NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley

RALEIGH — “We have the tools now to manage COVID so it doesn’t manage us.”  That is the latest from DHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley on where North Carolina stands as the COVID-19 Emergency Order ends.

After two years of mask requirements, closed restaurants and shops, at-home schooling, Zoom, Facetime, quarantine, and stay-at-home orders North Carolina is entering a new phase with the infectious disease.  “What is clear is that COVID is here to stay” Kinsley says, “and we’re seeing that even with a large number of cases, it is the lack of vaccination that continues to put people at risk.”

That leads Kinsley to offer some guidance and advice to the medical community.  “First and foremost,” Kinsley says, “vaccines and boosters and staying up to date with your vaccine is the most important way to prevent severe illness.”  You are five times more likely to die from COVID if you are not vaccinated.  “If there is one thing you can do to reduce your risk by five it is to get your vaccine.”

Kinsley also says that testing is paramount to moving quickly to fight COVID. “Keep testing kits on hand and use them as soon as you have any symptom.  Be quick to test.  There are still testing pick-up locations across the state and we’re providing additional tests.”

Have a treatment plan before you test positive.  “Whether you’re going to go to an E-clinic or reach out to your primary care physician,” Kinsley says, “have that plan in place now. You make your plans in advance of the storm.”

Lastly, Kinsley reminds everyone that masking is still a good idea.  “Right now, when case levels are high, you may want to put on a mask if you’re going to be in a room full of people.”  Kinsley says that he continues to evaluate where he is and uses his mask often.  “When I am in rooms with large numbers of people I evaluate and decide the risk level.”

“We are seeing that with even with a large number of cases, people still end up in the hospital.  I am looking forward to the fall when I expect to see more tailored vaccinations that have been updated,” Kinsley says.  “That will give people another tool in their arsenal to help protect themselves against more recent variants.”

Kinsley says in the future, annual treatments may be necessary, but another option is nasal vaccination, but that may be several years away.  “If we can provide more protection in the nasal cavity than that may be a path.”  Variant neutral vaccines may also be a future option.

He always goes back to where it all began.  Your complications from COVID are greatly decreased by getting a vaccine.  He encourages everyone to lean into testing and keep test kits on hand.

“I also want to remind people that when it comes to treatment, two thirds of the people in North Carolina are likely eligible for treatments like Paxlovid.”  Kinsley reminds doctors and patients to seek out these treatments early.  “We want to make sure people are taking advantage of the options we have.”

Currently there are 1.3 million people in the state who are uninsured, so reaching out to those people and the underserved communities is important.  Kinsley reminds physicians that now is a good time to invest in outreach to those who need it most.

As for monkeypox, Kinsley says it is “not new at all.  It has been around for quite some time and it is not COVID and we don’t have the same questions and concerns.”  Providers should “test, test, test, test, test.  There is no limit on laboratory capacity for testing. While we are seeing this virus in certain groups, we know that, like all viruses, it won’t stay there. It will spread everywhere.”  He advises providers to test as much as possible and stop monkeypox as quickly as possible.

Data shows most cases are in men who have sex with men and 70% of those are African-American. Kinsley says that right now “is when we (the state) has limited resources so have to prioritize those individuals.  That is why we are offering vaccines to those who need it most right now.”

He also reminds that monkeypox comes from prolonged skin-to-skin contact with someone who has an infection.  It is not from casually passing someone or breathing near someone casually.  It is not the same protocol seen in COVID-19.

He also says that providers need to reach out to patients who meet the criteria.  “I think reaching out to them and building awareness is really powerful. It is the kind of care we want to see.”

“If there is one thing we should take away from the State of Emergency it should be this,” Kinsley says, “its when North Carolinians come together and step up there is nothing we can’t accomplish.  More than any legal authority or legislative process, it has been the work of people from all across the state that has been, frankly, inspiring.  It has been the helpers and particularly the members of the Medical Society and across the entire healthcare system who have stepped forward and stepped up time and again.  I realize now is the time we have to all step up for them and support them.  The end of the state of emergency is not nearly as monumental as the amazing work done during this period of time.”