136 confirmed cases and 3 deaths. Two weeks ago, the county launched a three-day-a-week, free drive-through testing program, with individuals pre-screened for symptoms on a phone hotline, and then given an appointment. So far, 374 tests have been conducted with 16 positives and 358 negatives. 

Mecklenburg County

Public money

Revenue lost from the shutdown (sales taxes, fees, etc.): Charlotte has a $21.8 million shortfall for 2021, City Manager Marcus Jones told WFAE's Charlotte Talks Wednesday. Jones said the city is facing between a 25% and 30% loss in sales tax for the rest of the 2020 fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Budget adjustments to deal with pandemic: Mecklenburg County's budget will increase slightly compared to the previous year. The county is spending about $52 million from its reserves to offset shortfalls from the pandemic.


  • Criminal citations for noncompliance: None
  • Civil actions for noncompliance: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police said officers made eight arrests and cited 12 people on April 4 for violating North Carolina's stay-at-home order. Six additional people were cited for operating businesses in violation of the statute between April 2 and April 23, according to CMPD spokesman Jeffrey Page. 

The Snapshot: Mecklenburg County reported its first two cases of the coronavirus on March 12. As of May 18, the state's health department had reported 2,652 cases and 63 related deaths. 1,263 people had been released from isolation as of May 10, according to county officials. More than a quarter of Mecklenburg's reported cases were Hispanic as of May 10. Hispanics account for roughly 14% of the county's population.

Johnston County

Public Money

  • Johnston County has spent around $100,000 on PPE and supplies like hand sanitizer and disinfectant. It will use the funds allocated from the CARES Act to pay for these expenses.


  • The call center has received numerous calls from citizens with questions regarding the stay-at-home order since we opened the line; however, no citations have been issued.

The Snapshot: Although the county does not report asymptomatic cases, it does report hospitalizations, meaning the county can track the number of positively identified cases that remain at home. The county has reported 19 deaths from COVID-19. Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell said he wouldn't enforce indoor church rules. Emergency Services and the Public Health Department activated an Emergency Operations Center. The county call center is located within the Emergency Services EOC in addition to emergency services senior leadership. The objective of the Emergency Services EOC is to assist the public with general questions and with the coordination of resource requests for personal protective equipment. The health department's EOC is focusing on identification of positive cases, contact tracing, and COVID testing. Operating two EOC's allows social distancing while maintaining appropriate staffing levels.

Orange County

Public Money

  • The county has compiled more than $200,000 in expenditures related to COVID relief. Some of that is accounting for personnel time so is not a direct spend.


  • No citations

The Snapshot: Orange County established an emergency operations center and has been monitoring the coronavirus since February. That includes some staff at the center and others working remotely. The county has reported 34 deaths from COVID-19.

Wake County

Public Money

  • County leaders are working through how to spend the nearly $200 million in CARES funding they received. At least some of the money will be offered to small businesses in a loan fund, which the federal government has said is a qualified expense


  • At least three protesters have been arrested at, or directly after rallies. No other citations for violating stay at home orders have been issued.

The Snapshot: As the county that houses the state capitol, Wake County faces challenges unique among the counties. Protests here have necessitated a police presence, and the State Highway Patrol, Capitol Police and Raleigh Police have helped the Sheriff's Office. Wake County has received the most in CARES funding, but will work with Raleigh and the counties other municipalities, since they did not receive any direct funding. The county had established a stay-at-home order prior to the statewide order, but county officials let that lapse, simply to allow the statewide order to guide policy.

Durham County

Public Money

  • Durham leaders have proposed to set aside $5 million to help with the COVID-19 response, though leaders – including Durham city Mayor Steve Schewel – have said they will likely add to that figure


  • No citations

The Snapshot: COVID-19 cases in Durham county continued to increase into the weekend of May 16, and Durham Mayor Steve Schewel announced an extension of the stay-at-home order. That sends a signal that Durham could be one of the last counties to reopen, and keep tighter restrictions in place, even as Gov. Roy Cooper relaxes statewide restrictions.

WFAE's Claire Donnelly, WHQR's Doc Jarden, and BPR's Matt Bush contributed to this report. The newsrooms of WUNC, WFDD, WFAE, WHQR, and BPR collaborated to survey local governments and track their responses to the coronavirus.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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