NCDHHS launches mask campaign, free COVID-19 testing for uninsured

MASK UP: The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services launched a new public awareness campaign, “Whatever the Reason,” to encourage everyone to wear a face mask to limit the spread of COVID-19. Advertisements will soon play on the radio and television. Graphic courtesy of NCDHHS

A new statewide effort hopes to make COVID-19 testing more accessible for uninsured residents. On Sept. 2, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services launched the N.C. Medicaid Optional COVID-19 Testing program, which will fully reimburse Medicaid providers for the costs incurred by testing people without insurance for the coronavirus. 

The program’s funding comes from the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act and will continue for the duration of the federal COVID-19 emergency declaration. To qualify for the free testing, individuals must be North Carolina residents, uninsured and (as mandated by federal regulations) hold U.S. citizenship or legal immigration status. 

Buncombe County hosts several testing options for undocumented residents. The county’s free community COVID-19 testing sites, held weekly at the Ingles Markets in Swannanoa, the Buncombe County Sports Park and AB Tech Allied Health Building, don’t require proof of immigration status, said Stacie Saunders, Buncombe’s public health director, at a Sept. 3 press conference. Neither do most urgent care centers, primary care centers and federally qualified health centers, added Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, the county’s medical director. “Citizenship should not be a restriction,” she said. 

The NCDHHS program is a “good step” to offering free testing for uninsured residents, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, the department’s secretary, at a Sept. 3 press conference. But too many residents still lack insurance, she continued.

“To help North Carolinians who don’t have health insurance get the full range of care needed for COVID and to access needed preventive care, North Carolina needs to expand Medicaid like most other states have done,” Cohen said. 

CDC issues federal eviction moratorium

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a national moratorium on evictions to provide relief for cash-strapped renters. The order, effective Friday, Sept. 4, through Thursday, Dec. 31, protects renters who can show they’ve sought government assistance to pay rent, affirm they are likely to become homeless if evicted and make less than $99,000 individually or $198,000 if filing taxes jointly.  

Renters who qualify under the moratorium will still be responsible for all missed payments and late fees after the end of the year. 

Jim Barrett, executive director of Asheville-based nonprofit Pisgah Legal Services, says he was “completely surprised” by the announcement. The moratorium’s impact on Western North Carolina remains to be seen, but he hopes the move will provide some relief as people wait for federal rental assistance to be distributed by North Carolina.

“The moratorium calls attention to the fact that so many millions of people are still unemployed and unable to pay their rent,” Barrett says. “It calls attention to the fact that rental assistance is needed and the fact that legal assistance is needed to make sure that you don’t just catch up on rent and then get evicted the next month.

“But the moratorium is not a solution by itself,” he continues. “It gives people a defense if they’re going to be homeless, because as the CDC says, if a bunch of people are homeless, the virus will just spread even worse.”

In other news

  • North Carolina voters can now request an absentee ballot online, thanks to a digital platform launched Sept. 1 by the N.C. State Board of Elections. The deadline to request a ballot is Tuesday, Oct. 27, but election officials encourage voters to submit a request as early as possible. 
  • Indivisible Asheville will host an “Ice Cream and Voting” neighborhood outreach event from 1-2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 5, at RendezVous Restaurant in Haw Creek. Kids will get free ice cream from the Sweet Ride ice cream truck; adults will receive nonpartisan voting materials. 
  • It’s not the annual North Carolina Apple Festival, but downtown Hendersonville plans to mark Labor Day weekend with a LoveHendo Saturday to highlight local businesses. Main Street will be closed to traffic Saturday, Sept. 5, and many shops will donate a portion of their sales to area nonprofits. 
  • NCDHHS launched a new public awareness campaign to encourage residents to “get behind the mask.” Campaign materials in English and Spanish will soon appear on the radio, as television advertisements and at local bus stops, Cohen said. 
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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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