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Rep. Ray Russell’s April 7th Newsletter on Coronavirus Updates, Announcements and Info

Spread of Coronavirus
Across the United States, as of Tuesday afternoon, April 7, the number of people who are confirmed to have coronavirus is 395,277. We are sure more people have the virus who have not been tested. Sadly, 12,784 people have died from coronavirus. Almost 1200, people died because of the virus in the last 24 hours.
In North Carolina the number of people who are “laboratory-confirmed” to have coronavirus is 3,257. Currently, 354 people are hospitalized with coronavirus. To date, 53 North Carolinians have died from coronavirus.
Seven Watauga County residents have tested positive for coronavirus. A second individual in Ashe County tested positive today. So far, all individuals who tested positive had a travel history or contracted the virus from a person known to have the virus.
Our prayers are with all these people affected by coronavirus along with their families.
Ashe Small Business Support Grants
Ashe County Job Development (ACJD) and the Ashe Chamber’s Ashe Advantage Project partnered to create a fund supporting small businesses in Ashe County during these uncertain times. The following link gives details of the program and their appeal to individuals, businesses, and organizations to support the program: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1LKVk5bqbNzQN_aB5x2zjcb3FFcBD2qZN/view?usp=sharing
To donate to the program, visit https://my-site-105273-102975.square.site/
Childcare Assistance for Front Line Workers
Front line workers essential to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic are struggling to find childcare while they work. Governor Cooper announced new assistance today to help these workers find and pay for childcare. For details, see https://www.newsobserver.com/news/coronavirus/article241741371.html A hotline is available Monday through Friday (8 AM to 5 PM) to assist these essential workers find childcare. The number is (888) 600-1685.
Unemployment Programs
The $2 Trillion CARES Act was passed by Congress contains additional help for workers who lost jobs because of coronavirus. It was a federal bill, but the NC Department of Employment Security (DES) is the agency that processes claims and issues checks. This section summarizes available unemployment programs.
Before the CARES Act, the maximum benefit in NC was $350/week. With the CARES act in place, additional money is available plus many people who were NOT eligible before will be eligible now for unemployment caused by coronavirus:
  • Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC): This program provides an additional $600 in weekly unemployment insurance benefits paid for weeks after March 29, 2020. The program is slated to end July 31, 2020. DES received Federal guidelines about this program Saturday and is now programming their system to handle these claims and checks. They believe the system will be operational next week. Once the system is in place, individuals who qualify will receive the additional $600/week retroactively. These checks will begin flowing in a couple weeks.
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC): This program provides up to 13 additional weeks of unemployment insurance benefits (beyond the normal 12-week period).
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA): This program will provide coverage to eligible self-employed workers, independent contractors, and individuals with short work histories who are not typically eligible for unemployment compensation. DES received the 43-page document with rules about this program last weekend. The complexity of the program will require a few weeks for DES to set up the application process and begin processing checks.
The following link has information prepared by the NC Legislative Fiscal Division: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1thJLNkgJNwS0KquvsmnhomenjvaDMFV6/view?usp=sharing
Here’s a useful flowchart where you can determine if you are eligible for benefits: https://drive.google.com/file/d/188uV2wnJmkF1FwHnYKk7LWfwF60pwC4m/view?usp=sharing
Keep up with latest announcements at https://des.nc.gov/ for all these programs.
Access to DES Accounts and Information
The Department of Employment Security (DES) has been overwhelmed with the volume of claims and calls for help. In the past 3 weeks, they have received 450,000 unemployment claims. In the last 24 hours, they received 22,000 claims. The system was originally designed to handle 3,000 claims per week. These state employees are working night and day and through weekends to process claims and get checks flowing. They are making excellent process and sent out 110,000 check in the past week. They have ramped up capacity quickly, but still problems still exist:
  • The DES Phone Help Line is overwhelmed. Monday alone, their call center received 270,000 calls. Last week, they added 50 people to handle calls. They are currently training 200 additional call center employees to assisted North Carolinians. It will be another week or so before the new call center employees are available and access problems subside.
  • If you have problems with account access, passwords, or PIN numbers, the best way to resolve the problem is to email NCDESpasswordhelp@nccommerce.com
  • For questions about filing claims, rules, and processing. Many answers can be found at the DES COVID-19 FAQ page: https://des.nc.gov/need-help/covid-19-information/covid-19-information-individuals
  • If you have a problem with DES systems is not related to account access and the FAQ page does not help, please email my office (Ray.Russell@ncleg.net) with your phone number, user name, and a description of the problem (a screenshot of the error message would help also). We’ll do our best to reach someone who can help.
New Social Distancing Rules Coming for Stores
Governor Cooper announced that his office is working on a new Executive Order formalizing rules for social distancing in essential business such as grocery stores. These may be announced tomorrow.
Looking Toward November
Coronavirus challenges evident in Wisconsin’s election today produced questions about November elections. Maybe the following thoughts and information will help.
Unlike many states, North Carolina already has no-excuse mail-in voting. It is an option, just like voting at an in-person Early Voting location or at your Election Day precinct. So that is good news. It has not been widely-used in North Carolina, but has been growing in popularity in recent years.
The bad news is voting by mail is not as easy for voters as it should be. That is why I support some reforms to make it a more attractive option for voters. The more voters who vote by mail, the safer and less crowded in-person voting locations will be.
The reforms I support are:
  • Allowing voters to register to vote and request an absentee ballot through an online platform.
  • Reducing the number of witnesses from two to one.
  • Including a postage-paid return envelope from the State to each voter who requests an absentee ballot.
As part of the federal relief package, North Carolina will receive around $11 million that it could use to help implement these reforms and help with costs that our county boards of election usually get stuck with. The State Board of Elections has presented proposals to a House committee that includes these and other measures to improve voting in North Carolina.
More Information
If you believe you have symptoms of coronavirus and live in Watauga County:
1) Call AppHealthCare at 828-264-4995,
2) Visit https://apprhs.org/covid19-screening/ online and follow screening instructions, or
3) Call your primary care doctor.
If you believe you have symptoms of coronavirus and live in Ashe County call AppHealthCare at 336-246-9449 or call your primary care doctor.
Our public heath office, AppHealthCare, is the primary local source of information about coronavirus. See https://www.apphealthcare.com/covid-19-information/
For more information from our hospitals, see Appalachian Regional’s website at https://apprhs.org/COVID19/ or Ashe Memorial Hospital’s website at https://www.ashememorial.org/ for their updates.
For information specific to North Carolina, the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) provides the latest information on COVID-19 at https://www.ncdhhs.gov/divisions/public-health/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19-response-north-carolina .Also, North Carolina coronavirus updates are available by calling 888.892.1162 or by texting COVIDNC to 898211