Can North Carolina save both lives and its economy in the pandemic? UNC experts say yes.

A panel of experts from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School said Tuesday that while a COVID-19 vaccine remains far off and the economy can’t handle operating halfway for too long, North Carolina doesn’t have to choose between jobs and lives.

Even as virus hospitalizations reached almost a thousand and cases climb over 75,000, the state has what it needs to save both lives and the economy, the panel said in an online conference.

Like the rest of the country, cases are rising here as critical economic activity resumes and the virus spreads to less-affected areas. But “such an increase really only becomes problematic to the extent that it imperils the health care system from being able to sufficiently respond,” said UNC business professor Christian Lundblad.

“The reality is that a vaccine may be a long way off,” Lundblad said. “So our objective, to be perfectly frank, is not to minimize positive deaths. In the absence of a vaccine, this is an illusion. It’s entirely reasonable to expect that COVID-19 cases will necessarily rise as we work through the challenges of carefully facilitating critical economic activity.”

The effort to fully reopen the state’s economy during a pandemic must allow policymakers to do “informed risk-taking” with access to real-time data, the panelists said. That would include where clusters of unemployment are, where people who are tested and hospitalized live and how old they are.

The UNC Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise is teaming up with the North Carolina CEO Leadership Forum, a group of business leaders, to work on a data dashboard on its website tracking the “trade-offs” of reopening of the economy.

The pandemic’s economic toll is affecting Black and Latino workers harder, Lundblad pointed out. The Kenan Institute cited research showing that the cost of unemployment in a crisis includes various health effects — the psychological toll stemming from food insecurity, anxiety, depression and strained relationships.

According to the Kenan Institute, over a third of North Carolinians report delaying a health care procedure and doctor visit during the pandemic.

Almost half of Americans report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

Can NC’s hospitals take it?

It’s hard to tell what trends in increasing hospitalizations and positive virus tests exactly mean, said Kenan Institute director and UNC business professor Greg Brown, because higher virus hospitalizations can point to easier access to hospital care for patients than before.

“In our framework, [hospital] capacity is the key variable that drives openness of the economy,” Brown said.

The institute estimates that North Carolina currently has about 23% hospital capacity remaining, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services — which can be extended through expansion and using unstaffed beds, they add.

“A relatively small percentage of current hospitalized patients in North Carolina are COVID patients,” said Brown. “We still have several empty beds for every hospitalized patient in North Carolina. Likewise, the ventilator capacity is quite good in North Carolina.”

North Carolina is currently using just 25% of available ventilators, according to NCDHHS.

Role of consumer behavior

The Kenan Institute’s “Reopening Amid COVID-19” dashboard features a Consumer Consternation Index, which tracks consumers’ inability or reluctance to leave home to do nonessential activities, like shopping and entertainment.

“One of the most important issues around the economic reopening is related to consumer behavior,” Brown said.

Brown noted that many consumers, particularly those wealthier and older, make their own decisions about virus safety regardless of laws and guidelines, referring to the ReopenNC protests and shoppers staying home before stay-at-home orders.

The institute’s graph, sourced with various national data, tracks behavior from late February to late June. North Carolina has followed the nation in its behavior, the data shows.

There were skyrocketing levels of consternation, or reluctance, earlier in the pandemic although it has steadily lowered since. It’s very slowly coming back up as spikes of COVID-19 appear.

The Kenan Institute is banking on the data showing growing desire of consumers to leave home to push for a data-centered reopening of the economy.

“If we’re going to reopen our economy, our schools and move our lives forward, we must have better data,” said First Citizens Bank Vice Chair Hope Bryant, who also was on the panel.

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