At a press conference this morning, Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris announced that two patients in Mecklenburg County tested presumptively positive for the COVID-19 illness caused by the coronavirus, the first in the county to test positive for the virus that yesterday was declared an international pandemic by the World Health Organization.
Harris stated that, though both patients were tested in Mecklenburg County facilities, only one of them lives in the county, while the second is believed to reside in a surrounding county. Both patients are being quarantined in their homes for at least two weeks. Investigators will look into who they may have potentially exposed to the virus.
“Once we have identified who those individuals are, we will be issuing quarantine orders, especially for those who are in the homes of these [patients], but also for those who may have been at risk of exposure, and they will be quarantined for 14 days at home as well,” Harris said.
Harris joined other public health officials at this morning’s press conference to give info about plans being set in place to help local residents deal with COVID-19. She stated that, while it’s too early to determine whether these cases are the beginnings of community spread — meaning cases in which the patient’s point of exposure is unknown — she and other officials are preparing for that scenario.
“We are now in a situation where we potentially have community spread,” Harris said. “We understand that that was coming, and we want to reinforce that that is likely in our community. At the same time we want people to do what they can to protect themselves and protect the community at large.”
Harris recommended that residents visit the county website for regular updates, or call the county health hotline with specific questions: 980-314-9400. More updates from the press conference below.
Harris stated that, though the county has worked to expand testing abilities, they are still limited. So health officials are currently only testing people who are showing symptoms of the virus — including shortness of breath, fever, cough and other flu-like symptoms — or those who are at high risk — including people over the age of 65 and those with chronic diseases or compromised immune systems.
“We are testing as much as we can, but we do want to make sure that those folks who are symptomatic and could potentially be exposing other people are being tested,” Harris said. “We have individuals showing up at doctor’s offices, at the health department, at hospitals, asking to be tested. If they are not symptomatic and they don’t meet the criteria we’re using right now, we will limit that testing at this point.”
Harris said the county is aware of multiple mass gatherings planned for this weekend and are waiting until Gov. Roy Cooper’s press conference at 4 p.m. today to make any recommendations about holding or attending such events. After the press conference this morning, event organizers Rich & Bennett announced that their annual St. Patrick’s Day Bar Crawl will be postponed. The city’s parade was also postponed.
[UPDATE: At his Thursday afternoon press conference, Gov. Cooper called on people across North Carolina to postpone or cancel any events expected to involve more than 100 people. He also called on employers to allow employees to work from home when necessary.]
The county has also reached out to facilities around the county that house senior citizens — nursing homes, for example — and asked that they restrict visitation for all residents over the age of 65 to direct family members who do not show symptoms.
As for what other residents can do to be proactive, she asked that people wash their hands regularly, cover their coughs and remain home if they feel ill.
“I know that creates issues for individuals who don’t have sick leave or who need their paycheck,” Harris said. “We’re having conversations as well about how we support individuals who may be negatively impacted from an economic perspective, but please don’t go to work if you’re ill, please don’t send your children to school if they’re ill.”
Harris said that, based on the recommendations of Gov. Roy Cooper at his press conference yesterday, the health department would not yet recommend that CMS shut down schools.
CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston echoed Harris’ sentiments, saying that officials are working through their plans and changing them regularly as the situation calls for it.
“My message to families is we want to continue to take precautionary steps. If a child or adult is sick, we strongly encourage them to stay home,” Winston said. “We also continue to encourage students and adults to wash their hands. We’re working on a plan to make sure that, should we [close schools] — and we certainly have not approached that point, we rely on the feedback and recommendations from our partners at the health department, whether schools should close. There’s no recommendation that schools close, but we continue to work through our plans and refine them.”
[Update: At Gov. Cooper’s Thursday afternoon press conference, he recommended that schools stay open but cancel any large gathering.]
Dr. James Hunter, chief medical officer with Atrium Healthcare, said that plans are in place should Mecklenburg County face a rapid increase in cases. Dr. Sid Fletcher, chief clinical officer with Novant Health, made similar statements, stating that Novant has already separated its emergency departments into sick and well areas, and has plans to open a tent facility outside of Presbyterian Medical Center for potential CORONA-19 patients.
Hunter recommended that patients who feel they may be suffering from symptoms call their primary physician or the Mecklenburg County health hotline at 980-314-9400 to determine whether they should go to the hospital.
“There will be sites set up where you can be safely tested. Calling first or using your usual doctor is a first step,” Hunter said. “Of course, if you have more severe symptoms, then you can call the ambulance and let them know in advance that you have symptoms of COVID so they’re prepared.”
Brent Cagle, aviation director at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, said passengers should look to local, state and federal health departments for the most up-to-date information and recommendations regarding whether flying is safe, then make the decision for themselves.
Cagle said there was no truth to rumors that airport employees were told not to wear gloves or masks because it “wouldn’t be a good look” to passengers.
“We are looking at protective equipment that would need to be issued to employees … We’re also in frequent contact with our partners to really determine what are the measures that are appropriate, reasonable and rational for our employees to take,” Cagle said. “Certainly it is not our concern about the look, so to speak, it’s our concern to make sure our employees and our passengers are safe, and we’re taking appropriate precautions.”
Other Vulnerable Populations
Harris stated that the county has been in touch with community providers who offer services to the homeless to work out plans for screening and isolation should it be needed for people checking in to shelters. She said those plans were “pretty far along” but did not offer further details.
Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said she has had multiple conversations with Sheriff Garry McFadden about preventing spread of the virus in detention centers. McFadden is reportedly working with healthcare officials in his detention centers to screen any incoming inmates for the symptoms.
We will continue to update this story as new developments occur.
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