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Monday, May 27, 2024

2 years in: NC, NHC remain in Covid state of emergency

The state and New Hanover County still have state of emergency orders to have flexibility to provide healthcare and vaccines in response to Covid-19. (Port City Daily/File)

On Mar. 10, 2020 Gov. Roy Cooper issued a state of emergency in response to Covid-19. At the onset, it mandated business closures except for those considered “essential,” put forth limitations on gatherings, allowed mask mandates, and increased aid to county health departments that needed additional supplies, manpower and funds. 

New Hanover County followed suit with its own order. It was needed to mobilize resources quickly and provide the county the authority to also limit gatherings, according to spokesperson Jessica Loeper. 

Read More: Is the Covid-19 endemic near?

Back then, it was presumed if everyone hunkered down for two weeks, it would help flatten the curve and slow the spread of Covid-19 statewide.

Heading into year three of the pandemic — 2.6 million Covid cases later in North Carolina — 28 states have dropped emergency orders. 

But the Tar Heel State is not one.

Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly have penned an open letter to Cooper to ask for the expiration of Executive Order 116, now in effect for 730 days. While the governor’s office still deems the state of emergency necessary for benefits it provides, some see it as an abuse of power. 

“After two years of executive orders that shut down businesses, restricted gatherings, closed schools, and mandated masks, the people of North Carolina are more than ready to move on,” notes the letter, released by House Majority Leader Rep. John R. Bell.

Many of the tighter restrictions have since been lifted from North Carolina’s SOE over the last two years, as numbers have waxed and waned. No longer is there a mask mandate, enforced capacity limitations, nor school and business closures.  

Numbers also are stabilizing from the omicron surge. Over the last month, hospitalizations have decreased from 4,000 statewide to a little over 1,000, and cases declined by 90%, from 10,000 to just over 1,000 a day. The daily rate for positive tests is 3%, below health officials’ 5% goal.

“​​Simply put, there is no emergency,” the letter continues. 

When Cooper signed the SOE — as authorized under the North Carolina Emergency Management Act, normally activated after natural disasters and for a short period of time — there was no end date distinguished. State lawmakers have decried the checks and balances in place to oversee government accountability, with some legislators viewing the two-year Covid-19 SOE as overreach.

In November, Cooper vetoed House Bill 264, the Emergency Powers Accountability Act. It would have mandated concurrence from the Council of State — consisting of senior executive officials, such as the governor, attorney general and secretary of state — to allow statewide emergency declarations to exist beyond seven days.

The state budget also addressed the use of emergency powers but extended the timeline from seven to 30 days, which would then prompt Council of State’s involvement. At 60 days, the N.C. General Assembly would step in. Cooper signed off on the budget in November, but the new laws won’t go into effect until January 2023.

A spokesperson from the governor’s office told Port City Daily Cooper is currently analyzing all options for moving forward. With the SOE in place, it allows other executive orders the governor signed off on to continue. 

“The Emergency Order still provides the legal tool that waives regulations so medical providers have flexibility in providing health care and vaccines, which is still needed,” press secretary Jordan Monaghan wrote in an email. 

Healthcare personnel with inactive licenses or people from other states can step in as needed, so extra hands can be used to administer vaccinations or care for patients with Covid-19. The order also allows hospitals or nursing homes to add more beds than normally would be acceptable.

“We’ve had to have more flexibility for healthcare professionals to be able to cross over and do things they need to do that they, under the statute, might not necessarily have the authority to do,” Cooper said last month at a Coronavirus Task Force meeting.

For consumers, the emergency order protects price-gouging on goods or services, such as Covid-19 tests, and prohibits local ordinances that could prevent testing or administration of vaccines.

New Hanover County’s SOE still remains in place, according to spokesperson Loeper.

“Following the original state of emergency, the county had a couple updated SOEs based on the changes in the pandemic, but it has been kept in place to ensure quick access to resources,” she said.

The order has helped with pre-planning for supplies in the face of supply-chain issues (think PPE in the early days of the pandemic or Covid tests most recently). Loeper explained it also allowed for extended hours for drivers to quickly transport goods.

Currently, no plans are in place to lift the county’s SOE, she said.

“With the county’s COVID-19 community level now at a low impact, we are hopeful that our metrics continue to remain low and that the impact on our community can be managed proactively and effectively with continued vaccinations and testing,” Loeper explained. “A discussion regarding the county’s State of Emergency may take place in the near future if our level remains low and as our community transitions to living with the virus.”

Meanwhile, at the state level, Monaghan said: “Administration is reviewing and will discuss with legislators how they could pass laws that serve the same purpose and eliminate the need for the Emergency Order at this time.”

The prospect of another variant is still top-of-mind for officials — one that is stronger or supersedes protections from the vaccines, causing a spike in cases, and requiring more hands, beds, and supplies once again. During the delta and omicron surges, hospitals were understaffed and overburdened by patient influx and emergency calls; strike teams were also called in to New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties to help address increased 9-1-1 call volume at the beginning of February. 

“We hope that we can get some permanent changes in the law to help us better respond to this pandemic and future health situations,” Cooper told media at a briefing last month.

“Learning how to live with this virus is a reality we all continue to face.”

Brunswick and Pender counties are no longer under a Covid-19 state of emergency. 

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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