COVID-19NC: White House "Red Zone" & Prison Problems

Sep 14, 2020

Every Friday,  BPR's Helen Chickering talks with NC Health News founding editor Rose Hoban.  This week they discuss White House Coronavirus Task Force visit to North Carolina as the state’s COVID rate “simmers”, the continued rise in cases among inmates, and the criticism that the state has not done enough to help release more eligible people from prison early to help reduce the spread of the virus.  

HC: This week, a member of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, Deborah Birx paid a visit to North Carolina.  Tell us more of what happened during that visit.

RH: Apparently Dr. Cohen said that Birx is touring the country, talking to people about what's going on in their states. She expressed concern about North Carolina on a couple of points. The White House has put us back in the “red zone” because  our positivity rates popped up pretty dramatically in the past two weeks  - because  of all the college kids. She was also concerned that she didn't see a lot of people wearing masks. NC health secretary Dr. Cohen talked about is this idea that we had been having slow, gradual steady progress on the virus, but that progress is   “fragile” and  frankly, not “as good as we or the White House would like  - we continue to simmer”

HC:  So, do you feel like officials are going to act or is this a more of a watch and wait kind of situation?

RH: I think it's still watch and wait. I'm curious to see what happens. You know, there's been some criticism of UNC system folks sending these kids home - o bring the, bring the virus home. So, and there's concern that we might see flare ups of viral spread in parts of the state where these young people have gone back to their families.

HC: Speaking of flare-ups, along with nursing homes, we keep hearing about them in jails and prisons. Your Report for America reporter Hannah Critchfield has been following that beat -  most recently with a close eye on Pitt County.

RH: So apparently there's a big outbreak in Pitt County. The men in the dorm are all calling Canada saying, we're all showing COVID symptoms. This is hearsay from these prisoners - must make sure that's clear. Some of them are being offered tests and some of them not.  The cause of these inmates has been taken up by Disability Rights North Carolina, and they are doing some of this advocacy because you know, people with disabilities, primarily mental health disabilities are overrepresented in County jails around the state. So they're the ones doing a lot of the advocacy for these inmates.

HC: The other issue is criticism over the failure to really get moving on early release efforts. That's getting inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who meet certain criteria and who are close to the end of their sentence out of prison in an effort to reduce the risk of COVID.

RH: We get emails from relatives of prisoners all the time saying my brother, husband, father has only five months left on a drug possession charge. Why aren't they letting him out? And so what we do is when we get these emails, we pass them along to both folks at the Department of Public Safety and to folks at Disability Rights. There's also a  COVID Prison Project that's helping  process these claims.  

About Rose Hoban: 

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees in public health policy and journalism. She's reported on science, health, policy and research in NC since 2005. Contact: editor at northcarolinahealthnews.org