White House concerned by NC’s lack of COVID-19 testing

Roy Cooper speaks at a press conference on the state's COVID-19 response as NCDHHS Sec. Mandy...
Roy Cooper speaks at a press conference on the state's COVID-19 response as NCDHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen looks on in the background.(UNC-TV)
Updated: Jun. 9, 2020 at 11:37 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Officials with the White House Coronavirus Task Force are concerned with North Carolina’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically the state’s inability to quickly marshal testing resources, two people familiar with the matter say.

Those concerns were the subject of a call between Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen late last week.

The call was first disclosed by Governor Roy Cooper at a briefing with reporters on Monday.

“In fact, Dr. (Deborah) Birx of the White House Coronavirus Taskforce contacted Dr. Cohen with her concerns,” Cooper said at the briefing, after highlighting the upward trend of cases in North Carolina.

Cohen elaborated on her call with Birx after a question from a reporter later in the briefing.

“She was sharing her concerns about North Carolina’s accelerating trends in the wrong direction, which is why we need to be incredibly vigilant in our actions and we also need to be sure, as I said in my remarks, that we are ramping up testing,” Cohen said of her call with Birx at Monday’s briefing.

Related: Meatpacking plant COVID-19 outbreak information limited, as confirmed case numbers grow

But a White House Coronavirus Task Force official and, separately, a US Congressman from North Carolina who has spoken to Birx about her call with Cohen both characterized the nature of the call differently.

Specifically, the task force official, who asked to not be named in order to discuss details of the private conversation between Birx and Cohen, said Birx and other task force members are concerned at North Carolina’s inability to quickly respond to new outbreaks of the virus as they have emerged across the state.

“In the instance of North Carolina, where you see outbreaks in both rural and urban settings, there’s been an inability to actually define the root cause of those,” the task force official said.

A large part of the problem, the official said, was the state’s inability to quickly shift testing.

“What we’ve seen are some states that have reopened and are efficiently using testing resources,” the task force official said. “When they have an increase in cases, they quickly move testing resources to determine what is the cause of those, whether it’s a prison outbreak or a nursing home outbreak or a meatpacking facility. They quickly figure out what is the problem and then seek and act to contain that problem.”

The official stressed that the concerning trend in North Carolina’s numbers predate the state’s reopening.

Related: NC lags in testing for COVID-19 in prisons. Experts say more will die unless that changes

Congressman Greg Murphy (R-3rd), who is also a medical doctor, said he spoke with Birx after hearing about the call between her and Cohen during Monday’s press briefing.

“Dr. Birx was alarmed and concerned about the continued trend of cases going up in North Carolina,” Murphy said. “Dr. Birx specifically said, specifically said, that it had nothing to do with reopening. That it’s a flaw that North Carolina has had since day one of the pandemic; that something is going on in the state that they are not attending to.”

Murphy said Birx could not pinpoint a specific shortcoming in the state’s coronavirus response since she has not been on the ground here to observe. But he said the White House task force coordinator pointed to a lack of testing in nursing homes, prisons and agricultural settings—including meatpacking facilities—as a cause for concern.

In a statement Tuesday night, sent in response to a request for this story, Cohen linked her conversation with Birx back to the reopening of the state.

“We appreciated the opportunity to talk with Dr. Birx," Cohen said. "She both validated our concerns and our approach of continuing to ramp up testing and contact tracing as well as our intentional focus on historically marginalized populations who are being hardest hit by COVID-19.”

“As I noted yesterday, I am very concerned about these trends moving in the wrong direction, and it’s is a signal we need to take very seriously. One of the drivers of these increases is more movement which is consistent with our move to Phase 2," the statement continued.

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