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The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year

The News & Observer recognizes North Carolina residents who have made significant contributions in the last year and beyond. These people have made a difference in our region, state and elsewhere. Here are our stories.

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Once, many years ago, a promising third-year medical resident did not know how to treat one of her patients. They were both young women, the patient and the resident, when their lives intersected at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

For weeks, the patient had been losing weight and also her hair, troubling symptoms for someone in her early 20s. The resident, training to become a doctor of internal medicine, ordered test after test that revealed no answers. One day a technician approached the resident with the patient’s vitals, and some advice: Maybe you should ask the patient if she’d been eating regularly.

Of course the patient had been eating, the resident thought, feeling a little insulted. The resident had gone to all the best schools, a tour of the Ivy League: Yale Medical and Harvard for a master’s in public health and Cornell for undergrad, and in many ways she’d been preparing all her life to be a doctor. How could she have missed something so simple?

“So first I was defensive,” Dr. Mandy Cohen said earlier this month. “And then I was horrified.”

More than a decade had passed, and now Cohen was at work on a bright December day in Raleigh, her regular 4:30 p.m. staff meeting — virtual, brought to you by webcams — fast approaching. It had been a long Thursday in an endless string of long days.

Now, perhaps more than ever, Cohen, a youthful 42 years old and almost four years into her tenure as the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, felt the weight of everything she’d been carrying throughout the worst public health crisis in a century — a global coronavirus pandemic.

“Just candidly, this is the most worried I have been throughout this pandemic,” she’d said hours earlier, during a virtual appearance at a Raleigh Professional Women’s Forum, where 75 women, more than usual, had logged onto Zoom to hear Cohen speak.

Cohen is The News & Observer’s 2020 Tar Heel of the Year, an honor that recognizes a North Carolina resident who has made lasting and significant contributions in the state and beyond. In the longest of years, one defined by the pandemic and by how world leaders and common citizens have responded to it, Cohen has become the figurative and literal face of North Carolina’s ongoing fight against COVID-19.

It is a fight in which she’s relied most upon data and science and something less easily quantified: the sense of empathy and compassion that some closest to her say make her a perfect fit for her position. It is a fight that’s challenged her to balance competing interests — one that at times has brought fierce criticism from skeptics who dismiss science or downplay the virus — while maintaining the goal of preserving the health and lives of North Carolinians.

And it is a fight that has roots, in ways large and small, in that long-ago case that mystified her during her residency, when a young woman came in losing her hair.

All these years later, Cohen still felt the shame — “what a huge failure, on my part, as a doctor,” she said — that overcame her when she learned more about that patient. “Oh my God,” Cohen said recently, reliving it, “she hasn’t eaten for six to eight weeks while I’ve run all these dumb blood tests.”

The patient had not been eating well because she’d had nowhere to go, and she’d had nowhere to go because she’d been on the run from an abusive relationship. It had not been something a blood test could have found that made her sick. It had been the manifestation of stress and difficult circumstances, a sad journey through systemic cracks that eroded her health.

To Cohen, the experience helped crystallize the broader idea that had led her into this work: While becoming a doctor and treating patients was a worthy endeavor, it did little to improve larger systems and impart change. That the noblest goal of health care was not necessarily to provide the best treatment for the sick. It was preventing them from becoming sick at all.

For more than nine months this year, that philosophy had guided her response to the pandemic and it had worked, relative to other states. North Carolina had avoided the worst kinds of surges, those that overwhelmed resources elsewhere. The hospitals had not become overrun; the ICU beds had not become full.

But now, in mid-December, the numbers were rising here, too, and the data that Cohen studied every day alarmed her.

“This is really worrisome,” she’d said when she began her press briefing that Thursday, and later she repeated the words for the women’s group, adding that hospital capacity was growing “tiiiiight,” she said. She detailed the executive order that Gov. Roy Cooper had just issued with her guidance: another curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., another round of restrictions on businesses in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus.

Cohen was urging people not to travel. To limit holiday gatherings.

“I know that sucks,” she said, speaking to the women in plain language, the kind she would not use behind the lectern during her press briefings but that somehow made her sound more like one of them, and one of us; someone just trying to make it to the other side.

“Let’s be honest,” she said. “It’s awful. Like, we all want to hang out with our friends and our family and to do the traditions we’ve always done and throw the holiday party we always did and wear that sweater we always wore. And I know. It’s awful. I hate it.”

