Mar 19, 2020

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper March 19 Coronavirus Transcript

North Carolina Coronavirus March 19
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North Carolina governor Roy Cooper gave a March 19 COVID-19 news briefing to the state. Read the transcript here.

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Roy Cooper: (00:00)
… you need help buying groceries.

Roy Cooper: (00:02)
After my request over the weekend, North Carolina has received a disaster declaration from the Small Business Administration that will open up support for small businesses that are already feeling the pain of losses due to this pandemic.

Roy Cooper: (00:19)
After my executive order to make unemployment benefits more widely available, we have seen a dramatic spike in applications for assistance as restaurants, shops, and other businesses make those hard layoff decisions to try and stay afloat. We’re working with our congressional delegation in Washington to help North Carolina.

Roy Cooper: (00:44)
We’ve heard many positive announcements from companies that are waiving late fees and penalties for people who have a hard time making ends meet. We need more of this and I urge other businesses to do the same. I’m thankful for many businesses who have donated supplies and equipment and food, and who are helping people in our community and our state, and I thank them.

Roy Cooper: (01:11)
To the many North Carolinians who are worried about what this means for your families and your livelihoods, please know that you will not be forgotten.

Roy Cooper: (01:23)
Yesterday, I joined a virtual meeting with hundreds of faith leaders from across our state. I thanked them for abiding by our restrictions on large gatherings and for finding new ways to help people connect with each other and their faith. They may not be able to hold in-person services, but they are still finding ways to serve. I’m deeply grateful for their work as they bring others together and bring communities together.

Roy Cooper: (01:59)
In the past, I’ve stood at this podium on sunny days with a Tar Heel, blue sky outside and warned about a hurricane that may be on the way. It’s hard to grasp that a hurricane is coming before the worst hits. We know that this situation will get worse before it gets better.

Roy Cooper: (02:23)
And I know that people are shell shocked. One day you’re at work and you’re going about your business, and the next day your world has turned upside down. You’re home. Your children are out of school for an indefinite period. You can’t shake hands or hug people. You can’t go and sit down in your favorite cafeteria. You can’t go to church. You worry about every cough. The change is dramatic.

Roy Cooper: (02:57)
Please know this. Know that we are doing all we can to help all of us deal with this crisis, but we need you. We need you to take this seriously. To take care of your own health including your mental health. To practice social distancing and to stay home when you can. To help and comfort others. We will get through this and we’ll be even better on the other side.

