NC tops 1 million cases, but cause for optimism as COVID-19 metrics improve dramatically

Here are the latest updates about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in North Carolina.

4:02 p.m.
Wake County is reminding people that NCDHHS still requires everyone age 5 and older to wear face coverings when indoors at schools, preschools, and on school or vendor transportation on days when students are in the building.

On days when no students are in the school building, however, face coverings will be optional indoors for employees and visitors. If a student is present, employees must wear a face covering.

Face coverings are still optional for everyone when outdoors.

Effective June 1, face coverings will also be optional for employees at Wake County Central Services who are not likely to interact with children and for visitors to these sites, including visitors to Board of Education and committee meetings.

12:30 p.m.
More than 14 months after the start of the pandemic, North Carolina has topped 1 million COVID-19 cases.

NCDHHS reported 849 new cases, which pushes the state to a total of 1,00,416 cases.

Not all the news was grim, however. The new case count is far below last Thursday's report, which listed 1,187 cases, and even better than two weeks ago when 1,394 cases were reported.

The most encouraging news might be that C hit the lowest positivity rate of the pandemic at just 2.8%. It's the lowest percent positivity rate since the state started tracking it.

Cumberland County remains a trouble spot, though, as the positivity rate sits at 6.1%. Wake County by comparison is at 3.4% and Durham County saw a very good 1.9% rate.

Hospitalizations dipped to 681, 14 fewer people than the previous day and well below last's week's total of 793.

Twenty-four additional deaths were reported, In all, 13,055 deaths have been recorded in the state since the start of the pandemic.

Statewide, 38.4% of the population is fully vaccinated and 48.5% of adults have been fully vaccinated.

12:25 p.m.
Two encouraging studies suggest that people who recovered from COVID-19 had immune responses to the virus long after antibodies faded, even up to one year later.

The findings may help put to rest lingering fears that protection against the virus will be short-lived.

Click here to read the full story.

9:30 a.m.
The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits dropped last week to 406,000, a new pandemic low and more evidence that the job market is strengthening as the virus wanes and economy further reopens.

Thursday's report from the Labor Department showed that applications declined 38,000 from 444,000 a week earlier. The number of weekly applications for jobless aid - a rough measure of the pace of layoffs - has fallen by more than half since January.

The decline in applications reflects a swift rebound in economic growth. The government separately estimated Thursday that the economy expanded at a strong annual pace of 6.4% in the first three months of this year, unchanged from its initial estimate. More Americans are venturing out to shop, travel, dine out and congregate at entertainment venues. All that renewed spending has led companies to seek new workers, which helps explain why a record number of jobs is now being advertised.

Yet many businesses complain that they can't find enough applicants for all those open jobs, even though the unemployment rate remains 6.1%, well above the 3.5% rate that prevailed before the pandemic struck in March of last year. Job growth slowed sharply last month compared with March, a surprise pullback that was largely ascribed to a labor shortage in some industries.

Economists blame a range of factors for the shortfall of workers, including an extra $300-a-week payment that people receiving jobless aid have been able to get, on top of their state unemployment check, since March. The federal benefit was included in President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion rescue package. With many people able to earn more from their combined federal and state jobless aid than from their former jobs, the extra income has likely discouraged some of the unemployed from seeking work, some analysts say.

Other people remain reluctant to take jobs in restaurants, hotels and other service industries for fear of contracting COVID-19. And some women can't return to work without adequate child care, though recent research by two economists found the impact of this factor to be relatively small.

Complaints from businesses that they can't find enough workers have led most Republican governors to curtail unemployment aid. Twenty-four states, including such populous ones as Texas, Florida, Georgia and Arizona, have said they will stop paying out the supplemental $300-a-week federal jobless payment beginning in June.

Twenty of those states also say they will stop participating in two emergency programs. One of those programs covers self-employed and gig workers. The other provides aid to people who have been unemployed for more than six months. The cutoffs of those two programs could cost at least 2.5 million people all their jobless aid.

9 a.m.
With employers struggling to fill positions as post-pandemic restrictions end, North Carolina state senators advanced a proposal Wednesday giving $1,500 bonuses to unemployment benefit recipients who return to work this summer.

The Senate Commerce Committee gave bipartisan support to the measure, which would offer bonuses, but only if federal labor officials allow the state to use money coming from Washington that's made unemployment benefits more generous during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill also would place additional requirements upon current beneficiaries to respond to job interview requests, or they could ultimately see benefits cut off.

