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Coronavirus Cases And Hospitalizations Keep Climbing In North Carolina


Even after months of lockdowns and social distancing, COVID-19 infections are exploding in many American states. North Carolina is one place where cases and hospitalizations keep climbing. Dr. Mandy Cohen is one of the people trying to keep those numbers in check. She is secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Thank you for joining us.

MANDY COHEN: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Well, last week, your state set a record - nearly 2,000 new cases in a single day. So after months of infection staying relatively flat, what happened?

COHEN: Yeah. We've been working hard to slow the spread of the virus. We took early action, and Gov. Cooper took that action to buy us the time to be able to respond to this crisis. And as we saw our trends being stable earlier in the May timeframe, we did start to ease restrictions. And we knew when we'd move around more, we'd likely see more cases. And now we're trying to find that balance between protecting the public health and reigniting the economy. But with our cases going up, it's why governor and I took the action last week to pause any further easing of restrictions and to mandate wearing of face coverings here in North Carolina.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I want to ask about that mandate. I mean, health experts agree that wearing a mask is a key step to preventing the spread of the disease. Even so, are you seeing a political backlash to this new rule?

COHEN: Well, we know face coverings is the best way North Carolinians can show that they can actually support businesses and support the economy by wearing those face coverings. We know it only works if everyone does it together, and so we knew that we had to move to a statewide mandate for wearing coverings in public spaces. I've definitely seen anecdotally just in my own world that folks are really taking this seriously and wearing more masks. So we are appreciating everyone's help here.

SHAPIRO: About 45% of coronavirus patients in North Carolina are Latinx. How are you addressing these communities specifically?

COHEN: Yes, we have seen a disproportionate impact on our Latinx and Hispanic communities. We have a number of strategies to try to help make sure that we're responding to the increases we're seeing in the Latinx community. First is on prevention, of course, and we need to work with community organizations that have been long working with our Latinx and Hispanic communities. Last week we announced a partnership with five community-based organizations that are actively engaged in supporting communities during the COVID pandemic.

We're also making sure we're surging our testing and our tracing capacity in those communities. We're going down to not just the ZIP code level but the census tract level and then individual apartment complexes. We're going to where folks are to make sure that we're finding them, and we are hiring almost exclusively bilingual contact tracers to make sure that we are able to reach folks in the language that is most comfortable for them. But we have a lot of work to do here. I don't want to say that this is something that we have completely figured out. We have a lot of work still to do.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Vice President Mike Pence said on Friday that none of the Southern states dealing with this new surge in cases need supplies from the federal government. Is that consistent with your experience in North Carolina?

COHEN: Well, we certainly need some additional assistance from the federal government. We've been talking to them about some additional testing sites that they could support here, and some - a number are meant to close here in the next few days. We're hoping that they can keep those open. But we're also seeing a shortage in lab reagents. These are the chemicals needed to process our tests at the lab. We're seeing a shortage of that everywhere, and so that is a concern that we have been raising to the federal government. And we hope that they can continue to help us not with just the swabs, but it's really those chemicals for the labs that we are needing here in North Carolina. But truly, that's not unique to us, and that's in a lot of labs around the country.

SHAPIRO: So not at all accurate that the federal government has met all the demands from these states that are seeing spikes.

COHEN: We certainly need some additional support for the reagents in our labs, and we'd like to see additional support for testing sites from the federal government.

SHAPIRO: If I could ask you to just take a step back and sort of reflect on this journey that you've been on with the rest of the country for the last few months - we locked down in mid-March, and if I told you then that North Carolina would have close to 2,000 new infections a day at the end of June, what would you have said?

COHEN: Well, I would say this. We have a lot to learn about this virus. And I'd say we need to build our capabilities to test and trace and surge our capacity as fast as we can, and that's what we've been doing. And look; this is the challenge of our lifetimes. While it is an incredible honor to serve in this role, it is incredibly challenging. We're trying to build a public health infrastructure that has been weakened over a number of decades by lack of funding. We don't have the data we would like. The science is still evolving. We have a lot of work to do.

So what I would say is that we really need everyone to do their part and help us slow the spread of the virus because we don't have all the tools I wish we had to be able to treat or to be able to prevent this virus from spreading. So the simple things like wearing a face covering are so, so critical here. And we're going to keep making sure everyone hears that message and continues to heed that warning while we try to find this balance between safely reopening more businesses and doing activities but protecting public health.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, thank you for talking with us today.

COHEN: Thank you, Ari. Stay well.