Roy Cooper: (03:33)
I have with me on stage today our secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Mandy Cohen; our director of Emergency Management, Mike Sprayberry; our assistant secretary for Employment Security, Lockhart Taylor, who can help with questions about unemployment benefits; and I know that our secretary of commerce, Tony Copeland is also in the building today. Nicole Fox is our sign language interpreter. And I would first like to recognize Dr. Cohen, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services for her remarks.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (04:17)
Thank you, Governor. I’m going to talk in more detail about what it means to have our first documented and confirmed case of community spread, and how it changes what we will all do. In the first phase of our response effort, we’ve been in what is called a containment phase. Let me break that down a bit to help you understand what that is and then how we move forward.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (04:45)
At an onset of an outbreak, we want to know who has COVID-19? How did they get it? We want to figure out who they had contact with so we can attempt to contain the virus and keep it from spreading for as long as possible. We have seen that delay in spread here in North Carolina, and it has helped us further prepare and ready us for the next phase of the response.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (05:12)
As we now have confirmation that we have community spread, which means we have at least one case where we don’t know how someone contracted COVID-19. They didn’t have contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or they didn’t travel to a highly impacted area.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (05:31)
Confirmed communities spread is a signal that we need to further accelerate to the next phase of work, which is called mitigation. As I’ve shared previously, we’ve already been taking actions as if we knew we had community spread to get ahead of this virus.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (05:53)
The governor’s taken aggressive actions to limit large gatherings, closed restaurants and bars, all with the goal of flattening the curve. We need to lessen the number of people who get sick at the same time, and avoid overwhelming our hospitals and healthcare system. Our goal is protecting you.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (06:14)
As we move into this next phase, we need to continue to reduce the chances for spread and exposure, and protect our healthcare system so that it’s there when you need it. People are a key resource, our doctors, nurses, janitors, transporters, phlebotomist, respiratory therapists, and the many more who work in healthcare. They need to have supplies, masks, gowns, gloves to keep them safe and healthy so that they can care for those who need more serious medical attention.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (06:50)
As the governor mentioned, hospitals will need to stop doing elective procedures and surgeries. I want to thank again those hospitals that have already shown leadership in moving in that direction. Testing for people with mild illness will also become less important as we transition to this next phase.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (07:11)
We will begin to deploy other surveillance methods to understand the spread of virus and drive our decision-making. And more importantly, we want to reduce the chances that people will be exposed to the virus or expose others.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (07:28)
As we transition our work over these next days to this second phase of work, we are learning from other countries and states that have come before us. We want to be best prepared to keep our health system strong as possible so that they are there when folks need them. That’s why we’ve been aggressive about the social distancing measures we put in place and why everyone must do their part to slow the spread of this virus.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (07:57)
Our individual actions matter, so remember to practice social distancing. Those who are at higher risk of needing more serious medical care, those over 65 or with an underlying health condition should stay home to the extent possible. There is limited information so far about COVID-19 in pregnant women, but we know they’re at higher risk from influenza, the flu, or other respiratory viruses, so I would encourage pregnant women to be extra vigilant.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (08:33)
I know this can be a challenging time, but it’s important to remember that the vast majority of people who get COVID-19 will have a mild illness and will recover at home. I also want to reiterate that these changes we are making in our daily life are hard, as the governor mentioned, and all of this can take a toll on our mental health, so I want to remind people that support is available and to go look for resources on our website. That’s NCDHHS-

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (09:01)
Is on our website. That’s ncdhhs.gov/coronavirus. Thank you.

Roy Cooper: (09:12)
We have on the end the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety, Eric Hooks. And under him is our emergency management director, Mike Sprayberry, and a director Sprayberry I’ll recognize you for a couple of remarks.

Mike Sprayberry: (09:25)
Thank you Governor and good afternoon everyone. The State Emergency Operations Center remains activated for the Covid 19 event, for it’s now been for 10 days. It’s at a level three, which means we have Emergency Management Personnel as well as partners from Public Health, OEMS, the Office of Emergency Medical Services, the Department of Public Instruction and others. So 10 days, like I said, morale remains high though. We also stood up our 211 line yesterday and we’ve gotten a lot of calls there. And I’d just recommend everybody to continue to call 211 if you have any questions at all. And it doesn’t have to be just for Coronavirus. It can also be for questions about where to get food and things like that. We encourage people to call 211 rather than 911, because we don’t want to overload our 911 systems, which is for emergencies.

Mike Sprayberry: (10:25)
We also encourage people to, when they go to grocery stores, please understand that there are people out there that can’t go buy all their groceries at one time. Let’s make sure that you buy commodities in a very methodical, intentional way so that we don’t empty out of the grocery stores. Currently their food supply lines are working well and we want to keep them just like that. Here at the state EOC, we’re ordering supplies and equipment as needed. And that’s keeping us very busy. And because as you know, there are things like personal protective equipment and things like that. So we want to make sure that we have all of our healthcare responders and our emergency responders ready to go. Finally, I’d just like to thank all of our local partners for all the great work that they’re doing. We couldn’t do it without you. I want to encourage you to follow the guidance of CDC and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and we’ll get through this together. One team, one mission. Thank you, sir.

Roy Cooper: (11:31)
Thank you, Mike. We’ll now take questions and ask you to go to the mics on the corner there.

reporter 1: (11:37)
Governor, there will be a teleconference with the President later on this afternoon. What do you hope to get out that? What specifically would you be asking the President?

