As the number of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina rises above 1,100—with 36 of those cases coming from Guilford County—Governor Roy Cooper has issued a ‘stay-at-home’ executive order.
Executive Order No. 121 will take effect at 5 p.m. on March 30 and last at least 30 days. It will attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 by preventing people from leaving their homes with few exceptions. Those exceptions include work that’s considered essential, helping a family member, getting food from a grocery store or restaurant, healthcare appointments or exercise.
The order also bans gatherings of more than 10 people, and those who must venture outside their homes are asked to stay at least 6 feet apart. This follows Governor Cooper’s previous orders on March 23 which banned gatherings of more than 50 people and brought to a halt dine-in services, hair salons, gyms and movie theaters.
“I know this order may lead to even more hardship and heartache,” said Governor Cooper. “Although we are physically apart, we must take this step together in spirit.”
The statewide restrictions mirror those already in place in many counties, including the stay-at-home order issued jointly by Guilford County, Greensboro and High Point on March 25. Violations of the statewide order are punishable by a misdemeanor.
Although for most people COVID-19 causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as a fever and cough, for older adults and those with underlying medical issues the virus can cause severe illness and death.
Groups representing hospitals and doctors say they had urged Governor Cooper to issue just such a stay-at-home executive order earlier in the week leading up to his announcement. They worried North Carolina hospitals and healthcare workers would become overwhelmed by an expected surge in positive cases.
According to a model developed by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, North Carolina could face a shortage of hundreds of hospital beds from April 17 to April 27.
“Even with social distancing measures enacted and sustained, the peak demand for hospital services due to the COVID-19 pandemic is likely going to exceed capacity substantially,” wrote the University of Washington group in a white paper describing the study. “Alongside the implementation and enforcement of social distancing measures, there is an urgent need to develop and implement plans to reduce non-COVID-19 demand for and temporarily increase capacity of health facilities.”
The study projects that the maximum need for ventilators will reach its highest point just before the need for hospital beds, peaking on April 19 before gradually declining.
Emergency management and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are working together to decide what will happen if Governor Cooper’s executive order social distancing measures aren’t enough to prevent hospitals from becoming overcrowded. Mike Sprayberry, North Carolina’s director of emergency management, said they are considering adding beds to existing hospitals, temporarily reopening recently vacated hospitals, or even caring for patients in sports arenas.
Some have pointed out that the University of Washington model presents a too-rosy picture of the unfolding pandemic because it is based on the numbers in Wuhan, China and assumes both that people will continue to practice extreme social distancing and that the government will implement and continue significant action to prevent the spread of the virus. The reality of the situation could indeed become worse than the model predicts if social distancing measures aren’t maintained.