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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

NC Health Secretary Urges Public To Sign Up For Health Coverage

North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen at a Thursday afternoon news conference.

As North Carolina braces for what could be a long-term outbreak of the coronavirus, health officials are urging residents to make sure they have health coverage. That's because while testing for the coronavirus is free, treatment is not.

At a Thursday news conference, North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said it was imperative people sign up for health insurance if they never have before, or they were recently laid off and lost coverage.

"Knowing that this virus is going to be with us for some time, we need to be sure that people can access the care that they need if they test positive to COVID-19 or have any other medical issues," Cohen said.

People with underlying health conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes should also make sure they're up-to-date on their treatments, and Cohen said now would be a good time for smokers to consider quitting. It could reduce their risk of needing extensive treatment if they're infected.

Cohen steered uninsured people to healthcare.gov, where they can consider options. She also said all insurance providers in the state, including Medicaid and Medicare, are covering health care visits through telehealth.

North Carolina is also hoping to double its testing capacity for the coronavirus, Cohen said, and expand the types of tests available.

"We want to make sure we're in mixing different kinds of tests, like point-of-care testing that can be done more rapidly," she said. "That takes about 15 minutes to a half hour."

Cohen did not provide a timeline for when expanded testing might be available. Currently, tests continue to be rationed for health care workers who may have been exposed, people who've been hospitalized and people who may have been infected as part of an outbreak — for example at a nursing home.

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Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal