Mecklenburg's new virus cases are falling

Plus: CMS spring break survival tips; More doctors leave Holston Medical Group; McCaffrey becomes highest-paid running back

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The numbers are encouraging, but social distancing still needed, UNCC epidemiologist says; ‘heading in the right direction’

by Tony Mecia

The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases has been heading downward in Mecklenburg County for the last week or so, the first tangible sign of local progress against the disease.

Publicly available data from Mecklenburg County and from North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services show progress on a number of fronts, including:

  • Fewer average new confirmed cases per day in Mecklenburg County

  • A slowing rate of growth in new cases in both the county and the state

  • A continuously falling number of total statewide hospitalizations since late last week

“The trends overall seem to be very encouraging,” said Ahmed Arif, an epidemiologist with UNC Charlotte’s Department of Public Health Sciences. “It feels like a lot of things are heading in the right direction.”

Arif, who has a doctorate in epidemiology and specializes in respiratory diseases, examined the public data at the request of The Ledger. He says social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of the disease remain important so the numbers don’t increase again.

His hopeful assessment contrasts with the somber tone of Mecklenburg County health officials. They acknowledge that the curve seems to be flattening but warn that too few local residents are taking the “stay at home” order seriously and caution that the worst is yet to come.

“Even with the current ‘stay at home’ order and levels of social distancing, we will start to see our healthcare systems becoming overwhelmed in early- to mid-May,” health director Gibbie Harris said at a news conference last week, citing county projections developed in conjunction with Atrium Health and Novant Health. Harris did not reply to a Ledger request for comment Monday.

Yet the number of new confirmed cases in Mecklenburg has declined in the last week. For the week ending April 4, the county reported 351 new cases. For the week ending Saturday (April 11), it reported 283. In total, as of Monday, the county reported 975 confirmed cases and 15 deaths, including three deaths announced Monday.

The number of new confirmed cases of Covid-19 has been declining in Mecklenburg County in the last week, according to an analysis of public data by epidemiologist Ahmed Arif of UNC Charlotte. Cases statewide increased last week compared with the week before, though the rate of growth is slowing.
Mecklenburg County has not reported more than 44 cases in a single day since Tuesday, April 7 — a week ago today — and the growth rate of daily confirmed cases is in the low single digits. (Source: Ledger analysis of Mecklenburg County health data)

Statewide, the number of new cases increased last week compared with the previous week. The number of statewide hospitalizations has declined since Friday. Gov. Roy Cooper said Monday the virus is spreading at a “much slower pace” because of social distancing rules.

The number of hospitalizations statewide is higher than it was a week ago but has been declining since Friday. (Source: Analysis of state data by UNC Charlotte public health professor Ahmed Arif)

Mecklenburg County does not release data on daily hospitalizations. The only data the county releases daily is the total number of confirmed cases in the county and deaths. Calculating new daily cases and the rate of increase, which can indicate how quickly the virus is spreading locally, requires (basic) math.

A few caveats: With testing limited, the data on confirmed cases does not precisely reflect the spread of Covid-19 in the population. And just because the numbers are down does not mean they will continue to decline.

Predicting the future is notoriously tricky, but earlier doomsday estimates have not materialized:

  • A projection three weeks ago from the University of Washington — touted under the News & Observer headline “COVID-19 could kill 2,400 in NC and strain available hospital beds, projection model says” — forecast a peak of next week (April 22), with 56 North Carolinians per day dying of the disease and a shortage of 278 intensive care unit beds. State data through Monday show 86 deaths total and 842 available beds.

  • On April 2, the CEOs of Atrium and Novant said they urgently needed a field hospital with 3,000 beds. The following day, County Manager Dena Diorio said: “The need for those 3,000 beds appears pretty likely.” But four days later, the hospitals downsized their request to 600 beds, and today there’s still no concrete plan for a field hospital. City Fire Chief Reginald Johnson told City Council members Monday night that the hospitals are reviewing models and “we hope to have a decision from them this week” on whether a field hospital is needed to accommodate an expected surge in “about mid-May.”

Although government health officials in Charlotte and Raleigh seem nowhere near close to discussing how and when to ease some of the restrictions, some residents are already contemplating a return to more normal life. Those debates are starting to take place elsewhere in the country but have not yet come to North Carolina. Governors of six Northeastern states said Monday they are forming task forces to discuss reopening.

