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Stay at home if you have chronic illnesses, governor tells North Carolinians as he issues state of emergency over coronavirus

Gov. Roy Cooper has announced a state of emergency for North Carolina in response to the potential spread of the novel coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19.

As of Tuesday night, the state had seven presumptive positive cases of COVID-19, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which explained that a positive coronavirus test must be confirmed by another testing laboratory, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

None of the people who have tested positive — six in Wake County and one in Chatham County — required hospitalization as of Tuesday afternoon. They are in isolation at home.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, told legislators Tuesday that North Carolina’s response includes isolating people and limiting or prohibiting gathering at large public events.

“This is a critical moment” for stopping the further spread of the disease, Cohen said.

The governor and state health officials are stressing that people at high risk — particularly those 65 or older, with chronic illnesses or weakened immune systems — should stay at home and avoid most public events.

That includes concerts, conventions, church services, sporting events and crowded social events. Cruises and nonessential air travel also should be avoided.

The DHHS has specifically recommended limiting mass public activities in Wake County, where the most possible cases have been reported.

“We know these steps will affect individuals’ qualify of life, but the first step is to limit the contact people are having to slow the spread of the virus as much as possible,” Cohen said.

However, the DHHS is not discouraging attendance at this week’s ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum, which started Tuesday and is scheduled to end Saturday with the championship game.

Other recommendations for the Triangle: encouraging people to work from home, if possible, and asking businesses to consider staggering the times work shifts start and end “to reduce large numbers of people coming together at the same time.”

“The recommendations should be implemented immediately and extend through March 31,” according to a DHHS statement. “We are monitoring the situation closely to determine whether these recommendations will be extended beyond March 31.”

Cohen said the state is not recommending any school closures at this time..

“This situation is rapidly changing and recommendations about school closures could change as we learn more, but today we are not recommending any preemptive school closure,” Cohen said at Tuesday’s news conference where Cooper announced the state of emergency.

More test kits in hand

Cohen said the state had conducted 44 tests for the coronavirus as of Tuesday morning and now has 350 test kits available, up from 190 on Saturday.

The goal is to have the ability to test another 1,500 people within a week.

Cohen said she is aware some people have been tested through private methods, and the state will be informed of those that test positive.

“As testing is expanded, the number of confirmed positives will increase,” Cohen warned.

The DHHS has established a coronavirus-specific website to provide the public with the latest information at www.ncdhhs.gov/coronavirus.

Cooper said that while he doesn’t plan to avoid large events, such as the ACC Tournament, because he’s not a high-risk person, “I think people have to make their own decisions about that.”

Cohen said people age 65 and older who are healthy overall “should use their best judgment” about being in large public settings.

Testing supplies lacking

Cohen said North Carolina is certainly not alone in lacking testing supplies.

The CDC has given DHHS officials approval to reach out directly to supply manufacturers, such as LabCorp of Burlington, to sign medicinal-development agreements with Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill’s health-care operations.

LabCorp began testing for coronavirus in its laboratories Thursday. The specimens it uses are collected from suspected COVID-19 victims at health-care facilities and sent to it. It doesn’t collect specimens itself.

LabCorp says test results will be made available as quickly as three days.The DHHS said it has take proactive steps that include allowing Medicaid providers to bill for defined telephonic services; allowing for additional 90-day orders of generic and brand-name prescription drugs with no refill limits; reinforcing that co-pays are not required at the time of ab office visit; encouraging providers to conduct more home visits for vulnerable populations and group-home settings; and allowing reimbursement for masks for ill patients requiring frequent transportation into public health-care settings, such as dialysis centers.

State Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, said he has received more emails from constituents about coronavirus over the past two weeks that he has received on any single issue.

“We need to communicate, communicate, communicate and be as transparent and keep (everyone) up to date,” said Lambeth, a former health-care executive with the Wake Forest Baptist Health health-care system.

Cohen said she is concerned that some of the North Carolina individuals who have tested positive are being harassed “for bringing it here.”

“Blame, stigma and harassment should not be tolerated. We need to lead with compassion and reason.”

Deacons head for home

Wake Forest’s Isaiah Mucius reacts after a Demon Deacon turnover Tuesday in Wake’s 81-72 loss to Pittsburgh in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro. Wake Forest, which was eliminated from the tournament, was led by Olivier Sarr’s 20 points and 13 rebounds. Isaiah Mucius had 19 points and Brandon Childress added 17 for the Deacons (13-18) For more coverage of the ACC Tournament, see Page C1.

Parents are asked to keep sick WS/FCS students at home, field trips being evaluated

In the midst of presumptive cases of the new coronavirus in North Carolina, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system is asking parents to keep sick students at home.

