The question of the day is “How much longer will we need to keep COVID-19 measures?” The answer is we don’t know. With access to some better data from limited testing, we may be able to start relaxing measures but for the foreseeable future, we will need to continue social distancing and hygiene measures to counter this invisible threat. In summer 2020, I can’t imagine being able to safely accommodate crowded, large-scale events like we typically host in Beaufort.
I have reviewed many best practice articles for COVID-19 recovery to include the president’s “Opening Up America Again” and Governor Cooper’s recent “Testing, Tracing, and Trends” summary. Unfortunately, there are not enough kits available for the large-scale testing (both diagnostic and antibody) needed to effectively combat the virus. No vaccine is on the horizon. Today, because of limited testing capability, only severe cases are tested, so the number of positive cases should be considered an absolute minimum. Mild or asymptomatic cases go untested. Tracing means identifying those that are positive and determining who they have been in contact with. Trends are used to find the decreasing daily rates of the virus (and associated deaths) that would indicate success in this fight.
In Beaufort, we incrementally implemented our COVID-19 measures to flatten the curve and protect our many vulnerable citizens. We are in close contact with medical professionals and scientists to constantly evaluate the threat, and we also want to ensure our hospital has the capacity to handle a COVID-19 outbreak. Our COVID-19 measures are inconvenient…for me, for you, for all of us. These are imperfect measures to counter the extraordinary challenges of a global pandemic, and we are provided very little information at a municipal level to guide our decisions. Due to medical privacy concerns, we are not told the number or location of positive cases in and around our community. That location information is kept by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the County Health Department, and not disseminated to municipalities.
So far, the cases in our county appear manageable, and our county medical professionals have performed brilliantly. Across the state, there remain big challenges. Positive cases and deaths continue to increase, and the Secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Mandy Cohen, is not seeing a peak yet.
Over the next few weeks, if the county case load continues manageable and the N.C. rate of positives decreases, we will incrementally start relaxing restrictions. Our measures are currently (and legally) more restrictive than the governor’s so at a minimum, we can reduce ours to match those of the governor’s executive orders. But we also must be prepared to re-implement measures if an outbreak occurs in the future.
As in any crisis, there have been many lessons learned. At a state level, we must do better at getting data to officials who make key decisions. A pandemic demands improved data distribution. At a county level, the 11 municipalities of Carteret County must be part of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). There has not been a single meeting that involved the EOC and elected officials from all municipalities. Efforts by mayors to be part of a county-wide emergency operations team have been rejected by Carteret County officials. This limited construct was readily apparent during Hurricanes Florence and Dorian, but we worked through it. In this long-term pandemic and for future crises, the lack of teamwork must change.
So what keeps me awake at night? First, not knowing who is positive in our town and surrounding area. It would be naïve to think the virus is not in our town. Second, our business community is struggling and we will need to rebuild our economy as quickly as possible. This is not unique to Beaufort (or Carteret County) but deeply personal none-the-less. Finally, there are many families that don’t have food. We knew there was a deep socio-economic divide in Carteret County. Hurricane Florence exposed it, Hurricane Dorian widened it, and this pandemic has expanded the divide even more. For those that want to help, please provide support to the Carteret County Public School Foundation, the Boys and Girls Clubs, Backpack Buddies programs, and your local food bank. Hunger is no longer a hidden secret. It is right here in Carteret County and we need to support those in need.
The author is a Beaufort native, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, fourth-year Duke PhD student, and, since 2017, the Mayor of Beaufort.