A Facebook group called ReopenNC has attracted 22,000 members in the last week. Its page says: “We are losing our small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy. The shutdown is not warranted, nor sustainable for our area. The vulnerable can be isolated or protected in other ways, without sacrificing our entire state economy.” — Cristina Bolling contributed to this article.

Update coming today: Mecklenburg commissioners are scheduled to receive an update from Diorio and Harris on the county’s response to the pandemic today at 2:30 p.m.

Additional reading: “With Cases Slowing, Will Mecklenburg Need Field Hospital?” (WFAE)

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Parenting survival guide: Charlotte spring break edition

by Michelle Crouch

We were supposed to be in Paris right now, taking our three kids on their first trip to Europe during CMS spring break. Maybe you were planning a trip to Disney World, to the beach or somewhere else incredibly cool.

Instead, we’re all on our fifth week stuck at home. Except now, without schoolwork, the kids really have nothing to do. That’s especially a challenge if you’re a working parent trying to find ways to keep the kids busy while you’re on a conference call or working on a project.

As someone who always works at home — including through the summer with kids underfoot — I’ve picked up a few tricks to keep the kids busy when I’m on deadline. I also talked to a few local experts and other parents about what’s working for them.

Here are some ideas to help save your sanity through spring break and beyond:

1. Maintain a routine that includes “quiet” time

“Children do best when they have schedules and they know the expectations,” says Terri James, a psychologist who is part of the Purposeful Parenting team at Charlotte-based Southeast Psych

James recommends creating a rough daily schedule that you post where kids can see it. You don’t need to plan every minute, but it will be easier for your kids if they wake up and eat meals at roughly the same time every day, she says.

If your kids no longer nap, consider including a one- to two-hour designated “quiet time” every day when your children are expected to entertain themselves in their rooms without screens — and without bothering you. To keep them busy, offer puzzles, coloring books, sticker books, and building sets like Legos, MagnaTiles or Zoobs — these are all great toys for keeping kids independently entertained.

2. Create a record of this time

Encourage your kids to keep a daily journal or write a short essay about how coronavirus has affected their lives so far. Younger kids can draw a picture, or you can make a video of them talking about it.

This is an unprecedented event that will be included in history books, and having a record of their own experiences will be interesting for your kids to look back on one day.

3. Make them earn their screen time

I give my own kids a daily checklist that includes enrichment activities and chores. On a recent day, for example, my 11-year-old son had to make his bed, read for an hour, write a letter to his grandparents, walk the dog and build a marble run before he could have any screen time.  On other days, his checklist asked him to organize his football cards, pick up sticks in the yard or watch a specific Ted talk or educational YouTube video.   

I like using checklists because it allows me to set expectations without having to constantly hound my kids — and because I’m super Type A. The kids don’t have to do everything on their list, but they can’t have “mindless” screen time until they do.

4. Keep them moving

Physical activity is key to boost moods and fight boredom, James says. Start the day by taking a walk, going for a bike ride or do an online workout class together. For younger kids, make it fun by injecting some silliness: try a GoNoodle dance video, set up a backyard obstacle course, have a crazy dance party or play balloon volleyball. (The MommyPoppins site has a ton of ideas.)

5. Send them on scavenger hunts

Hide stuffed animals around the yard, bury objects in sand or Play-Doh, or hide Lego bricks around the house. You can also send your kids searching for things that are specific colors, shapes or that start with different letters.

It takes a little planning, but these kinds of hunts can keep kids busy for a while. If you need ideas, Good Housekeeping has links to 22 different types of hunts, so you can send your kids searching for everything from sight words to types of leaves.

6. Give them a challenge

“Challenges” are another way to keep your children busy while you get things done. Last week, I challenged my son to build a tower from toothpicks and cut-up apple pieces. (You could also use marshmallows, but I didn’t have any!)

The author’s son, XX-year-old Ben Smolowitz, constructed a structurally dubious tower out of toothpicks and cut-up apple pieces.

Other ideas: challenge your kids to build a fort, to make specific Play-Doh creations or to make a movie on their tablet.  Legos are one of the best tools for challenges.  (Ideas for Lego challenges here: Charlotte mom Anna Davis is posting a Lego challenge each day of spring break for her kids and their friends. On Monday, it was “A funny thing happened at the playground.” Kids submit photos of their creations,  and then Davis will post them on Facebook for everyone to see.

If you have older kids, you can challenge them to build a Rube Goldberg machine. (I had my kids do this one summer and loved what they came up with.)

7. Create a behavior system

If you’re up to your eyeballs with your kids not listening to you, make like a teacher and put a behavior system in place, whether it’s a sticker chart or a jar of gems.