"It's a good first step to helping us address the workforce shortages that we have in North Carolina right now," Sen. Chuck Edwards, a Henderson County Republican, told the committee.

The additional $300-a-week benefit provided by Washington is proving to be a disincentive to some displaced workers, according to bill supporters. Several senators have been told by local employers that they can't find enough people to hire, even while increasing wages.

"This crisis is widespread; it's impacting all industries, all sizes all across North Carolina," said Nicole Hendren with Catapult, a North Carolina-based employer consultant on personnel and other issues. "The federal supplement is creating an incentive to not work. Elimination or repurposing is key."

Lynn Minges, president of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, said its member businesses lost workers permanently during last year's restrictions on in-person dining. Now that all capacity limits are lifted, the industry loss of a ready workforce is being felt.

"We have hotels who are now turning away reservations because they can't service rooms. We have restaurants that ... now are shutting their dining room two days a week because they can't find workers," Minges said. "Without workers, the hospitality industry cannot sustain and cannot recover."

With federal approval, the bill would provide $1,500 bonuses to people who accept reemployment within 30 days. The bonus would drop to $800 if they begin employment on or after 30 days but before 60 days.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who would be asked to sign any bill into law, issued an executive order the day after the measure surfaced last week that requires all unemployment benefit claimants to meet work search requirements in state law starting June 6. The work-search mandate was suspended last year and partially reinstituted in March. Cooper also directed the state Commerce Department to find ways the state could create an incentives programs using federal funds.

Hendren said employers are concerned that the unemployed may work for a short period of time to receive the bonus, then quit. Edwards, a fast-food restaurant operator, said later that there's no guarantee a worker won't leave quickly. He said he believes it would be difficult for these workers to requalify for pandemic benefits.

Edwards said he's speaking with Senate Democrats about whether the bill can be amended to address helping people whose child care challenges are an obstacle to retaining employment. The bill next heads to another Senate committee.

North Carolina's unemployment rate was 5% in April, marking a decline for the seventh consecutive month. The jobless rate reached a pandemic high of 13.5% in spring 2020.

More than 20 states plan to begin blocking the $300-a-week federal payment for the unemployed starting in June. Interest in North Carolina doing the same has been muted, but GOP U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis urged Cooper on Wednesday to end the expanded benefits immediately and focus on incentives to return people to the workforce.

"The employment shortage caused by exorbitant federal unemployment benefits is a real and serious threat to North Carolina's recovery," Tillis and Burr said in a joint statement.

8:30 a.m.

The North Carolina House unanimously approved legislation on Wednesday that aims to spend $750 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to install high-speed internet in rural and remote areas lacking it.

The legislation would set aside $350 million in discretionary American Rescue Plan funds earmarked for North Carolina to expand a relatively new state broadband installation matching funds program with internet providers and electric cooperatives.

The bill also expresses the intent to use $400 million in the funds from Congress on a new program that gives counties the ability to put out bids for broadband expansion in underserved areas. Federal aid going to counties also would pay for those projects.

The measure, which now goes to the Senate, meets goals of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in his proposal last week to spend $1.2 billion of America Rescue Plan money on improving internet access.

But his plan spends half of that money on things like subsidizing service costs, purchasing computer equipment for households lacking it and offering "digital literacy" training.

Some Democrats said during floor debate they wished Wednesday's bill contained the service subsidies. Still, the bill passed 109-0.

WEDNESDAY
4:12 p.m.
Wake County Public Health has confirmed an outbreak of COVID-19 at UNC REX Rehabilitation and Nursing Care Center at 4210 Lake Boone Trail in Raleigh.

This is the third outbreak at this location.

1:15 p.m.
Don Waddell, the president and general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, announced Wednesday afternoon that the NHL has approved a capacity of more than 15,000 fans for any remaining home playoff games in PNC Arena.

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The Carolina Hurricanes have increased capacity at PNC Arena for remaining home games.



The increased capacity will be effective immediately if there is a Game 7. The Canes face the Predators in Game 6 Thursday night in Nashville.

"We are grateful to the NHL and to our friends at Gregory Poole for allowing us to safely increase capacity in time for this weekend," said Waddell. "The atmosphere for our home games at PNC Arena has been incredible, and we are looking forward to hosting even more of our passionate fans."

The exact capacity will be determined prior to the next home game.

12:34 p.m.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is launching a new public campaign encouraging North Carolinians to "Vax Up or Mask Up" to support the new guidance that lifts many of the state's COVID-19 restrictions.

