This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

With less than a month left in her tenure, state Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen settled in Tuesday for more than two hours of legislative questions about how her department handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sec. Cohen said to fully appreciate where we are today, lawmakers need to look back to where the state and nation were pre-pandemic.

“We didn’t have PPE. We didn’t have testing. We didn’t have vaccines. We didn’t have treatment. We didn’t know a lot,” reflected Cohen.

“By the winter we were very lucky to have one of the greatest scientific achievements of getting vaccines out quickly to people, which is just incredible to think about.”

Cohen said at a time when the state was starting to feel positive, the next wave arrived in June.

“This virus was not done with us. It changed, it got more contagious. And then we had the summer surge with the delta variant and frankly came the closest in this pandemic to overwhelming our healthcare system.”

As the pandemic evolved, Sec. Cohen said the state responded by launching a public dashboard, optimizing data systems, and building a vaccine management system. Policies like the statewide masking requirement and the “dimmer switch” approach to re-opening helped control community spread.

“This was a whole-of-government response,” said Cohen in praising partnerships with hospitals and other state agencies.

Today, 62 percent of North Carolina’s total population has had at least one dose of the vaccine.

Senator Todd Johnson (R-Union) took aim at the StrongSchools Toolkit promoted by Sec. Cohen as a resource to help schools safely re-open.

“While there is no statutory authority for the toolkit, your office threatened Union County with legal action for not following the toolkit regarding contact tracing. For the record, is the toolkit a recommendation, a law or just a suggestion?”

Sec. Cohen said while it is critical to keep children in the classroom learning, it must be done in a safe way.

“And any kind of quarantine is an absolute last resort. If kids are vaccinated, they do not need to quarantine. If they are wearing masks, they don’t need to quarantine,” responded Dr. Cohen. “And the places that are using those tools have had to quarantine very few kids.”

Cohen said vaccines were first and foremost the best thing parents could do to keep children in the classroom learning safely.

Rep. Erin Paré (R-Wake) questioned why public health officials have a tendency to “overstate the reliability of data.”

Sec. Cohen said she has tried to be clear throughout the pandemic about what metrics the department was using to make its decisions.

“Just as I was answering that last question about omicron. We don’t know yet exactly what this will mean. It doesn’t mean our scientists aren’t smart or the data’s not good. Sometimes it just takes time.”

An hour later it was Sen. Kirk deViere’s (D-Cumberland) opportunity to question the outgoing DHHS Secretary.

“What would you say would play into the impact of the recovery if we do expand Medicaid?” he asked.

“We know we have more uninsured here, and we are not availing ourselves of federal support that exists. We know that we can bring coverage to half a million people every single year—these are working North Carolinians—if we do this,” she encouraged.

Cohen said Medicaid expansion is critical to ensuring rural residents have access to medical care when they need it.

“I do think that it is linked to our health and well-being, but also our economic recovery. I do think we should absolutely avail ourselves to the $4 billion annually that would come to North Carolina.

That’s money that not only goes to people to seek healthcare, make themselves healthier, but that’s economic generation there.”

Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have accepted federal funding to expand Medicaid.

Sen. Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth) broke from her conservative colleagues in their questioning of Cohen’s handling of the pandemic.

“I just want a moment of personal privilege,” Krawiec opened.

“As Chair of Health, I just want to take a moment to thank you for your service to us here in North Carolina, particularly for your willingness to work with us, your accessibility at all times. You and your staff were always available to us anytime we needed you. I’m going to miss you. I really am.”

Cohen leaves the office at the end of this month. Stepping into the role will be Kody Kinsley, who currently serves as the Chief Deputy Secretary for Health at NCDHHS.

For more on how Secretary Cohen and NCDHHS approached the pandemic from Winter 2020 to today, see the graphic below:

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