When Cooper appointed Cohen in 2017 he told reporters the state was fortunate to have her, that North Carolina had been in need of “a good manager, someone who understands health care policy in the health care arena.” More than three years later, Cohen in some ways felt grateful that she was the one carrying the burden of the state’s response to the virus, as unforgiving a burden as it was.

She believed that maybe it was fate that led her here — “like there’s something in the universe,” she said during an interview, that had placed her in this job in this moment. She had a chance, on a large scale, to provide the kind of leadership she’d always envisioned — to change systems and, in turn, save lives.

“This is a well-deserved honor and I’m grateful to have her on our team,” Cooper tweeted Wednesday, after the Tar Heel of the Year honor was announced. “Secretary Cohen’s leadership and commitment to making North Carolina a healthier place has saved lives, especially during this pandemic.”

Her work has not gone unnoticed. Cohen’s work throughout the pandemic is but one reason why, last month, she was believed to be a leading candidate to become the national Secretary of Health and Human Services in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. Biden selected Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general, but, nonetheless, Cohen isn’t likely to lack future opportunities at the federal level.

Closer to home, on the Zoom call with the women’s group, comments piled up in the chat window, those in virtual attendance typing things like, “Dr. Cohen, THANK YOU for your commitment,” and “I’m a Dr. Cohen fan girl!” and “We are SO lucky to have you in NC, Dr. Cohen!”

Soon began a question-and-answer session, and the first question was, simply: “Dr. Cohen, how are you doing?” Cohen took a breath on the other end of the camera and paused for a moment.

“Oh, that’s a really kind question,” Cohen said. “Um, you know. I’m tired. I’m not going to lie.”

The slow start to a pandemic

North Carolina’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 became public on March 3. Looking back, the reaction seems quaint. In a press conference that day, Cooper said, “We do expect to see more cases in North Carolina,” as if somehow the opposite could have turned out to be true. Cohen provided details of the person who’d tested positive, revealing they’d flown back to Raleigh from Washington state. She said contact tracing would begin.

For about a week, things mostly continued as usual. There were small moments of foreshadowing, like when men’s basketball coaches Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski tapped elbows, instead of shaking hands, before a Duke-North Carolina basketball game.

But nothing major changed until the night of March 11, a Wednesday. Then everything began to change at once.

That was the night an NBA game stopped in progress after the revelation that a player had tested positive for the virus. It was the night that actor Tom Hanks and his wife, actress Rita Wilson, revealed they’d tested positive, too. In Greensboro at the ACC basketball tournament, among the state’s foremost cultural events when it’s here, officials decided spectators wouldn’t be allowed in the arena starting with Thursday’s games. By noon Thursday, the tournament was off completely.

Soon enough, schools sent students home and businesses deemed non-essential — restaurants and bars and movie theaters and gyms and barber shops, among others — closed. City streets and highways took on an empty, eerie feel. We came to know what Zoom was. Stores ran out of toilet paper. Hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes became valuable commodities.

Perhaps almost as unusual as any of those things, Cohen became a household name to an untold number of North Carolinians who, weeks earlier, would not have known who she was. She never aspired for such recognition, said Sam Cohen, her husband.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, takes notes for a question during a briefing at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. Ethan Hyman

She did not pursue a career in health care policy and administration to gain power or achieve some prestigious title or to be on camera a few times a week, like she has been most weeks for the past nine months.

“You go back to things that were going on before COVID-19 and the work the state was doing on the drivers of health, and various inequities and trying to do things that are going to help people be healthier, live better lives,” said Sam Cohen, a health care regulatory attorney who works in policy. “Like, that’s what she cares about.”

They’ve been married for 11 years, and have two daughters who are 6 and 8. The other day, Sam held them both in his arms for a moment during a conversation over Zoom. The three of them spend a lot of time at home together while his wife is at work at the State Emergency Operations Center, or at the DHHS offices.

“This is the one who just read Harry Potter non-stop for a month,” Sam said, holding the oldest.

“No, more like three,” the 8-year-old said with a giggle.

She has recently become interested in the fantasy genre, just like her dad. When Mandy Cohen did a television interview recently on CNN, she sat at home in front of a bookshelf filled with a row of Brandon Sanderson fantasy and science-fiction novels. After a screenshot of the interview landed on Twitter, some of Cohen’s admirers noticed the background and began complimenting her taste in books.

