March 9th Update
We are working feverishly putting forth legislation from federal funding to assist North Carolinians during this time of COVID-19. Legislation has been passed to provide funding for testing, school safety, and other community needs. We are hard at work supporting efforts to bring a sense of normalcy back to our state.
The latest $1.7 billion COVID relief package is heading to the Governor after a unanimous vote in the Senate on Thursday and a final House vote to OK the Senate’s changes. Senate Democrats backed the measure to allocate the latest round of federal funding, although they voiced opposition to several provisions and complained that they were left out of the bill development process. House Bill 196 includes $600 million for COVID testing and other related needs as well as $390 million to help K-12 and higher education navigate reopening.
A new version of the bill introduced Thursday morning in the Senate Appropriations Committee deleted a provision in the House version that would have extended the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse claims by one year to Dec. 31, 2022. A Mecklenburg County Senator criticized the change. “Civil courts were out of reach for about a year, and the extension would have simply added a year back so the victims could get their justice,” she said. But a sponsor of the bill, said the issue has already been addressed, but he promised to revisit the extension if another is needed at the end of the year. He noted that the legislature will likely be in session around that time due to redistricting. “If we see that this is a problem ... I give you my word, that we will fix it,” he said.
Democrats were not consulted as the bill was written behind closed doors. They lamented that Republicans did not use the more inclusive process from last year’s COVID relief legislation. A sponsor of the bill said budget writers will be looking at the issues raised by Democrats as they develop state-funded spending measures, and he plans more collaboration in the future.
With the approval of a third COVID-19 vaccine, the Governor announced Tuesday that front-line essential workers — a large, diverse group that includes grocery store workers, public transit drivers and emergency personnel — will be eligible for their shot a week ahead of schedule. North Carolina also will begin moving early to Group 4 on March 24, he said, starting with people who have medical conditions that put them at high risk from COVID-19, homeless people and people who are incarcerated who have not yet received a vaccine. “Given the current rate of vaccination and increased supply, many providers say they can move to the next phase of vaccinations,” the Governor said.
Teachers, school support staff and childcare providers became eligible for vaccinations across North Carolina on Feb. 24 — the first wave of what is known as Group 3. The state previously said other front-line essential workers like agricultural workers, firefighters and police officers would be eligible on March 10. That date is now March 3. “The third vaccine and improving vaccine supply will help us get more people vaccinated more quickly,” the Governor said. “But as we’ve said before – we still don’t have enough vaccines. You may have to wait for an appointment even if today’s action means you are eligible to get vaccinated.”
DHHS also updated Group 1 to include those who receive long-term home care. Group 4 will now include people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as people with neurologic conditions like dementia.
Tuesday’s press conference comes exactly a year to the day that North Carolina’s first COVID-19 case was diagnosed with the state announcing it on March 3, 2020. The Wake County man, who never was identified, was exposed to the coronavirus at a long-term care facility in Washington state, The N&O reported. Then, the case was considered an isolated one. As of Tuesday, North Carolina has reported 863,409 cases with 11,288 residents succumbing to complications from the virus that has taken hold and permanently altered daily living across the globe.
Today, two vaccines are being administered to thousands of residents every day with the third expected to arrive this week. Over the weekend, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson. North Carolina will receive 83,700 doses of the J&J vaccine this week, joining the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that are already in use. Providers will offer the J&J vaccine at 43 events across 33 counties, said the Secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, on Tuesday. The Secretary also said she plans to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine later this week.
North Carolina will not receive any J&J doses next week, though, Cohen said. She expects the number of doses of that vaccine to remain low for much of March while the company ramps up production. “We’ve heard that it is forecasted that by the last week of March, first week of April we should be seeing a pickup in the number of Johnson & Johnson vaccines, and they expect to have even more than 80,000 doses per week after that point,” the Secretary said.
