During a COVID-19 telephone press conference on Nov. 17, The Times asked N.C. Governor Roy Cooper about how COVID positive cases among inmates affect the county’s numbers and ranking in the new County Alert system, which maps viral spread.
The County Alert System pinpoints counties with the highest levels of viral spread and offer specific recommendations to bring numbers down. Unfortunately, Alexander County and nine others, including Wilkes, are among the highest rated counties for viral spread.
For the period of Nov. 1-14, Alexander County was placed in the Critical/Red category, with a 14-day testing rate of 16.8 percent positive and a 14-day case rate of 914.7 cases per 100,000 residents. (Alexander County has less than 40,000 residents. Its number of cases on Nov. 9 was 134 people were in quarantine with COVID-19 including approximately 60 inmates and four employees at the Alexander Correctional Institution.)
The COVID-19 County Alert System uses a combination of three metrics: case rate, the percent of tests that are positive, and hospital impact within the county. Counties without a hospital are assigned the average hospital impact score from the county where the highest percentage of their inpatient hospital admissions occurred.
“First, our thoughts and prayers, and our efforts, are with you all in Alexander County, as you’ve dealt with this tragic flooding that has occurred, with the loss of life there. And in the middle of a pandemic, that is a very difficult situation that you all are dealing with,” said Gov. Cooper.
“We hope that with this new county metric system, the County Alert system, that it can pull communities together, along with the State Department of Public Safety, things that we can do to slow the spread of the virus in the county. We are always concerned about people who are in congregate living. That includes correctional centers. Part of the effort to quarantine is people who potentially may have been exposed, to separate them from the rest of the population,” the governor related.
DPS Secretary speaks
Erik Hooks, Secretary of the Dept. of Public Safety, answered with the following: “We are able to dig into the data a little deeper so that we know what is in a state facility, versus what may be in some of the larger metrics that may come out from DHHS. We are well partnered with them to abate COVID-19 in all of our facilities as well. One of the things that we certainly do take note of is that often, individuals who live in those counties work in those same facilities. So, it may be a reflection of some of the officers and people that work in that particular correctional facility that may drive in, but they may also live in that county as well.”
DHHS Secretary explains rating
Dr. Mandy Cohen, NC Secretary of Health and Human Services, stated, “We do notate, when we put out our metrics for counties, if a county has more than 25 percent of their cases from a congregate living setting, we say that there may be different strategies that we may want to employ, such as Alexander County. I haven’t looked at their specific data, but it sounds like more than 25 percent of their cases are coming from the correctional facility, of the total, we may want to work with the county and have some very targeted strategies as we go forward here.”
Dr. Cohen added, “I think Secretary Hooks is exactly right: the virus gets into these facilities, whether that’s a nursing home or a prison, from the community. And then that virus then returns to the community from those settings. So it’s really important that we did include those in our metrics as we calculated where does a county fall, in terms of red, orange, and yellow. There may be different strategies we want to employ, depending on if you have a larger outbreak in a congregate living setting. But I think it’s an important thing to note that virus, as Secretary Hooks said, does go into those facilities from the community, and comes back out into the community. So it’s important that we are tracking that as part of our overall efforts, too.”
To be assigned to the red or orange tier, a county must meet the threshold for case rate for that tier AND the threshold for either percent positive OR hospital impact.
• Case Rate: The number of new cases in 14 days per 100,000 people
• Percent Positive: The percent of tests that are positive over 14 days
• Hospital Impact: A composite score based on the impact that COVID-19 has had on hospitals including percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations, COVID-19 related visits to the Emergency Department, staffed open hospital beds, and critical staffing shortages over 14 days.
Counties that do not meet criteria for red or orange are categorized as being in the yellow tier (significant community spread) and should continue to be vigilant to prevent further spread of COVID-19.
The Alert System includes recommendations for individuals, businesses, community organizations and public officials in every county, as well as specific stepped-up recommendations for orange and red counties.
Individuals in red and orange counties should take the actions listed for All Individuals AND the actions below to slow the spread of COVID-19 in their community:
• Limit mixing between households and minimize the number of people in your social circle.
• Avoid settings where people congregate, like outdoor bars and night clubs (in NC, indoor bars remain closed and indoor night clubs must remain below indoor mass gathering limits).
• If patronizing restaurants, consider ordering take out from restaurants and/or eating outdoors socially distanced.
• Individuals who are high-risk for developing serious illness should consider staying at home as much as possible.
• Reduce your public interactions to mainly essential activities like going to work or school, caring for family members, buying food, getting health care or picking up medications.
Businesses and organizations
Businesses and community organizations in red and orange counties should take actions listed below:
• All businesses are strongly encouraged to implement teleworking if feasible and cancel any non-essential work travel.
• Promote Find My Testing Place website to employees.
• Require all employees to participate in Count on Me NC training.
• Manufacturing, construction, food processing, farms – request a consultation from NCDHHS on reducing workplace transmission (919-707-5900).
• Institutes of Higher Education should: Adopt strict restrictions on student gatherings and events on-campus and off-campus, close indoor dining and move to grab and go, consider moving to single occupancy dorms or other single occupancy living arrangements.
• Community and religious organizations should avoid any in-person indoor meetings, events, worship services, or other gatherings above the indoor mass gathering limit (ten people).
Public officials in red and orange counties should:
• Meet with State officials to discuss plans for mitigating spread.
• Work with the state to expand availability of no-cost testing to residents, especially prior to holiday travel.
• Work with the state to increase availability of non-congregate housing.
• Increase messaging on the risk of serious disease for older individuals and individuals in all age groups with certain underlying medical conditions identified by CDC, and recommend those individuals stay at home as much as possible.
• Adopt ordinances that allow for the use of civil penalties for enforcement of the statewide restrictions.
• Increase enforcement of mass gathering limits and masks with local law enforcement or other local regulators or inspectors, such as the fire marshal.
• Consider adopting local ordinances to end alcohol sales for onsite consumption at an earlier time.
• Consider adopting local ordinances with additional restrictions for public facing businesses.