Roy Cooper: (11:47)
We need to make sure that North Carolina and other states get critical medical supplies, equipment, testing supplies. We’re also concerned about making sure that the Federal Government addresses the economic loss that our State and other states are facing. As you could tell from the dramatic spike in people applying for unemployment insurance, after I issued my executive order, giving more flexibility to the rules. That this is going to be hard on our economy. And people at home are wondering about that next rent payment. They’re worried about whether they’re going to be able to support their families, so we’re going to need a significant infusion of help from the Federal Government.

Roy Cooper: (12:41)
They’ve already passed some legislation that’s going to be important on food nutrition, which is good. And some help for people with paid sick leaves. I think we’re all going through it to figure out exactly what it means to North Carolinians. But we’re going to tell them that they need to use their power. And I think that they, for the last couple of days at least, we’ve seen some real engagement from the Federal Government. I know that I’ve been in video conferences and have spoken with both the President and the Vice President to continue to update them on what’s happening in North Carolina. We’re going to need their help. We’re going to need all of the businesses to pull together, and we will get through this

reporter 1: (13:27)
One follow up question. This is kind of directed to both you and Dr. Cohen. Since we now have a confirmed case of community transmission, how does this change the metric in terms of any further measures you might be looking at such as potential shelter in place, anything like that?

Roy Cooper: (13:45)
I think the first thing we have to do is to make sure that we are prepared with our medical treatment. We know the first sign that we have found of community spread means that we’re going to have many more patients, so making sure that we are mobilizing our resources to ramp up our ability to take care of people. We’ve got to focus on that, but I’ll let Dr. Cohen.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (14:13)
Yeah, so I would say now that we have our first documented case of community spread, it certainly reminds us why we put in these aggressive measures to begin with. And what I would encourage folks is to make sure that they are following our guidance very closely. It is why we have asked for no gatherings above 50, the enforcement level is at a hundred. But we’d really want folks to be following the CDC guidance which says no more than 50 folks gathering for the next eight weeks.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (14:46)
The President has called on folks to not gather with more than 10 for the next… We’re in into his 15 day plan. Again, using really good judgment. If you are in a high risk category, meaning above the age of 65, or have underlying medical conditions, to really heed our recommendations here. We don’t want to have to go further, but we will look at what is needed as we move through this unprecedented time. We’re looking at what other states and other countries are needing to do, but I hope that all North Carolinians can heed our words now about social distancing. And that we don’t have to take further measures, but those are always things we will have to consider.

Roy Cooper: (15:36)
Yes, sir.

Speaker 1: (15:37)
Governor, now that we’re in the mitigation phase, I know you’ve closed the restaurants and bars. What about factories? Other workplaces where people can’t practice social distancing?

Roy Cooper: (15:45)
We’re asking employers to work with their employees to see if they can work from home, and to do as much of that as possible. We’re asking employers to stagger shifts so that they have fewer people actually there. We know that there are things that have to go on. And that we’re going to need people at work. And we ask employers and employees to work together to make sure that those who do need to be at work, and a lot of them are here in this Emergency Operation Center, that they are protected there. We’re hoping that people can all take this seriously, and that we can voluntarily do what we need to do. Past the orders we’ve done, we have no intention at this point of any additional orders along those lines. But we do want people to step it up, because now that we have documented community spread, we know it’s out there. And we know it’s probably in other places in our state as well.

Speaker 1: (16:50)
Good. I had a question for Dr.Cohen as well please. So are you seeing the increase in [inaudible 00:16:58] test sites that you’d like to see? Do you expect more? What’s the update on that?

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (17:01)
Say that again, sorry?

Speaker 1: (17:02)
The test sites?

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (17:03)
So yes, regarding testing sites around the state, as I mentioned that we are wanting to very much understand where we are in the virus, in our first phase of work. So we do have community based sites for testing. We don’t want folks who have mild illness to be headed to our emergency rooms. We really want to make sure that folks are one, not exposing others to the virus if they may have it, really important. As well as exposing themselves to others who might have the virus. So we want to make sure that folks are calling their doctor as a first step. If they have things like fever, cough, that should signal calling your doctor. And if someone doesn’t have a doctor, to call your local health department or your local community health center.

