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Truth behind Testing for COVID-19 in Craven County, NC

Craven County COVID-19 - June 20 2020
This Chart does not reflect # of active, recovered or hospitalized cases on June 6-7; 13-14.

The World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), Craven County Health Department (CCHD), and CarolinaEast Health System are all on the same page. They all recommend wearing a face mask/covering, socially distancing (about 6 feet), washing your hands often, if soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, and routinely cleaning/disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.

We are living through a Worldwide Pandemic. This is NOT a political issue. We see elected officials on both sides, Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House, wearing masks.

I believe in safely re-opening our community and supporting our local business. I’m a local business owner.

Some of my friends don’t know if they’ll be able to pay rent/mortgage or feed their family. Others want to open their business, concerned their business won’t survive, or have already lost their business. Some don’t have healthcare. And others are afraid they will catch the virus because they have cancer or other diseases that have compromised their immune systems.

There are two simple things that people are disregarding. Wearing a face mask/covering and social distancing. If we practice the recommendations, together, we can limit the spread.

Please know, there are some people who are not wearing masks because they have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other health problems. That’s something that we all have to be aware of. It’s important not to judge others, we don’t know what they are going through.

Over 119,224 people have died in the U.S. from the virus, including veterans who faithfully served our country for our freedoms. Why can’t we protect each other like our veterans did for us? Why is this so difficult. If we all take precautions, together we can limit the spread.

This virus is highly contagious! If you don’t think you will get it and choose not to wear a mask or social distance, you could be infected and inadvertently spreading it.

The sixth Craven County resident died of complications of COVID-19 on June 19.  The most recent “confirmed positive” cases from the CCHD are 302, 104 active cases, 192 recovered cases, and 5 hospitalizations.

According to Brandy Popp, Manager, Public Relations and Outreach at CarolinaEast Medical Center via email on June 19, one person with COVID-19 was in the ICU. She stated, “We have 18 ICU beds in our main ICU.  None are specifically designated for COVID-19 patients, but all could be utilized if needed and there are contingency plans for other units.”

If you are basing your actions of not wearing a mask/social distancing, on these numbers and feel that COVID-19 is not really a concern in New Bern and Craven County, you have a false sense of security. These numbers only reflect the number of people who have been confirmed positive by tests since March 14, 2020.

Testing:

The Health Department has administered 753 tests. CarolinaEast has completed over 2,300 tests. It’s important to note, one person can be tested a number of times, so these numbers do not reflect the number of people tested. These numbers do not include primary care providers who perform their own testing.

If you’ve heard the news that North Carolina’s testing is increasing. It is not in Craven County. Specifically, for people who don’t have symptoms but are living in high risk settings, marginalized populations, church goers, frontline and essential workers, protestors, and healthcare workers/law enforcement officers. With 102,000+ living in Craven County, testing is minuscule.

Knowing that North Carolina entered into Phase 1 of the reopening on May 8 and Phase 2 on May 22, I was curious how many people are actually being tested. I asked the NC Department of Health and Human Services for their latest guidance regarding testing. They sent me their updated Internal Memo to Clinicians dated June 9, 2020 addressing who should be tested. It identifies the following populations that should be tested whether or not they have symptoms:

– People who live in or have regular contact with high-risk settings (e.g., long-term care facility, homeless shelter, correctional facility, migrant farmworker camp).

– Historically Marginalized populations who may be at higher risk for exposure.

– People who have attended protests, rallies, or other mass gatherings could have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or could have exposed others.

– Frontline and essential workers (grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, child care workers, construction sites, processing plants, etc.) in settings where social distancing is difficult to maintain.

– Health care workers or first responders (e.g. EMS, law enforcement, fire department, military).

I assumed that was happening because it was a directive from the State. That was until rumors started spreading that testing wasn’t available to people in the populations noted above. Wanting to find out the truth, I sent questions via email to the Craven County Health Department. The Director, Scott Harrelson’s answers are as follows:

Q. Are drive thru testing sites available in New Bern? If so, are there specific dates/times? Can anyone get tested (i.e. people who are asymptomatic – those working in high traffic businesses like gas stations and grocery stores or who have recently attended mass gatherings – church or protests)?

A. We are doing drive up tests by appointment only on Tuesdays and Fridays. We are testing close contacts of known positives, symptomatic and those considered high risk. We are not currently screening asymptomatic adults.

Q. Has anyone tested positive in congregate living facilities or in the correctional institution/jail?

A. At this time, there are no reported cases associated with any congregate living setting in Craven County.

Note: Mr. Harrelson said, “no reported” vs. we have tested these facilities and there are were no positive cases. If you don’t test, you won’t find any cases.

