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N.C. health chief laments virus trends as order soon expires

By GARY D. ROBERTSON

RALEIGH — North Carolina’s COVID-19 case trends have worsened since the economy has reopened in recent weeks, the state health secretary said Monday. But she wouldn’t say whether they would prevent more shuttered businesses from reopening when restrictions otherwise expire later this week.

The number of virus-related hospitalizations remains near a record high for the pandemic, with 870 as of Monday morning, while the number of deaths exceed 1,200, according to Department of Health and Human Services data. Although the number of completed tests continues to grow rapidly — to more than 750,000 overall — the percentage of positive tests is on the upswing.

“As we’ve reopened, we’ve seen our trends go in the wrong direction,” DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said during a media briefing.

An executive order by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper that took effect May 22 lifted a stay-at-home order, allowed restaurants to open their dining rooms, and barber shops and salons to reopen. But bars, gyms, movie theaters and bowling alleys remain closed. The order expires Friday. Cooper has said he would announce early this week how he’ll modify the current restrictions, which also prevent outdoor mass assemblies above 25 people.

Cohen was reserved in response to questions about what the data means for Cooper’s upcoming decisions. She said the public can help reverse the trend by wearing face masks, washing hands regularly and practicing social distancing.

“We’re trying to make sure that we are always looking at that data, but … we want to reiginite the economy, we want folks to be back with their loved ones and being back at work,” Cohen said. “So we’re trying to find that right balance between that reopening and protecting public health.”

The state prison system disclosed Monday that about 60 offenders in a housing unit at the Albemarle Correctional Institution in Stanly County and 12 prison staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. The offenders testing positive aren’t showing symptoms, Department of Public Safety spokesperson John Bull wrote in an email.

Nearly 250 prisoners living in the unit have been tested, and about 500 more at the prison’s other two housing units were being tested Monday, Bull wrote. The results from the other two units were expected later this week.

The prison-wide testing occurred in part because of a number of recent cases at Albemarle, according to Bull. The Division of Prisons also announced last week a decision to test all offenders in the state prison system, although a Superior Court judge also has ordered them to come up with a plan to do so.

Previously, the state prison system had conducted mass testing at individual prisons largely only when multiple positive cases recently emerged. Since the pandemic began, more than 3,450 tests have been performed on offenders, returning 775 positive cases, according to the Department of Public Safety. Five prisoners have died.

State Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley also announced Monday that she had extended several earlier directives, which will keep courthouses open but discourage unnecessary court sessions. She wrote that she would keep in place a prohibition on jury trials through at least the end of July.

“These emergency directives are crucial to ensuring that our court system continues to administer justice while protecting the health and safety of court officials, court personnel and the public,” Beasley wrote Saturday.