In order to reopen, Durham needs two vital things: more coronavirus testing and the ability to keep tracking down people unaware they were exposed to the virus, Mayor Steve Schewel told the 9th Street Journal.
Both will allow local officials to reduce the spread of the highly infectious virus by isolating people who have coronavirus and alerting others who may have it, reducing the chance they’ll expose others.
“We will be gradually re-opening things that we think will be safe,” Schewel said.
What kind of tests could get the job done here and how people will access them? That’s not yet clear, according to Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners.
“People at local, regional, state and national levels are exploring right now,” she said. “We know we need rapid, easily excessive testing for covid and antibodies, coupled with tracking and tracing.”
Schewel anticipates that Durham’s stay-at-home orders will remain more stringent than statewide orders, with rural areas hosting fewer cases likely opening up sooner than more densely populated areas such as Durham.
“In a way, we will be fortunate to have the experience of others to learn from. They will be opening up ahead of us, and we can observe and learn from what they do,” the mayor said.
Durham’s city and county order has generally grown more strict since March 25. On Friday, the city and county updated a joint stay-at-home order to mandate people wear face masks. That starts today in public or private places where they cannot socially distance, including grocery stores and public transit.
But a staggered reopening has begun here to a degree, Schewel said. Durham had shuttered farmers’ markets except for delivery and curbside pickup, but markets came up with a plan to open safely, through handwashing protocols and social distancing, he said.
Schewel’s analysis on what’s needed before Durham can lift its stay-at-home orders echoes Gov. Roy Cooper’s outline for reopening North Carolina and its economy, which statewide orders shuttered on March 30.
Cooper last week said the state will analyze data on hospitalizations, new confirmed cases, protective equipment, deaths and hospital capacity to decide when to loosen a statewide coronavirus emergency order. He called for more testing and contact tracing too.
New York state is starting random antibody testing of its residents to estimate how many people were likely exposed and, it’s hoped, now have immunity to coronavirus. Durham county and city officials would look at rates of infection here as well as monitoring coronavirus outbreak numbers in other counties since many people who work in Durham commute from other areas, Schewel said.
Durham County had 416 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Sunday and five deaths. That number is up from 349 cases as of Tuesday, and the updated figure includes more than 100 cases at local nursing homes, including 86 at Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
Schewel thinks the Durham County Department of Public Health is doing well in its contact tracing but said he is concerned that it may not have the capacity as more infections are detected. As is the case across the nation, Durham will need more tracing volunteers, Schewel said.
The local health department has done contract tracing on every single positive case detected in the county so far, Jacobs said. That entails identifying all of those who may have been exposed to someone with coronavirus and urging them to stay-at-home. This has helped reduce large clusters of the virus, she said.
Jacobs noted that Durham has a low rate of community spread of the virus at just 20% of detected cases. The other 80% were travel-related or due to known contact with someone with the virus, she said.
The true scale of coronavirus is unknown across the country due to limited testing. But organizations are working to increase testing capacity in North Carolina.
Cooper on Wednesday announced a partnership with Duke University, East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina on testing and tracing to better capture the virus’ spread. Duke is expected to help Durham County with contract tracing too, Jacobs said.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services had its first Testing Surge Workgroup meeting Friday, which Cooper said would formulate a plan to increase testing. Michael Datto, Medical Director for Duke University Health System Clinical Laboratories, is included in the group, along with DHHS officials and other medical experts.
At top: Two women look over information posted outside Durham County Department of Public Health, whose hours and services not related to coronavirus have been reduced during the outbreak. Photo by Corey Pilson