Speaker 1: (17:58)
Thank you

Speaker 2: (17:58)
Governor, a lot of concerns we’re hearing from, of course, small businesses in general, especially restaurant-

reporter 1: (18:03)
We’re hearing from, of course, oh well small businesses in general, especially restaurants. One thing that a lot of them have been saying to us is that they’d like to see the state delay, postpone, whatever the tax payments that are due, payroll taxes are due, sales taxes are due, business taxes I guess are coming due too, and a lot of these folks are saying, “We have little money in the pot right now and if we have to pay that, that’s pretty much going to clean it out.” Would you consider taking that action and is that something that your administration could take or would you need to call back lawmakers for that?

Roy Cooper: (18:34)
First, we want to do everything that we can to help small businesses. One of the reasons that I issued the Executive Order on unemployment and benefits is that I heard from them, they really wanted to make sure their employees are protected. It’s just amazing how close small business employers are to their employees, and it hurts them so much. So that was really their first request to me and the loudest request to me, “Please help my employee.” So we did that by waiving the one week requirement, we did that by not requiring them to look for another job and hopefully getting benefits to them quicker. We’ve also gotten really, I don’t know if it’s unprecedented speed, but it is about as fast as I can remember seeing it, the Small Business Administration approving the Disaster Declaration which allows our small businesses, now to go to them. We know that there is a lot of potential help in Congress that is coming, that we hope will help our small businesses and our workers. On the tax side I know that the Secretary of Revenue has the ability to waive interest and penalties right now.

Roy Cooper: (19:50)
The filing deadline is something we are going to discuss, as to what can be done administratively, as to what the legislature would need to do. One thing I do know is that I’ve talked with all of the legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle and everybody is rowing in the same direction here. I think people want to take the steps to help people get through this. So certainly everything like that is on the table at this point. We have to make sure that we’re making the right calls to not only preserve our balanced budget in our state and to make sure we’ve got the resources to help where we need, but also helping our small businesses. So everything I would say right now is on the table.

reporter 1: (20:34)
Just to follow up, you mentioned the unemployment benefit changes and the spike in applications. We keep hearing from folks who say they’re having a hard time accessing the site. Is it crashing from the volume of people trying to access it, or you know, what should we tell them? What would you want to tell them?

Roy Cooper: (20:50)
I think they’re used to a much smaller number than they got in. Just in a few days I think it was over 18,000 claims. I want everybody to know who has filed and who wants to file, that this administration intends to work to make sure those applications are considered, and that if you can qualify that you get your benefits. And every single application is important. We realize that the system could not take all that came, but they are working on making sure that people can do it over the phone and online. There was a requirement under the law that there had to be an in-person interview and I was able to waive that with my Executive Order, so that moved everything to online and the phone. We have Lockhart Taylor, who is with the Employment Security Commission and I’m going to let him come up if you don’t mind and to tell you what he’s doing there. So Lockhart.

Lockhart Taylor: (22:03)
Thank you governor. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here today because we’re trying to get the information out to individuals who are frustrated right now. They’re panicked right now, they’re out of work, and they’ve been trying to access our system last week. And for the last probably a year and a half, we’ve been set up, we set up a system to handle 3,000 claims a week. And as the governor said, in the last day and a half we’ve taken 18,000 claims. We have our staffing levels set for 3,000 claims a week and so we are ramping that up. We have all hands on deck at this point. I want to thank the Office of State Personnel. We asked yesterday that we needed more positions. They expedited 50 additional positions for us that were posted this morning. That certainly should help us take care of the levels of inquiries and applications that we’re taking.

Lockhart Taylor: (23:14)
We’re also very fortunate to have this new automated computer system. We had issues with the yesterday, as far as it giving error messages. Our IT Department is working not only with the division of information technology, but we’ve increased the capacity of our servers to ensure that are able to handle the workflow that we have coming in at this time. I have such a committed and dedicated staff who have been through disasters in the past. They will, we will work extra hours, we will work weekends to ensure that we are to get the applications processed, those benefits out as quickly as possible.

reporter 2: (24:05)
A question related to that before you go. For people who are applying this week, when should they expect to start receiving those benefits?