But, Sam Cohen said with a laugh, “Those are actually all mine,” and he appreciated that his oldest was becoming a reader. More than once, during one of his wife’s media briefings, he’d sat the girls down and tried to get them watch her on television, but they quickly lost interest.

“They’re like, ‘OK,’” Sam Cohen said. “’We’ve seen enough.’”

Sam and Mandy met through mutual friends when she was still a resident at Mass General and he was finishing law school at Harvard. They shared similar Jewish backgrounds in the Northeast — Sam’s from Philadelphia, Mandy from Long Island — and similar educational experiences and seemed to be on similar trajectories.

Yet what struck Sam early on about Mandy, he said, was not her ambition, but her compassion.

“That empathy,” he said. “That desire to help people. Those are the things that you notice. That’s the reason she does the work. Being noticed on the street is not really a bonus here.”

‘You need that tone sometimes’

For years, Mandy Cohen had been considered a rising star in the policy world but, like many in state cabinet positions, she’d done her work quietly and behind the scenes. Nearly overnight, though, she went from government-appointed public official to a recognizable public figure, something like North Carolina’s version of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

Throughout her career, she has been driven by the goal of maximizing “impact at scale,” as Cohen described it, and that’s part of what led her to North Carolina — the thought that her work could have the greatest positive effect on the greatest number of people.

“As a physician, you impact the person who’s sitting across from you,” she said, “and that one person or family, and that’s amazing, right, to see the impact you can have. But then you see the next person, and the next. And you’re like, Oh, God — how can we get the systems to work, that are for everybody?”

Since March, Cohen has delivered the data and perspective behind Cooper’s decisions. Hers is the voice imploring North Carolinians to practice social distancing and wash their hands and wear a mask.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, fields questions on the COVID-19 virus during a press briefing on Tuesday, November 17, 2020 at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett

At times there’s a tone of frustration in that voice, like a parent reminding a stubborn child of what’s best. Sam Cohen has heard that tone before.

“The governor and Mandy can say all the right things and do all the right things, but ultimately it’s a question of getting everyone else in the state to do those things, as well,” he said. “We know it’s been a hard year for everyone. So you need that tone sometimes.”

Mandy Cohen often has thought about what she might have done differently between March and now. North Carolina avoided spikes throughout the spring and summer and yet, still: Since that first confirmed case, almost 500,000 people in this state have tested positive. More than 6,300 of them have died. Loved ones have had to resort to virtual funerals to mourn the dead. Many others have lost jobs because of shutdowns, and businesses have struggled.

“It weighs on her a lot,” Sam Cohen said. “And it’s because no matter what you do, there are no perfect solutions to this situation. … So every decision you make, you know some people will be upset — you’re doing too much, you’re not doing enough.

“And depending on your perspective, either of those may be true. You don’t shut down enough things, more people can get sick. You shut down too many things, people are losing their jobs.”

It’s impossible to know what the data might look like had Mandy Cohen recommended some different action here, or there. Or if more people adhered to the precautions she has insisted upon, like mask-wearing and distancing and avoiding large gatherings. Or if many Republican leaders, including President Donald Trump, had not minimized the virus, encouraging some supporters not to adhere to public health guidelines, like social distancing or wearing a mask.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, talks during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic at the Joint Force Headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Ethan Hyman

“I say often, you can’t Monday morning quarterback a crisis,” Cohen said recently, during a conversation over Zoom from her office at DHHS headquarters. “So you have the information you have. You have the restraints that you have at the moment.

“So I’m pretty proud of the work.”

There is at least one thing she said she would have done differently: build in some time off early on. Like everyone else, Cohen thought for a little while that 2020 would eventually find its equilibrium — that perhaps she might even be able to visit her family in New York around Hanukkah earlier this month. Her brother’s family just had a baby in May, and Cohen had a trip booked for December.

But then inevitably she had to cancel it. And when she did, she cried.

A walk and a call to mom

Most mornings she goes for a long walk, about an hour, and that is her time and hers alone. Cohen uses it to listen to podcasts, with NPR’s “Death, Sex and Money” and The New York Times’ “The Daily” in the regular rotation. It is during those walks when she often calls her mother.

