- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

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March 24

The Charlotte Observer/The News & Observer on the state prison population’s risk of the coronavirus:

The COVID-19 outbreak has driven many North Carolinians into voluntary confinement at home to lower their chance of getting or spreading the infection, but state officials need to pay urgent attention to those whose confinement may actually put them at greater risk - the more than 50,000 people who are locked up in county jails and the state’s prisons.



So far, there has not been a confirmed case of the virus among the inmate population, but an infection is all but inevitable and an outbreak in a jail or prison setting could move quickly. A COVID-19 outbreak among inmates living in close quarters would overwhelm the already inadequate jail and prison health care systems and also put deputies and corrections officers at risk.

Last week, a coalition of groups asked Gov. Roy Cooper to act to protect the state’s incarcerated population. Cooper said that he is aware of the potential trouble and steps have been taken to prevent it. The Department of Public Safety is restricting visitors and screening incoming inmates for signs of COVID-19 and has stepped up the cleaning of prisons and transport buses.

Those are prudent steps, but more must be done across the state, and quickly. It’s not hard to see the options. Advocates for reducing mass incarceration, such as the Prison Policy Initiative, have long cited ways to cut the inmate population without increasing risk to the public.

The first and simplest step is to reduce the number of people being sent to jail. North Carolina’s 113 jails are less equipped than prisons to handle an infectious disease outbreak, especially jails in poorer and rural counties. Jail populations can be cut by reducing bail requirements, using citations rather than arrests for minor crimes, diverting more suspects to mental health and substance abuse programs and processing jail inmates’ cases quickly rather than having people linger in jail awaiting court dates. On March 22, New Jersey’s chief justice signed an order that could lead to the release of as many as 1,000 people being held in jails for probation violations or low-level crimes.

To their credit, district attorneys in the Triangle and Mecklenburg County are moving to reduce county jail populations. Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry sought to cut the numbers even before the outbreak by releasing many non-violent offenders and in the past week her efforts have helped reduce Durham’s jail population by 9 percent.

In Wake County, District Attorney Lorrin Freeman has kept four District and Superior Court courtrooms operating to help speed the release of jail inmates awaiting hearings and she is reducing bond requirements in many cases. “We are taking a more progressive view of bond conditions that are set at first appearances,” she said. “I have encouraged my prosecutors to seek unsecured bonds in non-violent crimes where there is no risk to the public.”

Freeman is also consulting with the state prison system about considering the release of inmates 60 and older, about 6 percent of the state’s male prison population. Though she said those cases often are complicated because many of the inmates in that age group have been convicted of homicide or serious sexual crimes. Nonetheless, it is worth reviewing whether older inmates with medical problems could be moved to settings where they are less at risk of contracting COVID-19.

The DPS has temporarily taken other steps recommended by prisoner advocates. Medical co-pays have been waived for inmates experiencing fever or flu-like symptoms, and prisoners are getting more opportunities to communicate with friends and family members. Onerous phone charges are being waived; inmates can make two five-minute phone calls per week for free.

North Carolina’s jails and prisons faced major problems before COVID-19. The jails are holding too many people whose crimes are related to mental illness or drug addiction. The prisons are understaffed, corrections officers are poorly paid and medical providers are in short supply. Steps taken in response to COVID-19 could lead to a lasting reduction in the number of people behind bars and safer conditions for corrections workers and inmates alike.

Online: https://www.charlotteobserver.com

Online: https://www.newsobserver.com

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March 24

The Fayetteville Observer on the state’s stressed hospital systems:

Gov. Roy Cooper on March 23 expanded a shutdown of goods and services, closing hair and nail salons, theaters, gyms and other places, in an effort to stop COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. His executive order closed school buildings through May 15, and also lowered to 50 the number of people whom could safely gather.

The evening of March 23, the state’s hospital executives said it was still not enough.

In a letter, the North Carolina Healthcare Association asked the governor to immediately issue an order for shelter-in-place, the kind of stay-at-home restrictions in force in 16 states. The specifics were not laid out, but in other states it has meant nearly all businesses are closed except ones deemed essential, such as grocery stores. Residents must stay around their homes, except in limited circumstances, such as outdoor exercise, to go out for groceries or medicine, or to go to jobs considered essential.

The message from the hospital leaders could not be any more stark: They believe the social distancing we have done so far in North Carolina will not be enough to contain the spread of the virus.