NCDHHS says that for those who are not yet fully vaccinated against COVID-19, wearing a mask "is essential" to protect themselves and the people they love. The CDC recommends that anyone who is not vaccinated continue to wear a mask in public indoor settings and outdoors when they cannot maintain physical distance.

"For the past year, we have all been diligent about practicing the 3 Ws," said NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen. "These preventative measures helped us get to where we are today. We're incredibly grateful to the community organizations and businesses who helped share the 3 Ws and made them their own. As we transition to this new phase of the pandemic and this new campaign, we must continue to protect one another as everyone makes the choice to 'Vax Up or Mask Up.'"

NCDHHS also recommended that businesses and community organizations post signage reminding employees and visitors to wear a face covering if they are not fully vaccinated. Because it can be hard to know who is vaccinated and who is not, employers may decide to post signage asking all employees and visitors to wear a face covering until more people in North Carolina are vaccinated.

Under Executive Order 215, masks are still required in certain settings, such as child care centers, schools, hospitals, doctor's offices and other high-risk settings like correctional facilities and homeless shelters.

12:15 p.m.

North Carolina health officials are reporting 866 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday.

The state is reporting a 3.8% positive test rate.

Throughout the state, 695 patients are being hospitalized with the virus. That is 4 fewer than Tuesday.

In North Carolina, 13,031 people have died from COVID-19. That is 27 more since Tuesday.

According to NCDHHS data, 52.9% of adults in the state have had at least one COVID-19 dose and 48.4% of adults are fully vaccinated.

Wake County enhancing vaccine outreach to target neighborhoods

In Wake County, health officials are getting much more tactical about vaccinating as many people as possible against COVID-19.

The NC Dept. of Health and Human Services revealed Tuesday the new tool it is using to increase equitable vaccine distribution across the state.

The census tract COVID-19 mapping system is the same tool Wake County Public Health is using to target specific communities where vaccinations are lagging.

Beginning in June, two neighborhoods in Raleigh will see an influx of public health staff, known as vaccination strike teams, on the ground in their communities.

Read more about that here.

NC Senate tax cut plan includes virus aid for businesses

A broad tax cut proposal from North Carolina Senate Republicans that began its advance in the chamber on Tuesday also contains federal COVID-19 relief money to give more aid to businesses that previously received federal or state pandemic assistance.

GOP finance leaders unveiled an amended version of its tax plan, some of which was already revealed in March and contained an individual income tax rate reduction and more generous standard deductions. The latest edition also would increase the amount of per-child deductions by $500. If approved, more low-income individuals would pay zero income tax, and all individual filers would see their monetary tax burdens reduced.

Republicans have made rate reductions and deduction increases a cornerstone of their fiscal policy since a landmark overhaul in 2013 consolidated taxes to one flat rate and scaled back credits.
"We are proposing yet another tax cut because we believe people spend their money better than government does," Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican and Senate Finance Committee co-chairman, said during a news conference. "Allowing North Carolinians to keep their own money is the best form of stimulus our economy could have."

The new version also attempts to assist business owners and some nonprofits that received the federal forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans and other government assistance to keep employees hired during the pandemic. State law prevented PPP recipients from treating loan proceeds as business expenses that could be deducted, leaving an otherwise higher tax burden that business owners say would impair their recovery. The House passed legislation that would allow the deductions, resulting in smaller tax bills.

The Senate GOP tries to address that monetary loss instead by creating a program that would set aside $1 billion of North Carolina's share of American Rescue Plan funds to send grants automatically to any entity that received PPP loans or awards from four other business relief programs. These grants would be based on aid received but capped at $18,750.

Newton said the grant proposal would benefit as many as 400,000 businesses, or potentially double what the House plan would assist.

Origins of COVID pandemic still unclear

White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt says "we need to get to the bottom" of the origins of the pandemic pathogen and the World Health Organization and China need to do more to provide definitive answers for the global community.

The precise origin of the virus remains undetermined and speculation has reigned about whether it jumped from animals to humans or whether it could have escaped from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan, the city that saw the first outbreak.

"We need a completely transparent process from China," Slavitt said at Tuesday's coronavirus task force briefing. Full assistance from the WHO is needed, and "we don't have that now."

Dr. Anthony Fauci said "many of us" feel like it was a natural occurrence, but "we don't know 100%" and it is imperative to investigate.
Copyright © 2021 ABC11-WTVD-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved - The Associated Press contributed to this report.