Cohen is the oldest of Marshall and Susan Krauthamer’s three children. Her father, retired, was a junior high guidance counselor in the New York City school system. Her mother was a hospital emergency room nurse practitioner. They’re a close family, and Cohen and her mother are especially so.

Susan Krauthamer worked in the ER for more than 30 years, often treating patients whose lives hung in the balance. When she was younger, Cohen once considered pursuing a career in music as a pianist or violinist (her brother is a professional musician) but her mother’s work left too indelible a mark. It provided Cohen her first glimpse into the world of medicine and healthcare and, in time, it shaped her desire to enter into that world with the goal of changing it.

“Often, the problems of our society, unfortunately, show up in the emergency room,” she said recently. “Substance abuse disorder. Mental health issues. Lack of insurance and no other place to go in terms of access to care. Those are all showing up in the emergency room, and I saw that window and I said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’

“Not only a better way, but I think you actually need to take that clinical experience and then move it over into the policy and administrative space, in order to build systems that work.”

She began forging her path during her undergraduate years at Cornell where, approaching graduation, she wrote a letter to Bruce Vladeck and asked if she could intern with him over a summer. Vladeck was a prominent figure in health policy, the former Administrator of the Health Care Financing Administration (later renamed the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) under former President Bill Clinton.

When Cohen wrote, Vladeck was teaching at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, where he also ran what he described as “a little policy research center.” Though Vladeck did not have a formal internship program, he agreed to have Cohen and another intern spend a summer in his department.

At times, they performed the kind of menial tasks stereotypical of internships. They helped pack boxes for an office move and “went to Staples or Ikea or something,” Vladeck said, to pick up some furniture. Just about every Friday, Cohen brought in sweets her mom had baked. “So she was very popular,” Vladeck said.

He also remembered Cohen’s more substantive research work and advanced understanding of policy, her self-assuredness and a kindness and warmth that perhaps belied her intelligence. That summer at Mt. Sinai, Vladeck said, a number of “self-important people” Cohen interacted with came away with a lasting positive impression, and question: “Who is this kid?”

“She was so sociable and friendly and open that it took people awhile to figure out how smart she was,” Vladeck said. “Particularly at an academic medical center, everybody sort of wears it on their sleeve. And she didn’t. Of course, she was more junior then, but she didn’t. And I’ve seen her professionally since.

“There’s an absence of self-importance that is not standard operating procedure for people in the kind of positions she’s been in.”

Cohen debated whether to attend medical school, given her desire to work in policy. Vladeck encouraged her to become a doctor, arguing that “what the world of health policy needs is more doctors,” he recalled, “and people who really understand how medical care happens and what it feels like to deliver it.”

“We’ve got to bridge these cultures, and I can’t think of anything better,” Vladeck told her.

‘The most talented person’

And so she went off to Yale Medical School, and also added a master’s in health administration from Harvard. After her residency, she worked for about a year with the Department of Veterans Affairs, in Women’s Health Services, before becoming the executive director at Doctors for America.

In 2010, Cohen became an adviser at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services and began a quick rise there. When failed to launch properly in 2013, making it all but impossible for people to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, Cohen was among those charged with fixing it.

Two years later, Andy Slavitt, the administrator of CMS, made Cohen his chief of staff.

“I just recognized that she was the most talented person in the organization,” Slavitt said during a recent phone interview with The News & Observer. “She was spectacular. From the minute that she started doing the job, she was really running the agency with me, which was a trillion-dollar agency.

“She just took everything personally, and made sure it went well,” Slavitt said. “She was tenacious. She had extremely high standards. She interfaced with the White House, she interfaced with Congress. With all of the people we worked for, she was supremely confident.”

Slavitt recalled how when Cohen was pregnant with her second daughter, she testified before Congress when “congressmen were attacking the rights of women to have contraception, and saying men shouldn’t have to pay for that.” And she “just handled it like a gem,” Slavitt said.

Cohen also played a leading role in overseeing CMS’ technically challenging transition to a new system of coding for healthcare claims.

Seven months after Cohen became the chief of staff at CMS, Slavitt also appointed her chief operating officer. She earned a reputation for her efficiency and team-building. At times she had to be the bearer of bad news to staff members. Maybe a deal couldn’t get done; maybe something that’d been a goal wasn’t going to happen.

