County eyes path to reopening

Published 6:11 pm Tuesday, April 28, 2020

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The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners has sent North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper a letter seeking increased flexibility to restart portions of the local economy in a safe manner. While the letter, signed by BOC chairman Jerry Evans, acknowledged the effectiveness of the state’s response so far, it also raised concerns about the economic impact of continued restrictions.

“My thought is, we’re a rural county. There’s 70 rural counties out of 100 in North Carolina, and who knows this county better than we do?” Evans said. “If you’re sitting up in Wake County or Mecklenburg County, it’s just a totally different deal. … I think what everybody would like to see is a little more flexibility to run our own county the way we see fit. I’m sure there are going to be guidelines, but what we need to do here is a lot different than what goes on in Wake County.”

Evans said he anticipates the Board of Commissioners will consider a formal resolution to the same effect during its May meeting. During a Tuesday press briefing, Cooper said state restrictions may act as a “floor” for local governments to add regulations as they see necessary, but that county-to-county transmission remains a concern if local governments set lesser restrictions.

“We’ll still leave open the potential of looking at regional reopening, if the data shows us that moving forward,” Cooper said. “Right now, we’re not there yet. Hopefully, by May 8, we’ll go into Phase One (of reopening) if the numbers tell us we can do that. We’ll continue to look at the potential of regional phases, and we’ve gotten some input on that from across the state.”

Under the state plan for reopening, restrictions will be lifted gradually starting May 9, if overall COVID-19 trends continue downward.

In a conference call with municipal leaders Wednesday, county officials discussed what that opening might look like for Beaufort County based on the state’s timeline, as well as local COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and trends.

In terms of testing for COVID-19, a national shortage of tests early on stifled the ability of providers to do testing at the local level. Because of that, residents exhibiting mild symptoms were not tested and told to simply stay home. Now, with tests more easily available, the state is pushing for more testing across the board, but Beaufort County Health Director Jim Madson says the availability of personal protective equipment is still a limiting factor.

“Once we start ramping up testing, we’re going to expect three to four times the number of people being tested, which means we may see three to four times as many cases reported per day,” Madson said. “That will look like there’s an outbreak occurring, but it won’t be. It will be due to the increase in testing.”

As of Tuesday morning, Madson said Beaufort County had 21 confirmed cases out of roughly 275 tests completed in the county. That places the percentage of positive tests at roughly 5.5% of the total test results. As testing expands, based on the availability of PPE, Madson said he expects there may be more confirmed cases overall, but that the percentage of positive tests compared to total tests will continue to be important.

“We can increase by four times the number, but as long as we’re staying around that 5.5% positive rate, I know it’s due to increased testing and not an outbreak,” Madson said.