Data from the U.S. census will not be available in time for many municipalities in North Carolina, including the state’s largest cities, to run their elections in the fall. As it stands, candidate filing for municipal elections is scheduled for July, but the U.S. Census Bureau announced Feb. 12 that the data cities and towns need to draw their districts will not be ready until the end of September, about six months later than usual. Then, it takes another two months to process that data, according to the director of the N.C. State Board of Elections.
There seems to be consensus among legislators, city attorneys and experts that at least 62 municipalities across 33 counties will have to delay their 2021 elections, which are currently scheduled across September, October and November. But the stakeholders do not yet agree on a solution, and the biggest debate is whether to delay elections across all 552 municipalities in the state or to simply target changes to those local governments that rely on districts or wards for candidate filing or electing candidates.
“The key question for everybody in this, whether it’s people at the state level or at the local level, is what solutions offer the least disruption and confusion for voters,” said the director of political communication and coordination for the N.C. League of Municipalities, which represents cities and towns around the state.
On Feb. 23, the director made suggestions to the General Assembly that would delay all municipal elections until 2022, to be timed with the statewide election for U.S. Senate and for numerous countywide races, which would also be delayed from March to May. But the idea faces opposition from the director of political communication and local leaders whose municipalities do not use districts in their elections. “It seems highly unlikely that a one-size-fits-all solution is the best way to accomplish that,” he said.
In normal circumstances, city or town councils could decide to delay their own elections, but they are only permitted to do that if they have already had the opportunity to review census data, according to the State Board of Elections. Since that will not be possible, the legislature will have to intercede.
Counter to the director of State Board of Elections request that all municipal elections be delayed until 2022 and be lined up with the county- and state-level primary, second primary and general elections, city officials out of Monroe in Union County wrote to their House legislator, of Union County, to say the city would be better served without delaying its elections. The delay would create a ripple effect by having current elected officials serve for an additional year while the officials elected in 2022 would have a year cut off their terms. Taken together, the actions could disrupt the city’s regular pattern of having staggered elections, instead putting them in a position to elect an entirely new city council and mayor in the same year. Due to these complications, the city officials asked, “that any delay imposed on municipal elections not apply to municipalities like Monroe that have no district representation,” according to the letter.
Under State Board of Election Director’s recommendations, candidate filing would be delayed until February 2022, the primary until May, the second primary until July, and the general election would run as normal in November.
When the state denies unemployment benefits, it takes months just to get an appeal appointment to plead your case. So, an unemployment claimant was ready to go when his appeal came up late last month, more than six months after he requested it. Then he was surprised. Then he was exasperated. The appeals referee assigned to hear his case that morning was not there, because she left the job more than a month before. In fact, she left two weeks before the state Division of Employment Security even reached out to give the claimant his hearing date. The claimant stood at the front desk in disbelief as a DES employee told him he ’d have to call the appeals hotline – the number he’d already spent hours dialing and redialing – to schedule a new appointment. “None of this makes sense to me,” the claimant recalled last week. His case may have been a one-off. DES spokeswoman said the appeal was scheduled with a former referee in error, and it is the only instance DES knows of that happening. The division reached out to schedule a new March appeal date for the claimant after WRAL News asked about his case.
But the process can be a long and winding one, even under the better conditions, as the state works out from under the avalanche of 3.4 million unemployment claims from 1.4 million people seeking help from multiple unemployment programs that rolled in over the last year. A normal year, based on average claims filed from 2016 through 2019, would be less than 190,000 claims. Since April of last year, 77,357 appeals like the claimants have been filed. Of those, there are about 30,000 still to be heard, and new appeals roll in regularly. State law requires the appeals be heard by an attorney, and DES has about 90 of them, the spokeswoman said. That is 333 outstanding appeals per referee.