That applies to students who don’t feel well, present signs of illness and appear weak or ill, especially if they are running a temperature, said Brent Campbell, a WS/FCS spokesman.

“We also do not want students to come back to school until they have gone without the help of fever-reducing medication and without a fever for more than 24 hours,” Campbell said. “While that is really nothing new, we are hoping to heighten and remind parent awareness.”

Just when sick students in the school system are sent home is left up to the best advice the district receives from school nurses or a school administrator in the absence of a nurse.

“Students who are not feeling well and presenting symptoms of illness are usually sent home, especially if they have a fever,” said Campbell. “We know it can be difficult for parents to come in the middle of the day, but we appreciate their partnership in helping to reduce exposure of any illness to other students or staff by taking their child home or keeping them home when they are ill.”

Tony Lo Giudice, assistant public health director for the Forsyth County Department of Public Health, said that parents should not send their children to school if they are sick.

“If a child becomes ill during the school day, a school staff member will contact the parent/guardian and ask that they pick the student up as quickly as possible,” said Lo Giudice.

Each school has its own system for meeting the needs of students who get sick at school.

“As with all illnesses, students do not return to their classroom,” Lo Giudice said. “The student waits for pickup in an area designated by the school.”

Some educational institutions are calling off trips and others are going so far as to suspend on-campus classes.

Duke University announced Tuesday that it has suspended on campus classes and that all students currently out of town for spring break should not return to campus if possible, The Associated Press said.

Forsyth Technical Community College canceled Friday’s college-sponsored trip to Ireland on Tuesday, which affected nine students and two faculty members, because of the worldwide coronavirus epidemic, said Judi Saint Sing, a Forsyth Tech spokeswoman. The college had previously canceled a trip to Japan on Feb 28, which affected 21 students and three faculty members.

“We are not allowing faculty and staff to travel domestically or internationally to areas that have high outbreaks of COVID-19 (also known as the new coronavirus),” Saint Sing said.

After Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency Tuesday, Wake County Public Schools canceled all field trips.

Campbell said that WS/FCS’s task force and administrative team has a list of all field trips and is evaluating them and asking schools to not plan new trips unless they are approved by their instructional superintendent.

“At this moment, our health authorities are not advising the cancellation of field trips inside the United States,” Campbell said. “We understand that can change, quickly. That is why the district has compiled a list of all school trips until the end of the year and will carefully consider each situation and make decisions believed to be in the best interest of students, or as directed by the Health Department.”

He said that parents are being advised to look into deposit information, trip insurance and other information about students’ upcoming trips.

In addition, the district is asking principals and school leaders to look into options in the event trips will need to be rescheduled.

WFU officials closed the university-owned study-abroad center in Venice, Italy on Feb. 28 in response to the spread of the coronavirus in northern Italy.

The group of 19 Wake Forest University students and one faculty member left its study-aboard center in Venice by March 1 and will have exceeded the 14-day incubation period prior to their return, said Cheryl Walker, a WFU spokeswoman.

The university said there’s no evidence that any of the students has been exposed to the coronavirus.

Before they return to the WFU campus, the Student Health Service will send a screening questionnaire that they must complete, Walker said.

“They will be asked if they have had any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and if they have been tested,” Walker said. “If any student reports symptoms, Wake Forest will follow the guidance of local and state public health officials concerning testing, isolation and care.

“The university will take appropriate steps to address the safety and well-being of faculty, staff and students,” Walker said.

Updated prevention recommendations

With the declared state of emergency in effect, the Forsyth County Department of Public Health is urging residents to follow the updated prevention recommendations from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

The declaration activates the State Emergency Operations Center to help agencies coordinate the response from one location and makes it easier to buy medical supplies, protect consumers from price gouging, and increase county health departments’ access to state funds.

Currently, there are seven cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina.

The local health department said that none of those cases are in Forsyth County and that the risk of contracting the virus remains low here.

“We’re continuing to work with state and local partners and are in communication with City/County Emergency Management, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, local hospitals and other partner agencies in this rapidly changing situation,” said Forsyth County Public Health Director Joshua Swift. “There are no identified cases in Forsyth County, but we recommend everyone take precautions to protect against this virus and its spread.”

To prevent this virus from spreading, people are encouraged to wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, avoid close contact with people who are ill, stay home if you’re sick, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and clean and disinfect surfaces that are frequently touched.

Many of the updated N.C. DHHS recommendations involve people at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19, meaning people who are 65 years of age or older, have chronic medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes, or have a weakened immune system.

People at high risk of severe illness are asked to avoid large groups of people as much as possible; avoid large gatherings such as concert venues, conventions, church services, sporting events and crowded social events; and avoid cruise travel and non-essential air travel.

