RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina reported its first two COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday as local governments in several higher-populated areas ordered their residents to stay at home. Gov. Roy Cooper says additional state directives are coming to slow the virus spread.
Cooper announced the coronavirus-related deaths were a person from Cabarrus County and another person from Virginia who was traveling through the state. The Cabarrus County patient was over 70 years old with underlying conditions, while the Virginia patient was over 60, according to a news release, which did not include further details about them.
The deaths came as overall positive cases of the virus reached more than 500 statewide, according to a state tally Wednesday. About 30 people were hospitalized, authorities said, and some were in critical condition.
“Today is a stark reminder that we must take this disease seriously - all of us, young and old, employers and employees,” Cooper said at a news conference while asking for privacy for the families of those who died. “This virus can be deadly, and that’s why our daily lives have had to change so dramatically. I know it’s hard, but it’s necessary.”
More local governments announced stay-at-home orders on Wednesday, including the cities of Durham and Winston-Salem; Buncombe County in the Asheville area; and Greensboro and surrounding Guilford County. Mecklenburg County announced one on Tuesday that takes effect Thursday morning.
Wake County, which includes Raleigh and ranks No. 2 in population behind Mecklenburg, planned to roll out a similar order very soon, said county commission Chairman Greg Ford.
North Carolina government has not issued a statewide shelter-in-place order but has gradually reduced allowable gathering sizes, ordered some nonessential businesses to close starting Wednesday and shuttered K-12 schools until mid-May. Trade groups representing hospitals and doctors have written Cooper asking him to issue more statewide restrictions.
Without giving specifics, Cooper said further guidance and orders would be upcoming. He urged people to stay at home and businesses to get their telecommuting options in order.
“Local communities are doing what they think is right and I understand that. It’s important for (state officials) to make sure we are deliberate and that we get this right,” Cooper said. “We will be issuing additional orders soon.”
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said at a Wednesday news conference that the city’s order covering more than 265,000 residents goes into effect Thursday and lasts through the end of April. Similar to other jurisdictions, the order includes exemptions for people going to get food or medicine or completing other essential tasks. Schewel said Durham County has 74 cases, including at least eight cases of community spread. The area ranks among the counties with the most cases in the state.
“What we know about this virus is that it spreads easily and fast,” he said. “Once cases begin multiplying, as they have in Italy and New York, the rise in the number of cases is exponential. And that is exactly what we are trying to avoid and to stop here in Durham.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
The tighter restrictions came as General Assembly members held their first formal meeting to determine what lawmakers can offer to buttress the state’s response. GOP House Speaker Tim Moore created four COVID-19 working groups, led by both Republicans and Democrats, that could recommend bills to the full legislature when it reconvenes.
The annual session is set to begin April 28, but there’s been talk that the governor would call lawmakers back sooner. Cooper has said his administration is compiling legislative action and spending requests. Moore and one House colleague were the only members to attend the economic work group meeting in person at the Legislative Building, with the rest participating by video conference.
The speaker said chamber leaders were looking at ways to reduce the spreading threat should they reconvene. Moore said one way would be to expand the time period to complete floor votes, currently 15 seconds for the House, to an hour, so that members can avoid close contact with each other. The state constitution requires a majority of legislators in a chamber be “actually present” to complete public business.
“This is an unprecedented time in our state, and it’s an unprecedented time here at the legislature,” Moore said, adding that his chamber is prepared to convene before late April if necessary.
GOP Senate leader Phil Berger and Minority Leader Dan Blue said Wednesday in a joint statement that fellow senators would collect ideas with a goal of coming to a consensus with Cooper and the House on “how to help all North Carolinians.”
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