N.C. Health Secretary Warns Of Surge In Cases, Possible Return Of Stay-At-Home Orders : Coronavirus Updates North Carolina recently saw its highest number of new daily coronavirus infections. "If we need to go back to stay-at-home, we will," says Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen.

N.C. Health Secretary Warns Of Surge In Cases, Possible Return Of Stay-At-Home Orders

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Many parts of the country are trying to get back to life as it was before the pandemic, but the pandemic is far from over. There are now more than 2 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and the virus is now spreading at higher rates in new places. Arizona, Florida, Oregon and North Carolina's number of cases nearly doubled in the last three weeks. All four of those states are also in the process of reopening. Just last week, North Carolina recorded its largest single-day spike since the pandemic began. Mandy Cohen is North Carolina's secretary of health and human services, and she joins me now. Thanks so much for being with us.

MANDY COHEN: Good morning, Rachel, great to be with you.

MARTIN: So things were going well in North Carolina, and now they are not. So what happened?

COHEN: That's right. So we took early and aggressive action like many other states back in March to slow the spread of the virus. And we never got a first surge or a first wave, and that was really good. We were able to use that time to build our capacity to respond. But we couldn't stay locked down forever, right? And we start to reopen. We know that the virus is going to move around more. And we watch our numbers and track our trends very closely. And what we have seen, particularly in the last two weeks since our second phase of reopening, is that our numbers are really, as you said, going in the wrong direction. In the last week, we've had four days of more than a thousand new cases in each one of those days. And importantly, we are seeing our hospitalizations go up, so more people having serious illness.

Now, we still have capacity in our health care systems and, you know - but this is an early warning sign for us that we really need to take seriously and make sure that we don't forget that COVID-19 is with us. I know folks are weary at this point, but we really need to stay vigilant, particularly in our state where we never really saw that first increase. So this is new for us, and we need to make sure that we can respond.

MARTIN: Well, what are the criteria for moving on with reopening? I mean, as you noted, North Carolina's in phase two, and restrictions are set to loosen further in about two weeks. Are you worried about that?

COHEN: Well, we've been tracking very closely four key metrics, and the governor and I report out on those metrics every week to help us make decisions. And that is why we felt like we were able to move into our first phases of reopening. We had been stable on our numbers of new cases, of our percent-positive tests on hospitalizations, and we look at some early surveillance data. So we look at these four key trends every single week. It's on our dashboard every single day. So they were stable.

But, as I said, as we start to reopen, which we knew, you know, we have to reignite the economy, we can't stay locked down forever, we do see these trends moving in the wrong direction. And the governor and I have said that we will use all of our tools, and if we need to go back to stay at home, we will. I hope we don't have to. I think there are things we can do before we have to get there. But, yes, we are concerned, and we're going to take - make sure we're taking action.

MARTIN: President Trump told reporters yesterday that he's going to restart his massive rallies. And he specifically mentioned wanting to hold one in North Carolina. I mean, you're well aware of the debate over the GOP convention there in August. And, you know, the RNC just voted to have a dramatically scaled down set of events then. But is your state ready for mass gatherings like a Trump rally?

COHEN: Well, the data and science tells us that mass gatherings are one of the most concerning kinds of activities related to viral spread - right? - when lots of people close together can spread this virus. And we have seen that happen here in our state where there have been gatherings that have spread the virus. So right now, we are asking our folks in North Carolina if you've been to a mass gathering like a protest or going back to church, we want you to get tested. We think that that is exposure. We think that that's a risk. And we want folks to get tested. So I am worried about mass gatherings. For us in North Carolina, our rules still are that we do not want to have any mass gatherings. Obviously, the protests and going back to church have particular legal status, but the virus doesn't know that. So we think those are risks, and we want to make sure folks are getting tested and are taking care of themselves.

MARTIN: There are several states that are going through this, an increase even as the country continues to reopen, an increase in cases. Is there any particular state you're watching as you make calculations for North Carolina?

COHEN: Well, certainly, we're trying to learn from the states that have come before us, the - particularly the states in the northeast that have already seen their first surge, and how did they respond to that? So we were appreciative of a lot of lessons learned there. But as I look at other states that are increasing now, obviously, you mentioned them in your intro - the southern part of California, Arizona, Arkansas - so we are looking there to see are they just a few days or maybe a week ahead of us? And what are the things that they are doing that can help tailor our work?

So we want to make sure that we are particularly focused on getting people to wear face coverings, wait 6 feet apart and wash their hands. There are individual actions that people can take right now, and I think they're so important. We really need to get our testing up. And then we need to trace folks. And folks need to stay isolated and stay home if they're sick.

MARTIN: Dr. Mandy Cohen, North Carolina's secretary of health and human services, thank you.

COHEN: Thank you so much, Rachel.

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