On the same day health officials announced two Forsyth County residents tested positive for the new coronavirus, Gov. Roy Cooper recommended all events with an expected attendance of 100 or more — worship services, concerts, sporting events or conferences — be cancelled or postponed. The governor also suggested employers allow employees to work from home where possible.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday morning it has identified two cases of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, in Forsyth County.
There are now 15 cases in North Carolina, with the majority of cases clustered in the Triangle. The two cases in Forsyth County were the first reported outside of the Triangle area. Later Thursday morning, the Mecklenburg County Department of Public Health announced two cases there.
The Forsyth County patients are a couple who contracted the virus after going on an international cruise where other travelers tested positive, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Both are reportedly doing well and are in isolation at their home, according to the Forsyth County Department of Public Health.
Speaking at a press conference after briefing the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, Forsyth County Public Health Director Joshua Swift was mum on any details regarding the two patients.
Swift said he isn’t aware of the exact date the couple returned to the country, and declined to say where they had traveled within Forsyth County since returning or how many people they came into contact with since returning.
“I can’t release that information,” Swift said.
In a news release from the Winston-Salem Mayor's Office, city officials say they are taking additional measures to slow the spread of coronavirus, and that two city employees have been exposed to the virus. While neither employee has tested positive, both are going into self-quarantine. One of the employees has a child who came into contact with someone who has COVID-19, and the child is displaying symptoms.
As a precaution, the city is canceling all non-essential city-sponsored events involving public participation. All business travel for city employees outside the county is canceled unless otherwise authorized by City Manager Lee Garrity or one of his assistants.
"Our situation in Winston-Salem is rapidly evolving," Mayor Allen Joines is quoted as saying in a news release. "It is imperative that every citizen immediately begin practicing those measures that can slow the spread of the disease."
Swift said the county health department is monitoring other individuals who are showing symptoms or may have been exposed but declined to say how many. Swift said the county has collected samples from possible COVID-19 patients but again declined to say how many.
The county health department will begin working to identify those who came into close contact with the local patients. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines close contact as being within approximately 6 feet of a person with COVID-19 for 10 minutes or longer. Based on information provided by the patients, county health officials will assess risks of exposure and determine if any additional measures are needed, such as temperature checks, symptom checks, quarantine and testing for the virus.
Swift said public risk of getting the virus remains low, the same thing he said at a Wednesday press conference.
“Take it seriously, but remain calm,” Swift said when asked what he would tell the public. “Practice common public health procedures.”
On Thursday, multiple organizations abruptly canceled events or announced restrictions to combat the spread of coronavirus. The ACC Tournament in Greensboro canceled the remaining games. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools implemented visitor restrictions and suspended volunteer programs as a precaution. On Wednesday, Wake Forest University announced it was moving to online classes for the foreseeable future.
Asked if the cancellations were an overreaction given his description of the risk as low, he did not directly answer the question.
“I cannot speak to those events because I am not the organizer of those events,” Swift said. “Anybody that has asked those questions, I refer them to the CDC and their guidance on mass gatherings.”
The state health department recommends event organizers adopt lenient refund policies for people who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 and to encourage those people to stay home. Additionally, they ask organizers to clean shared surfaces and give attendees more physical space to limit close contact.
People over the age of 65 or people with underlying health issues are especially at risk. Precautions for avoiding coronavirus are virtually the same as those for avoiding the common cold or flu. Health officials recommend everyone wash their hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, avoid touching their faces and stay home if they are ill or display symptoms.
Not everyone is eligible to be tested for COVID-19. To be tested, someone must show the symptoms — coughing, fever and shortness of breath — and either have a known exposure to the virus or have tested negative for the flu, Swift said.
The first North Carolina case was identified March 3, according to the state health department. The state can currently test 50 patients a day, according to the state health department. Supplies for an additional 900 patients are on back order from the CDC.