Lockhart Taylor: (24:12)
So unemployment benefits are paid on a weekly basis. So we’re since the announcement of the closure of restaurants and bars at the first end of the week, this first eligible week won’t end until Saturday. There’s also a 10 day waiting period for employers to respond. So you have to allow the employers by statute the ability to respond to that notice of claim. We put in as an identifier of a reason for separation as the COVID, and having the individual who’s filing and the employer list COVID as the reason for separation is going to expedite those claims and get payment out quicker. I certainly believe that we will get payments out within two weeks.

reporter 2: (25:04)
And then this may be a question more so for the governor, but have you started to have conversations with the general assembly about potentially increasing the number of weeks people could qualify or even the amount of money that people could get on a weekly basis.

Roy Cooper: (25:15)
We’ve had a lot of conversations with the general assembly and one of the things that we want to do before the general assembly is called back in, is let’s first determine exactly what the federal government is going to do and now they’re working on another traunch of funding for our state. The second thing would be us deciding what we want to match, if there are any match requirements. And one of the things we’re asking the federal government is to waive a lot of match requirements for states, but we know that we will likely need some match money for some pots of money that the state would have to come up with. And then the next thing we want to do is to fill the holes. I think that we do have a good trust fund in place at the time, close to $3.8 billion. We believe that even with these increased benefits, that we should have enough in this trust fund, for the next three months.

Roy Cooper: (26:18)
However, I think that we certainly can put on the table the issue of increased unemployment benefits, and what we can use federal money to do, because people are going to be out of work, and this is such an unusual situation. Usually when you’re laid off of a job or you’re fired from a job, there’s not a whole lot of expectation that you would go back to that employment again. Here, we know a lot of these small businesses, when we emerge on the other side of this pandemic, they’re going to want to rehire these employees. So that’s why we want to help to provide the benefits for them during this time and not make them look for another job so that they could-

Roy Cooper: (27:03)
During this time and not make them look for another job so that they could be available to be hired back. But I do think that’s one of the issues that will be a topic of discussion with the general assembly.

reporter 2: (27:12)
Wanted to clarify one thing you mentioned about any additional directives that may come out. Have you ruled out extending the period of time that schools may be closed? Might you order that to go on longer?

Roy Cooper: (27:20)
You know we’re going to be out of schools for awhile. The order was until March 30th but I think people know that with community spread now coming and this crisis increasing, that we will likely be out of school for a longer period of time.

Roy Cooper: (27:42)
I do know that we are working closely with the State Board of Education with the Department of Public Instruction, with schools and teachers to prepare for this.

Roy Cooper: (27:53)
One good thing is it that a lot of places across the state are providing food for children, which was one of the big worries about letting school out and closing schools for a period of time and now they’re working on innovative ideas for remote learning, which we know is tougher in some of the rural areas, but we have to prepare that we may be out of school for quite a while. It’s what we have to prepare for.

Roy Cooper: (28:22)
What would be great if things that we didn’t have as many people sick as we thought would get sick and things get better sooner and I’m not saying that that may not happen but the likelihood is that it will be longer. We just don’t know how long at this point.

reporter 2: (28:38)
I had one last question for Dr. Cohen. You had talked about pregnant women being at higher risk. Can you tell a little bit more about what the underlying reason for that. Why isn’t the CDC saying that explicitly?

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (28:49)
So the CDC guidance around high risk groups continues to be those who are older and who have chronic conditions. I think folks, as we have said, we were trying to learn a lot about this virus as we go through and so new data and studies are coming out from countries that have experienced a virus ahead of us, so I am sure they are evaluating new studies.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (29:12)
Well, we can look at are how pregnant women fared with other respiratory illnesses that may be similar to this so it’s not exactly the same, which is why I would say I’m looking at flu data and other respiratory viral illnesses and say that would cause me to say I’d like for pregnant women here in North Carolina to be extra vigilant about some of the social distancing and make sure that they’re doing the proper hand washing and such. We will let you know if the guidance from the CDC does officially change, but I would take extra precaution.

reporter 2: (29:46)
Thank you.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (29:47)
Thank you.