North Carolina has some of the slowest turnaround times in the nation on appeals, based on average age of pending cases statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor. The spokeswoman said there are caveats, though. That data does not include appeals the state handles for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program that expanded benefits to people who do not usually qualify, such as self-employed workers and independent contractors. DES spokeswoman said that, as DES brought in new referees, it trained them to hear the PUA appeals first because they are often less complicated. With the PUA backlog reduced, she said DES expects to make progress on the backlog from other programs soon.
New rules written into a fast-moving spending bill this week will slow down a state rental assistance effort that has already struggled to get money out quickly, the program’s director said Thursday. State lawmakers added 100 county-by-county spending caps to a $550 million program meant to help people struggling through the pandemic pay rent and utility bills.
That change and others are part of legislation first filed Monday and already through final passage in both the N.C. House and Senate. This “throws a wrench” into a federally funded program that the state’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency has been working to open, the office COO said Thursday. “If we’re having to hold back applicants ... in order to serve other applicants across the state and make sure that county Y has hit its number before we can serve more in county X, it is absolutely going to slow us down,” the COO said. The bill also requires the program to pay the actual rent that tenants owe instead of basing payments on a formula. One of the ways the state sped up a similar rental assistance program already underway was by basing payments on the median rent in a given area, allowing officials to award money without having to review tens of thousands of leases to verify each tenant’s monthly rent.
The Governor’s administration has also expressed concerns that the bill doesn’t set aside enough of the federal money for administrative costs. Republican lawmakers responsible for the new rules said they’re meant to ensure equity. They can also be reviewed as the program moves forward. The bill has the COO’s office reporting back to the General Assembly in May on several topics, including potential shifts in the county-by-bounty spending targets.
“It’s an insurance to us that the money coming from the federal government is spent all around the state where the needs are,” a Senate budget chairman, said Thursday. The funding for this new program comes from the COVID-19 relief bill Congress passed in December. It was actually allocated to the state Office of Recovery and Resiliency earlier this month, in a separate budget bill. House Bill 196, finalized Thursday, layers on the new state rules.
That bill, which lays out some $1.7 billion in federal COVID-19 funding, first emerged publicly Monday. Thursday it cleared both the House and Senate in unanimous votes. It will be sent to Cooper, who is expected to sign it into law. The new rental assistance program comes with a number of federal rules, and the COO said her office has not gotten final guidance yet on those rules from the U.S. Treasury, so she could not predict when it will open. Her office has been running a smaller precursor to this program, though, since October, when aid applications quickly overran an initial $167 million set aside. It is called HOPE – Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions.
The North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners has given its approval for licensed dentists in the state to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. The Board issued its approval on Wednesday following the Governor’s Executive Order 193 which expanded who could administer the vaccine. Cooper signed EO193 on Feb. 9 in anticipation of the state having more available vaccines.
Licensed dentists must complete COVID-19 training programs from the CDC before administering the vaccine, the Board of Dental Examiners said. Dentists must also adhere to other requirements such as proper record of compliance. Dentists are also allowed to administer epinephrine or diphenhydramine to treat severe allergic reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine.
More long-term care centers in North Carolina are meeting the criteria for easing COVID-19 indoor visitor restrictions, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday. Although long-term facilities may conduct visits at any time for residents with compassionate care needs, federal and state guidelines have additional criteria for indoor visits, which include following infection prevention practices and having no new cases of COVID-19 in the last 14 days.
The state cited a recent decline in hospitalizations as well as new COVID-19 cases, along with the first-dose vaccinations nearly 210,000 residents and staff at long-term care facilities have received. “Case rates are down over 15-fold in skilled nursing facilities, adult care homes and other licensed facilities since the peak of transmission in January,” DHHS said. “Given the rapid decline in new cases, most facilities currently meet criteria to resume indoor visitation while continuing to follow infection prevention recommendations.” The state’s health secretary, said that “seeing cases decrease in these settings is heartening.”
Some states are lifting the mask mandate, but I feel the decision to do so is a mistake and I urge you to continue to remain vigilant about what we know are the best methods of holding back the virus. Mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing is key for us to push those numbers down.