Gaston commissioner at center of reopening confusion blames Gov. Cooper for rise in cases

Gaston Co. sees alarming spike in COVID-19 cases

GASTON COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - Gaston County Commissioner Chair Tracy Philbeck responded Thursday to the drastic rise in COVID-19 across the county, blaming North Carolina leadership and Gov. Roy Cooper.

Philbeck announced on April 30 that Gaston County would reopen for business, despite the fact that it contradicted the governor’s Stay at Home order that was still in effect. N.C. entered Phase 1 of reopening on May 8.

The move caused confusion for local businesses and municipalities in the county. The mayors of 12 municipalities released a joint statement emphasizing that all businesses and residents of cities and Gaston County were required to comply with the orders issued by Gov. Cooper.

Gaston health officials said on Wednesday the county saw a 312 percent increase in positive tests between May 30 and June 12. During that same period, the percentage of positive tests out of total tests increased from 5.14 percent to 11.17 percent. The number of hospitalizations also increased from single digits in mid-May to more than 20 over the past week.

Philbeck responded to the rise in cases the following day, stating in part that it is “a direct result of Governor Cooper’s leadership and lays at the feet of all of those that continue to support a plan that is failing the people of North Carolina.”

You can read his entire response below:

“From the very beginning Gaston County led the State when it comes to dealing with COVID-19. We worked with our local hospital, healthcare professionals, health and human services, emergency management and law enforcement on a plan to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. We saw great results and in fact our curve was beginning to flatten. Governor Cooper decided counties could not do an adequate job and usurped the authority of local governments to deal with the issue. The result has been devastating. The 312% increase in COVID-19 cases in Gaston County is a direct result of Governor Cooper’s leadership and lays at the feet of all of those that continue to support a plan that is failing the people of North Carolina.”

In an interview with WBTV Thursday, Chairman Philbeck said he believes people aren’t taking the virus seriously because he says the Governor politicized the issue.

“From the beginning, when Gaston County looked at doing its own shut down--- we did it before state--- and when the state did it, I agreed with it,” Philbeck said. “It made sense because looking at the models and what we saw it was and taking into account what we didn’t know, it was the prudent responsible thing to do. However, once we got the data that showed there was no issue with hospital capacity and COVID-19 on a grand scale would not be nearly as bad or potent as we thought it would be, the governor double down and focused on closing businesses. Where I thought it was prudent to just be honest with people and say ‘hey the data doesn’t support that, so we shouldn’t do that'. What we should focus on is masks, education, proper sanitation, social distancing and proper hygiene. Well, the governor did not do that. He focused on we have to shut everything down. Well, then you’re taking away peoples livelihoods to feed their families. Not only that, the solution was becoming worse than the disease. So he’s telling everybody the sky is going to fall but the numbers didn’t follow that. So, at this point people are like I don’t know what to believe and I don’t trust the governor because it’s so bad that we need to leave Walmart open and Home Depot and Lowe’s but your mom and pop stores we’re going to close it,” Philbeck said.

“So, the whole conversation was should business be open, should business be closed. Him pandering to different businesses who donate his campaign, instead of focusing on education, social distancing, proper sanitation, proper hygiene. So now you have an environment where people don’t know what to believe or with that type of leadership don’t even believe it’s a big deal,” Philbeck said. “It is so serious that he stood on TV and ridiculed as irresponsible the Reopen NC protesters, ridiculed them. Told them they were irresponsible, didn’t care about nobody but themselves, how dare they. And yet, he goes to a protest with thousands of people arm-in-arm without a mask. That makes people believe it’s political. It’s alright to protest as long as he agrees with it. But if you’re protesting him, you’re irresponsible. So all of that feeds into this narrative of ‘it’s politics, it’s not real, it’s favoritism, and people are not taking it serious. I believe it has a direct result of that kind of leadership.”

In an emailed response, Press Secreatary for Governor Roy Cooper, Dory MacMIllan wrote:

“Pandemic response cannot be partisan. The Governor has taken decisive action to save lives and slow the spread of this virus while also protecting people’s constitutional rights and our economy. It’s disappointing to see an elected leader in one of our communities work to undermine public safety and play politics with the health of his constituents.”

Back on April 29, Philbeck said the county’s numbers did not warrant a Stay at Home order to continue. “Staying home is not a solution,” he said. “People need to go back to work.”

Hours later, the Gaston County leaders appeared to backtrack slightly on their earlier plans.

Cooper said after the announcement that the county’s move only had one effect: “to create confusion during a public health emergency, which is dangerous.”

“This order’s only effect is to create confusion during a public health emergency, which is dangerous,” Cooper said of the April 29 announcement. “The Gaston County order itself says that the statewide Stay At Home order remains in effect, and state leaders urge people to continue following it.”

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen also responded to questions about it during a press conference.

“We’re in a crisis, and I think the confusion is really, really damaging during a crisis,” Cohen said. “The governor’s executive order is still in place, it still stands, we’re still asking folks to stay home to slow the spread of the virus and save lives.”

Cohen continued, “I know folks are frustrated and I know that this has been hard in so many ways, and we’re trying to move through this in the best way possible to protect health.”

While the recent rise was expected with the lifting of restrictions and additional testing in Phase 1 and 2 of reopening N.C., health officials said on Wednesday, “the sharp increase in positives, hospitalizations and the percentage of positives out of total tests have local health officials concerned.”

“We know this has been hard on our community, but we really need people to stay diligent right now,” shared Gaston County’s Public Health Director, Steve Eaton. “We are working as hard as we can to track cases and educate the community, but we need for the public to help us by staying home, especially if you’re sick, wearing masks in public, and practicing social distancing. We cannot do this alone.”

The total number of hospitalizations is a measure that is largely unaffected by an increase in testing and suggests that COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in the area.

“While we expected and prepared for an increase in hospitalized patients, the significant uptick in a matter of weeks is troubling,” said Dr. Todd Davis, Chief Medical Officer for CaroMont Health. “It is critically important that people take measures to protect themselves and help control the spread of this virus. It does not require that you change your entire life, it’s simply a matter of making choices that help minimize your risk of contracting COVID-19 and spreading to others.”

Now, Gaston County officials are urging residents to wear a mask or face covering, wait six feet apart to avoid close contact and wash their hands.

“I know a lot of people don’t want to wear a mask,” said Dr. Davis. “But, it really is one of the most important things you can to do protect yourself and others."

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