Witness who recanted is grilled by panel. Woman helped implicate 4 teens in the murder of Chris Paul’s grandfather.

For hours Tuesday, Jessicah Black tried to explain why she said she lied in two separate trials that resulted in five teenagers getting convicted of robbing and killing Nathaniel Jones, the 61-year-old grandfather of NBA star Chris Paul.

She appeared on the second day of a hearing in Raleigh in front of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission, which is re-examining the case and considering whether four of the five teens, now men in their 30s, are really guilty of murder. Two of the men — Nathaniel Arnold Cauthen and his brother, Rayshawn Denard Banner — are each serving a sentence of life with parole.

Christopher Levon Bryant and Jermal Tolliver were convicted of second-degree murder and have since been released. Dorrell Brayboy also was released from prison but was stabbed to death outside a Food Lion on New Walkertown Road.

Cauthen, Banner, Bryant and Tolliver have all filed claims of innocence with the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission. The commission only considers claims from people who are alive.

Also testifying at the hearing Tuesday was Hunter Atkins, a former sports reporter for the Houston Chronicle (Paul previously played for the Houston Rockets). Black first recanted her testimony in an interview with Atkins, who had also interviewed all five defendants. He has not published a piece on the case.

Black, now 33, was the key witness in two trials that put all five teenagers away for Jones’ murder. She testified that she drove the teenagers, whom she had befriended a month or so prior, to and from the area where Jones’ house was. She told jurors that she sat outside at a picnic table and heard a man, presumably Jones, screaming. She also said that before the attack, she heard several of the teenagers outline plans to rob Jones.

But on Monday, commission members saw a videotaped deposition in which Black recanted her testimony and said that everything she said implicating the five teenagers was a lie.

Jones, a friendly church-going gas station owner, was found lying in the carport of his home on Moravia Street on Nov. 15, 2002. At the time, Paul was a senior standout basketball player at West Forsyth High School and days after his grandfather’s death, he scored 61 points at a basketball game in his grandfather’s honor. Paul now plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

On Tuesday, Black sat at a table facing commission members and staff. In front of her were two water bottles and a box of tissues she pulled from liberally as she wiped tears from her face. During her testimony, her face morphed from one of defiance to one marked by apparent grief and guilt.

One of the commissioners asked her why she was crying. Black told her that she had been crying the whole time she drove from her Davidson County home to Raleigh, from the time she got out of her car and the moment she walked into the hearing room. She couldn’t stop.

Black apologized for giving false testimony.

“I’m so sorry for what happened,” she said. “I’m so sorry for (Jones’ family’s) loss and I’m sorry that things went like they did...I’m just sorry.”

Commissioners, however, pushed her for details on what she remembered happening on Nov. 15, 2002. She said she picked up at least four of the teenagers and that they went to her house with plans to change because they were going to attend a party. Those plans changed and they ended up driving around, smoking marijuana and making stops at a bowling alley in Winston-Salem, Hanes Mall and in Midway.

But Black said she couldn’t remember exactly who was with her. At another point in her testimony, she said she was certain that the teenagers were with her between 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 15, 2002.

Winston-Salem police responded to Jones’ house at 7:54 p.m. that night.

She maintained throughout the hearing that Winston-Salem police detectives coerced her into making false statements and that she was scared she would be charged if she didn’t do what they wanted.

“I feel like they got what they wanted,” she said.

Atkins appeared via video late Tuesday afternoon. He was testifying based on an order signed by a judge in Texas that limited the scope of the questions he could answer. His role in the case has been prominent throughout the hearing. He continued communicating with at least two of the defendants, Bryant and Cauthen, after they had filed claims with the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission.

The state agency prohibits defendants from talking to journalists or anyone else about their case after the agency has initiated an inquiry into their claims.

Atkins said he became interested in the story after Paul was traded to the Houston Rockets in 2017. He acknowledged that he paid $200 toward Black’s car payment but said this was done months after she had already agreed to talk to him and had recanted her testimony.

“It became a matter that was separate from my reporting on the story,” he said.

Stephen Riley, executive editor of the Houston Chronicle, confirmed Monday that Atkins no longer worked at the paper. He also said that editors were never aware of any kind of arrangement to make a payment to a potential witness and that such an arrangement would have violated “our policies and practices.”

Atkins declined to answer questions about why he no longer works at the Houston Chronicle. Riley did not elaborate on his statement Monday.

The Innocence Commission rarely holds hearings on claims of innocence. Out of 2,700 claims the commission has reviewed since it started operating in 2007, it has held 15 hearings. Twelve people have been exonerated through the commission process.

The hearing is expected to last through Friday.