Q. How many contact tracers do you have? Do you need more? If so, how can people apply?

A. We are currently using existing staff, we have requested additional investigators/ contact tracers from the state, but we have not received that assistance yet.

Note: With so many residents in need of jobs, I would think this would be an important message to our community. If you’d like to become a contact tracer, click here for details.

Q. Do you have enough PPE to deal with a surge in patients?

A. Yes, the PPE situation has improved across the state.

Q. Do you need people to donate anything?

A. We do not need donations at this time. 

Q. Do you need volunteers?

A. We are not using volunteers for activities associated with COVID-19.

Note: If you’re interested in volunteering for the NC Department of Health and Human Services, click here for details.

Following up via email, I asked, “Why aren’t asymptomatic adults being tested?”

Mr. Harrelson responded, There have been some mass screenings attempted across the state; they take a lot of staff, a lot of PPE and a lot of test kits. The results thus far have been that asymptomatic adults at these mass screenings are turning up negative. That is good for the individual for that day, but that just means they were negative when they were screened. It is entirely possible that they could have contracted the virus elsewhere by the time they receive their results. Another issue with mass testing is that some have set up and had very low attendance, so all of that staff time has been wasted. Here in Craven we have maintained all of our health department clinics throughout the COVID response. The additional screening and contact tracing is additional workload on top of our regular jobs and we have one of the highest volume health department clinics in the state here in Craven already.”

“Many hospitals, private offices and health departments do not believe that mass testing of asymptomatic people is a worthwhile endeavor. Locally our health department and most of the private offices are performing COVID tests. We have performed over 750 COVID tests here at the Craven County Health Department. Most of our testing revolves around close contacts of positive cases, which turns out to be a lot of people and we are finding that household contacts or close contacts of positive cases often do contract the virus. For example, we received 19 positive results this past weekend. Each of those positive individuals will likely average 4-5 close contacts; we will then place those people into quarantine and screen them for COVID. This process goes on and on. We now screen up to 70 people a day at our drive up clinics. At certain times we have had over 300 people in quarantine in this county.”

“I do agree that those that work at long term care facilities such as rest homes and other health care settings that deal with high risk individuals should be screened on a regular basis, however these are medical professionals that could easily administer their own COVID testing. Another factor in mass testing asymptomatic people is that it bogs down response times for test results. If the state lab and reference labs are inundated with a lot of tests we have seen our response times creep up to 4-5 days rather than 1-2 days to receive test results. In addition we do receive a lot of the negative test results conducted in our community by all the providers, not just the health department and we have seen that the vast majority of tests for even symptomatic people have come back negative.”

I respectfully disagree with Mr. Harrelson. He actually made the case to test people who are not displaying symptoms by stating, “Most of our testing revolves around close contacts of positive cases, which turns out to be a lot of people and we are finding that household contacts or close contacts of positive cases often do contract the virus”.

I also asked, “Who made the decision not to conduct testing?” Mr. Harrelson responded, The truth is that testing capacity dictated that we utilize our resources, staff, PPE and test kits in the way that we do now to best protect our local community. I as the local Health Director made that call”.

Testing asymptomatic/pre-symptomatic populations highlighted in the NCDHHS directive would identify members of our community at higher risk, slow the spread, and save lives.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the Craven County Health Department is working very hard to test people with symptoms. COVID-19 testing is very time consuming as it requires healthcare professionals to follow strict infection control guidelines to ensure their own safety.

I believe the leadership is limiting testing capabilities. I encourage you to reach out to Mr. Harrelson and ask him to follow the directives set by the State.

Wanting to know how CarolinaEast is doing and if residents could help their efforts, I asked Brandy Popp the following questions via email:

Q: “Do you have enough PPE to deal with a surge in patients?

A: We do at this time, but supplies are limited and we are working every day to be sure we have what is needed for our patients and staff.

Q. Do you need any donations?

A. We continue to accept cloth mask donations. Contact our Volunteer Services department at 252-633-8127 if you wish to donate.

Q. Do you need volunteers?

A. We appreciate the community’s continued support of us during the pandemic, but have limited volunteers to allow for conservation of needed PPE.

Why wait for CarolinaEast and our healthcare providers to become overwhelmed? You can take simple steps by wearing a mask, socially distancing, practicing hand hygiene, and cleaning high traffic areas. These are acts of kindness not political statements.

Share your thoughts with us via email.

Wendy Card