SouthPark mom Carrie Paynter created a color chart modeled after the one her daughter has in kindergarten. “Just like at school, she starts on purple and moves up or down based on her behavior,” Paynter says. “If she stays on purple, she can have treats with lunch and dinner.”  

Becca Kucera, another Charlotte mom, wrote household tasks on slips of paper and stuffed them in a jar. Anytime her two kids bicker or complain about being bored, she makes them draw a slip from the jar and complete the chore. “If this quarantine continues, my house will be the cleanest it has been since the kids were born,” Kucera says.

8. Make the most of screen time

If there were ever a time to loosen screen-time limits, it’s now, says local parenting expert Michelle Icard, author of Middle School Makeover. “Technology is your friend in this situation,” she says. “A few weeks of extra screen time isn’t going to derail your children long-term.”

The key is to try to make sure the content is age-appropriate and (mostly) high-quality. has helpful reviews of TV shows, movies, apps and games based on their appropriateness for children.  

Last week, I got frustrated with the low-quality shows my teenage daughter was watching, so I had her make a list of Oscar-winning movies available on Netflix, and she’s going to work her way through the list. She has also enjoyed listening to Ted talks from this list of TED talks recommended by students for students.

Also, don’t forget about audiobooks — it’s screen time that’s good for your child! The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library offers virtual storytime videos and Family Storytime Live on Facebook. You can also check out celebrities reading books aloud on this YouTube channel.

9. Work on life skills

Think of this time as “an opportunity to teach important things that you’re always too busy to teach: cooking, laundry, sewing a button, how to change a tire,” Icard says. “Teaching any kind of life skill is a good way to keep their brains active.”

Lots of parents are inviting their kids to make dinner and clean with them, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Do you want to teach your kids how to tie a sailor’s knot? Is there a magic trick you could teach? In previous summers, my kids learned to shuffle cards the right way, the words to the Preamble of the Constitution and how to type using Dance Mat Typing.

Remember, you don’t always have to be the one doing the teaching. Ask your kids what they want to learn (a specific dance move? how to French braid?), and help them find a YouTube video to teach them.

10. Take advantage of extra time to connect

Even if you’re working from 9 to 5, try to bookend your day by doing something fun with your kids in the morning and evening. Watch a classic movie, snuggle up and read, have a picnic in the family room or learn to play a new board game together.

“We almost never get extra time to slow down and spend time with our kids,” Icard says. “Don’t forget to take some time and enjoy it.”

Michelle Crouch is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Ledger.

Full 1918-19 flu pandemic dissertation available online

In response to reader questions, The Ledger has placed the full dissertation on the effect of the 1918-19 flu pandemic in North Carolina online, with the author’s permission.

Saturday’s Ledger contained a Q&A with Lauren Austin, author of “Afraid to Breathe: Understanding North Carolina’s Experience of the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic at the State, Local, and Individual Levels.” It’s a 285-page public policy dissertation she wrote at UNC Charlotte in 2018.

The full version is available on The Ledger’s website. — TM

In brief:

  • Coronavirus sampling: Atrium Health is participating in a study with Wake Forest Baptist Health to test patients for coronavirus antibodies, which could “get a sense of how widespread the virus is and was in North Carolina.” N.C. legislative leaders, who are helping fund the research, say representative sampling would provide more information about the virus and help policymakers decide when to allow businesses to reopen. (News & Observer)

  • More doctors out: Holston Medical Group let go of 14 additional doctors in northern Mecklenburg County, in addition to the 21 that the practice confirmed were dismissed last week. The group shut 10 local offices and laid off 160 workers. Office visits had fallen because of the coronavirus. (Biz Journal)

  • Power outages: About 7,000 Mecklenburg County customers remained without power as of 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, Duke Energy said, following Monday morning’s storm.

  • Who’s dying of coronavirus? The Observer presses county leaders to release more demographic data about the 15 county residents who have died, but the county is pushing back, citing HIPAA privacy laws.

  • More layoffs at the airport: Another 112 airport workers have lost their jobs, Prospect Airport Services reported to the N.C. Department of Commerce earlier this month. The laid-off workers included wheelchair assistants and courtesy bus drivers. Prospect said the cuts are a result of reduced airport traffic. Some 600 restaurant workers at the airport were already laid off. (Observer)

  • Richest running back: Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is signing a four-year extension averaging $16M per year, making him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. (ESPN)

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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and web site publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire; Reporting intern: David Griffith