As COVID-19 cases skyrocket in Craven County, county health and political leaders continue to act as if nothing is wrong.
With all eyes on the Governor’s Mansion and Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision on Friday whether to enter Phase 2 relaxation of measures to prevent the spread, Craven County’s number of cases more than doubled in a week.
This follows a vote by the Craven County Board of Commissioners asking Governor Cooper to make exceptions for Craven and other supposedly less affected counties, and allow them to reopen regardless of what happens elsewhere in the state.
It also follows a unilateral decision by Sheriff Chip Hughes refusing to enforce a legally binding governor’s executive order against large group gatherings that, among other things, includes churches. A court order saved Sheriff Hughes in the nick of time from becoming a lawbreaker himself by exempting places of worship from the executive order.
Meanwhile, in Pitt County, commissioners rejected the idea of reopening the county earlier. Someone does care.
Craven County officials started off during the pandemic by resisting any proactive moves, instead waiting for state and federal orders, which compared to other nations can best be described as leisurely.
County officials said they couldn’t take action on their own, which was a bald-faced lie. Other counties in North Carolina were already taking preventive measures.
Waiting for the state to act was a risky gamble in the face of a growing pandemic, but it paid off — in the short term. The number of cases in Craven County grew slowly, but the death rate outpaced nearby counties, even the larger ones, until just yesterday, when neighboring Lenoir County’s death toll rose to seven.
Now, with COVID-19 fully entrenched in the community, Craven County and New Bern leaders think it’s a good time to act as if nothing is wrong.
On one hand, you can’t blame them. The economy is tanking, people are running out of money, and the Senate is resisting any further stimulus payments to individuals because doing so might buy time to further slow the spread I mean increase the deficit I mean keep non-essential businesses closed I mean jeopardize President Trump’s reelection.
So as we prepare to reopen restaurants, bars, hair salons, and nail salons, are we doing anything out of the ordinary to keep watch in case this turns out to be a bad idea?
The most effective way to prevent the spread is early detection and isolation.
But there are no plans for mass testing and never were.
County Health Director Scott Harrelson resists mass testing of people without symptoms.
“This has been done regionally and the results are what one might expect,” he told the Sun Journal. “The results come back negative. This is a poor use of resources. Personal protective equipment like isolation gowns and N-95 respirator masks are still difficult to obtain.”
He added that, while a healthy person may test negative one day, that is no proof he or she wouldn’t test positive a couple of days later.
He’s right, but he’s wrong.
The point of mass testing is to identify fairly rare cases of contagion and isolate them before they become common. That way people are less likely to test negative one day and test positive a couple of days later.
Craven County is doing the exact opposite.
“We are doing a lot of tests on symptomatic people and close contacts of positive cases,” Harrelson told the Sun Journal. “Recently 65 percent of the people we tested came back positive. In my opinion this is a much better use of resources.”
Testing has required a medical professional in full PPE, which must be discarded after each test. PPE was and continues to be in short supply, which is why Dr. Harrelson is right.
So we are limited to reactive testing … testing only those who we know are sick and probably have it, or who we know were exposed.
The best illustration on why isolation and testing are important and effective are being demonstrated in South Korean.
South Korean had its first case on the same day the United States had its first case. How the two nations responded were night and day.
South Korean instituted a vigorous program of testing and isolation, whereas the United States waited more than a month, and even then never approached the level of measures that South Korea deployed early on.
The result? Today, South Korea, a much more densely populated nation than the United States, has 11,018 confirmed cases, and 260 deaths. The United States has 1.5 million confirmed cases and 93,558 deaths. North Carolina, by the way, has had 19,700 cases and 691 deaths.
Naysayers point out that, well of course the United States has more cases and deaths; it has a population of 328.2 million and South Korea has a population of just 51.6 million.
OK, then explain why North Carolina, with a population of just10.5 million, has more cases and more deaths than South Korea.
Besides, the question isn’t how many tests have been administered. The question is how many tests have been administered PER PERSON.
By March, South Korea had tested 3,692 people per million compared to the United States testing 5 (yes, just five) per million. The United States caught up by April, but the point of preventing a pandemic is early intervention.
And that means testing early and testing often.
As far as the rest, as Dick Cheney once said, we don’t know what we don’t know.
So with cases skyrocketing, we go blindly into relaxed preventions and will feel our way around.
Hopefully what we wind up touching isn’t contagious.
If you feel you need to be tested, you should contact your doctor or, if you do not have one, the Craven County Health Department at 252-636-4920. Results usually come back within two days.