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NC Leaders Talk Cooperation As Deaths Grow

Empty public space in downtown Raleigh.
Jason deBruyn

North Carolina's elected officials on Tuesday pledged cooperation and prepared for prolonged social distancing restrictions as COVID-19- related deaths jumped by a third statewide. Worries also deepened about the growing number of infections behind prison and jail bars.

"We will get through this, particularly we will get through this if everyone does his or her part," Gov. Roy Cooper said during the regular monthly meeting of the Council of State, composed of the 10 statewide executive branch leaders.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who said he tested positive about two weeks ago, participated in the Council conference call days after being released from hospital treatment. Still sounding weak, Folwell called the experience "very, very intense" and thanked council members for their prayers.

The Department of Health and Human Services reported 46 deaths related to COVID-19 as of Tuesday morning, compared to 33 on Monday. More than 3,200 cases have now been reported statewide and over 350 of them were now hospitalized.

Cooper has issued a statewide stay-at-home order, barred gatherings of more than 10 people and directed restaurants to offer only take-out or delivery. His administration has started laying the groundwork to extend these orders beyond late April. Cooper is citing findings by local health researchers that extending social distancing mandates will make it more likely the state won't run out of hospital beds.

"We have a much better chance of not overwhelming our medical system, and a much better chance of saving lives," he said.

As in other states, North Carolina officials are worried about the virus invading nursing homes, long-term care facilities and prisons. Both an assisted living center in Henderson County and adult care home in Northampton have reported over 20 positive cases among residents.

About 40 inmates at a federal medium security prison in Butner, north of Raleigh, have tested positive, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, making it the largest current cluster in the system. More than a dozen inmates also have tested positive at a low-security federal prison nearby, the bureau said.

The local health department director, Lisa Macon Harrison, told The News & Observer of Raleigh that she didn't see evidence that the Butner federal prison complex, comprised of four facilities and 4,700 inmates, was spreading the virus to the broader public.

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.

State prisons on Tuesday began a two-week moratorium on accepting offenders from county jails and dramatic reductions in transfer between prisons. Cases have turned up at three state prisons so far.

Disability Rights North Carolina urged on Tuesday county sheriffs and local district attorneys to reduce inmate populations in jails, saying too many are already overcrowded. The group said many of those jailed simply can't pay their bonds or are serving time for non-violent misdemeanors.

The chief of North Carolina's unemployment benefits office told legislators on Tuesday that he was bringing hundreds of workers on board to help with claims questions, including rudimentary work such as resetting passwords for benefit system users. The department has received over 445,000 initial claims in three weeks.

At the Council meeting, State Auditor Beth Wood offered Cooper her department's workers to perform other duties. Movement restrictions means her agency would soon be running out of regular reports to complete, she said: "I'm offering all of us, myself included. I can answer a phone and take notes."

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