INDY WEEK: Nonelected leaders rarely get on the public’s radar, but your predecessor Mandy Cohen became a household name during the pandemic. How do you plan to fill those shoes, and what will your priorities be?
KODY KINSLEY: Right now, our team is focused on responding to the COVID pandemic. DHHS is going to continue to do what it has always done, which is fight for the overall health and wellness of North Carolina. As we continue to try to get this pandemic to a more endemic stage, we’re able to return to a sense of normalcy and have the best resources and science to drive that process.
I am focused on the overall health and wellness of the state and looking at key priorities that I have been pushing for my four years here [while] also responding to the pandemic. They’re centered on three things: behavioral health and resiliency; second, health of children and families, or child and family well-being; and third, looking at building a strong and inclusive workforce.
Child and family well-being—is that the [adverse childhood experiences] approach?
We have had a generation of children impacted by this pandemic. So it is absolutely about adverse childhood experiences, considering that collective trauma is one of those. But it is also about responding to that, building out school interventions, partnering with individuals to help provide kids with the tools they need to respond and teachers and other staff in schools the resources they need to recognize mental health concerns.
It is also about the foundational things that we know drive health—food security, food access. I am proud that we are one of eight states providing pandemic EBT cards. We have to continue to build on our SNAP and WIC programs; we have to continue to provide resources that are the building blocks of health for kids and healthy families. Then also investing in early ed, providing teachers and early educators in the childcare workforce with tools to respond to and address trauma and frankly support them in having access to a living wage. We know that that workforce is so critical for the lifelong health and wellness for our children.
Looking at pandemic numbers, the Omicron surge seems to be trending downward. What do you make of the latest metrics?
I am hopeful, because we are starting to see the rapid decrease in cases we have seen in other places, other countries and jurisdictions. Omicron ramped up very quickly, it was four to six times as contagious as the Alpha variant, but we are seeing that fall off nearly as quick. We had a 35 percent decrease in our per population case rate this last week compared to the week prior, so I think we have peaked and we are now on the downfall. It is also hopeful to see some early decrease in our hospitalizations. That is good for our health care workforce, which has been at the forefront of this from the beginning and really stretched.
There will always be variants. There is another potential variant on the horizon, and we are doing just as we did with this one—learn what to expect, follow the science, understand if it is going to be more transmissible, whether its severity profile is going to be more or less. There is a lot to learn with the BA.2 variant, and we’re watching it closely. We’re going to, again, make sure we are fighting for North Carolina to have all the available resources necessary to help our response, and I will do my job to make sure we are communicating with North Carolinians to know what to expect, and we can manage through that together.
A few weeks ago, when Omicron was about to hit, people in the science community were talking about how the strain might possibly burn so quickly through communities that it might hasten the pandemic’s end. What’s your take on that—is the end in sight?
The end is in sight for COVID as much as the end is in sight for the flu. This is a respiratory illness that we are going to have to live with for some time. The good news with the flu is we all get our annual flu vaccine. In long-term care and certain health care settings, there are extra precautions to protect individuals that are most vulnerable, those who are older and more susceptible. But for the most part, we are able to go about our lives. We have vaccines, we have therapeutics, and we have effective testing. What the finish line looks like with COVID-19 is getting closer. And that’s really good. There are lots of questions about whether the Omicron variant provides significant protection against potential other variants. We should not discount the curveball that this virus can continue to throw at us, but the best news is that the vaccines that were formulated based on the initial variants continue to hold up, especially with the booster, incredibly well against the Omicron variant, as it has with all the other variants. While the Omicron variant may have gotten a significant number of people with active infection some amount of immunity, we know the immunity you get from an active infection is significantly variable and significantly less reliable than the vaccine, and that is why we continue to message the importance of the vaccine.
Rams or Bengals?
I watch figure skating. The last sporting event that I went to was the world figure skating championship in Greensboro. No wait, it was the nationals. My partner would correct me on that, he would be so sad if I got that wrong …. It was the national figure skating championships. Are you talking about golf? I don’t know which sporting event you’re talking about. But I will Google it later and I will learn.
Those are the two teams going to the Super Bowl.
I will encourage people to gather safely. That’s really good. It’s great [for people] to be with people, take care of themselves, maybe test before they go.
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