“It is imperative that we move quickly, as it will take at least two weeks after a shelter in place order is issued before we see a change in the trajectory of cases,” the letter read. “Hospitals and physicians throughout the state believe this is the only resort left to immediately impact the growth and spread of the virus.”

The fear is that a flood of COVID-19 patients could overwhelm the state’s healthcare system. We should remember that an overloaded system also presents a real danger for those majority of patients who need care outside of the coronavirus.

Cooper has done well in this crisis. But he faces another difficult decision. We believe he should listen to the public health and medical professionals, as he has done so far.

Meanwhile, the hospitals are crying out for help in other ways. They need PPE - personal protective equipment. These are the masks, gloves and gowns they need to do their life-saving work. If they take ill with the virus and are forced into isolation, that hurts us all.

In a news release on March 23, Cape Fear Valley Health system put out a call for PPE and other items, including N95 respirator masks; surgical and other kinds of masks; nasal swabs for medical use; goggles and other eye protection; disinfectant; face shields; disposable gloves, Nitrile or non-Latex preferred; disposable gowns and shoe covers; hand sanitizer (greater than 60 percent alcohol); liquid hand soap; and medical grade ventilators.

The release added: “Home sewers can pick up fabric and instructions to make cloth masks at JoAnn Fabrics, which is donating the supplies to assist hospitals.” The health system is also looking for what it called new supply streams to get PPE, and were seeking highly-skilled logistic experts to volunteer to help coordinate and organize donation efforts.

It all sounded like a medical system that is trying to prepare but is still scrambling because of the potential, looming crisis. As a reminder of the stakes, the hospital announced on March 23 it was treating its first confirmed case of COVID-19, an eventuality for which it has been preparing since January, according to officials. There are five confirmed cases in the county, four of them at Fort Bragg.

We have faith this community will do all it can to pitch in. There has already been action. Manna Church, the county’s largest congregation, donated 7,000 N95 masks that had been stored up for hurricane relief to Cape Fear Valley. Other businesses were organizing efforts to make homemade masks.

We are in for a long fight against coronavirus, but we are in it together.

We have the skills, toughness and compassion to win.

Online: https://www.fayobserver.com

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March 21

The Wilmington StarNews on Sen. Richard Burr’s actions ahead of the escalating coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.:

The highly Honorable Richard Mauze Burr, Republican of North Carolina, chairs the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, so he knows how to keep a secret - especially from the voters who elected him.

According to the news agency Reuters, Burr and his committee have been receiving almost daily briefings on the coronavirus pandemic from intelligence agencies for the past month.

Burr was clearly paying attention. On Feb. 27, according to National Public Radio, he addressed a Washington luncheon organized by The Tar Heel Circle, a business group whose annual membership fees run between $500 and $10,000.

According to a recording that NPR acquired, Burr told the bigwigs that coronavirus was “probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.” He urged the business leaders to reconsider travel plans to Europe and to think about holding meetings by videoconference. He also predicted that schools might have to be closed.

In public, however, to the unwashed masses, Sen. Burr said nothing. To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, he did nothing in particular and did it very well.

This is about the same time that President Trump was saying that COVID-19, which the coronavirus causes, is no worse than a case of the flu and that it would likely go away with warmer weather. Although Sen. Burr knew the real story, he said nothing to contradict the president.

Once this story broke, the senator responded by the playbook, calling the NPR report “a tabloid-style hit piece.” He didn’t dispute the facts or the accuracy of the quotes, but said he was “misrepresented.”

Well, maybe. Harder to explain, however, were the senator’s actions on Feb. 13, when - according to the reputable news site ProPublica - Burr sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his stock holdings in 33 separate transactions.

This was just a week before the stock market, unnerved by coronavirus reports, began a slide that would leave the Dow Jones average lower than it was in January 2017, when President Trump took office.

Lots of seniors and retirees, who’ve seen their 401(k) plans deflate, might have appreciated some advance warning from someone with some insider information that the market likely was about to take a slide.

Well, that’ll just teach them to get their $10,000 checks into The Tar Heel Circle for some insider information.

Sen. Burr had already said he won’t seek re-election in 2022, so he’ll face no real penalty for his action, or lack of it.

Some lame duck lawmakers, freed of the political grind, turn more independent, more plainspoken, more statesmanlike. A few of them rise to greatness.

Sadly, Richard M. Burr is not one of these.

- Statement from Sen. Burr, March 20, 2020: “I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on February 13. Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time. Understanding the assumption many could make in hindsight however, I spoke this morning with the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and asked him to open a complete review of the matter with full transparency.”

Online: https://www.starnewsonline.com

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