North Carolina began the first phase of reopening this weekend, but some public health experts warn we could see a second wave of cases by the fall if we stop social distancing.

If that happens, people of color and those working on the front lines will be the most at risk, one expert believes. 

Governor Cooper’s three-part plan to reopen the state began May 8. In the first phase, expected to last at least two weeks, residents are still required to stay at home but can leave to go shop at businesses that follow guidelines such as limiting capacity, employee screenings, and six-foot markers at checkout lines. 

But even with those safeguards in place, is it safe to start reopening as the number of cases continues to rise? 

Federal public health officials have warned that states should not reopen until they see a decline in cases. Despite a slight dip in cases this weekend, the number of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases in North Carolina is still on an upward trajectory. As of Tuesday, the state Department of Health and Human Services has reported 15,346 positive tests for the virus and 577 deaths.

We may have succeeded somewhat in flattening the curve, but it’s not going down just yet. 

North Carolina Central University professor La Verne Reid believes reopening too soon could lead to a second wave of outbreaks before the fall. 

“With permission to carry on as usual, we are likely to see upticks in morbidity and, unfortunately, mortality, within weeks not months,” she wrote in an email to the INDY. “If we look at the historical impact of the 1918 Spanish Flu, we saw an immediate uptick once the restrictions were lifted.” 

If that should occur, people of color will be especially vulnerable. African Americans account for 38 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, but only 21 percent of the population. 

Reid’s biggest concern is a continuing uptick in the deaths of men of color, many of whom work in the labor market and are on the front lines of retail services that will ramp up with reopening.

Prematurely lifting restrictions, Reid says, “will again be devastating to communities of color and those of low wealth.”

Rodney Jenkins, director of the Durham County Department of Public Health, says that despite the county and state’s plan to gradually ease restrictions, “the pandemic isn’t over yet.”

The county, which is in the process of adjusting its stay-at-home order, has started a task force to seek input from business owners and develop strategies to address the racial disparities exaggerated by the pandemic. 

Though precautions begin with staying at home at much as possible, Jenkins says wearing masks when leaving home, hand-washing, and social distancing have slowed the spread of the virus in Durham County. 

“We will continue to monitor state guidance and local needs as we work to evaluate our local stay-at-home order, and we will proceed carefully in order to minimize the likelihood of a surge in cases as orders are modified or lifted,” Jenkins said in an email statement to the INDY.

Still, even with protections in place, Reid noted that front-line workers are “not always provided protective gear until there is an incident that causes attention from the media.” 

“They are seemingly considered expendable in the current economic schema,” Reid said. 

That means these workers are quickly replaced if they fall victim to COVID-19, or any other chronic illness, Reid says. They do not earn a living wage and often live in high-density settings with extended families. They risk bringing the virus home to their children and elder family members yet cannot afford to opt out of working for health and safety reasons, which could mean life or death.

“The issues for these families may not be if there is enough Lysol on the shelf but, “If I don’t work the children may not eat,'” Reid says. 

Second to social distancing, widespread community testing and contact tracing is essential to fighting the spread of the virus. 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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