Roy Cooper: (29:49)
Yes sir.

Speaker 3: (29:51)
I’d like to get back into the unemployment issue.

Roy Cooper: (29:54)
Sure.

Speaker 3: (29:54)
First of all, if daily information could be released as far as total number claims, I think that would be helpful for everyone. Second, could you speak to the 50 job postings. You mean like you’re looking for 50 people to come in or is the state’s temporary solutions? I know we have a temp agency basically in the state. How are you going to ramp that up? How long is that going to take to ramp up?

Roy Cooper: (30:15)
First, we want to make sure that we’ve got enough employees in place to handle the additional workload and this is why this request was made. Lockhart, I’m going to let you talk specifically about what you plan to do to make sure that these claims get paid as quickly as possible and to make sure that the public is notified.

Lockhart Taylor: (30:41)
Yes. Lockhart Taylor, Assistant Secretary for the Division of Employment Security.

Lockhart Taylor: (30:48)
We immediately recognized that we were going to have a great number of individuals entering the system, so we posted the 50 positions. We have to really front end faces of employment security, our call center and in our adjudication unit. The adjudication unit makes the initial determination on eligibility for individuals, once they filed a claim and we knew we would need additional individuals there.

Lockhart Taylor: (31:19)
The call center clearly was going to need additional staff, although we’re, redirecting existing staff within the division to assist with the call center increase in calls. I think we are going to utilize attempt solutions but we’re also going to utilize a time limited position for up to one year. So those have been posted as of this morning and so as we expedited the postings of these positions, we’re hopeful we’re going to expedite getting those applications processed and in the building as quickly as possible.

Speaker 3: (32:05)
You have a timetable on that time, though?

Lockhart Taylor: (32:07)
No sir. I do not at this time.

Speaker 3: (32:08)
And then if I could also ask, are these jobs, the call center, are these people that are in cubicles right next to each other in a large building, I assume, or are they able at all to work from home?

Lockhart Taylor: (32:16)
We are currently working on that process do to test the system of how we can get those, a certain percentage of those back home. We’ve been working with the Department of Information Technology, again to determine the feasibility of getting them the telecommunications capabilities of answering these from home but we’re looking at our whole processes as much as possible from teleworking as well.

Speaker 3: (32:46)
Thank you.

Lockhart Taylor: (32:47)
Yes sir.

Speaker 4: (32:49)
One last question.

Speaker 5: (32:49)
This question is far as Secretary Cohen. A lot of folks are emailing us or commenting that one of their coworkers or friend has COVID-19, is being kept on the hush.I understand HIPAA is obviously a big thing here. What is the health department doing to kind of alleviate the fears that some people have? Then secondly, how are you able to determine which location is at risk versus not being at risk?

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (33:12)
Sure. So as I said, as we move from this phase of containment, when we want to rapidly identify individual cases and trace contacts, we’re moving over the next number of days into our next phase of work, which is called mitigation and where we want to make sure that we are protecting people from getting further exposed to the virus.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (33:36)
So you will see different strategies over the next coming days for folks. What I would say if someone is worried that they were exposed to COVID-19, that they should be monitoring their symptoms. Are they having fever or cough? And if they have and develop those symptoms, to get in touch with their doctor, with their local health department or their community health center, who can talk them through those symptoms.

Dr. Mandy Cohen: (34:01)
The good news about COVID-19 is the vast majority of folks are going to have mild illness, meaning that they don’t need to go to the hospital for higher level care. That’s the good news. But we know that there are folks who will need that kind of level of care and we want to make sure that we have that care available to those who need it and that’s why all this work is going on to make sure we’re mobilizing resources right now as we go forward. Thank you.

Roy Cooper: (34:28)
Thank you all. We will be back.