“She liked to say that it was her clinical training where she’d had to tell patients, unfortunately, that they were going to not survive,” Slavitt said. “She said once you do that, nothing else is bad news that you have to deliver to anybody.”

Early in 2017, after Roy Cooper won the election to become governor of North Carolina, he appointed Cohen as the state’s health secretary. Slavitt and Cohen have remained close — they talk for about an hour every two weeks, he said — and though he acknowledged his bias, he argued that “there’s no question” Cohen is the best state public health secretary in the nation.

“North Carolina is so fortunate,” he said. “I don’t think there is a better health care leader in the country, more innovative.”

‘She put my fears to rest’

In the Before Times, when COVID-19 and pandemic were not yet a part of our lexicon, Cohen’s most defining work in North Carolina was likely the creation of NCCARE360. It is the first network of its kind in the country, one whose mission is to use technology to connect those in need with health care and social service providers in their communities.

Since her arrival in the state, Cohen has also advocated for the expansion of Medicare and Medicaid. Addressing the social determinants of health has underscored her work. Now the most severe public health crisis of our lifetimes has reinforced, in Cohen’s mind, that the American healthcare system isn’t much of a system at all.

“We have health care silos,” she said. “Meaning that we have players that are doing good work in their space. But it’s very, ‘Here’s my space, here’s my lane, here’s my thing.’ And the integration across is not always there. And frankly, I think that is a place government can play that role, is to create that systemness that we need.”

To create that, Cohen has been dependent, at least in part, on a state legislature that Republicans have controlled since she’s been in North Carolina. Many Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly had their doubts about Cohen when Cooper appointed her in 2017.

Some questioned her youth — she was 38 at the time — and the relative inexperience that came with it, despite the positions she’d held at the federal level. To others, it was that very experience in Washington, in an Obama administration, that might’ve been more unsettling.

“She’s coming out of Washington from the Obama administration, and there (were) questions about that, and questions about her,” Donny Lambeth, a Republican state representative from Forsyth County and the chairman of the House Health Committee, said during an interview with The News & Observer in April, when Cohen was named The Tar Heel of the Month. When Cooper appointed Cohen, Lambeth’s first thought was: “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Joyce Krawiec, a Republican state senator who is the chair of the Senate Health Care Committee, shared the skepticism. But “very quickly, she put my fears to rest,” said Krawiec, who represents parts of Davie and Forsyth counties, in a recent interview.

“I can’t say enough good things about her, really,” Krawiec told The N&O. “I respect her very much. To me she is the bright spot in this administration. She is very responsive. She is respectful, even though we disagree on some issues.”

One of those issues is Medicaid expansion, which Cooper has repeatedly tried to convince Republican lawmakers to pass, to no avail. Yet despite Cohen’s strong support for the same thing, she has still managed to build political relationships that have proven beneficial to other parts of her agenda.

“It’s because she listens,” Krawiec said. “We’re able to meet regularly. We talk regularly. She tells me what her plans are, and on some lesser notes, we’ve disagreed on many things. But she always listens. …

“She always respects what we have to say. And she tries to get to a point where we can get some agreement to get something done.”

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, speaks during a briefing at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. Ethan Hyman

‘How do we restore trust?’

While Cohen has navigated a particularly bitter political climate in this state, the pandemic has only deepened divides. Public health officials have not only had to fight the virus, but also disinformation and baseless conspiracy theories.

Not long ago, President Trump called Fauci, a lifelong public servant, “a disaster.” In North Carolina, science-denying skeptics rallied in Raleigh under the label ReOpenNC throughout the spring and summer, protesting the restrictions that Cohen supported. She has been approached in public by people who’ve been angry with her.

“A couple of times,” she said, “and I’ll probably just leave it at that.”

It’s not necessarily a surprise, Cohen said, that public discourse has devolved in such a way.

“I guess I’m just disappointed it went in that direction,” she said. “And I know we all have different ways of approaching the world. We have different experiences, but I honestly think it all goes back to trust. And how do we restore trust in government institutions?

“How do we restore trust in the press? And how do we restore trust in science? That’s been eroded before we got to COVID,” she said, and the pandemic “accelerated some of that distrust in some ways, and reinforced it.”

Amid all the noise, Cohen has proven to be a steadying force. N.C. Rep. Gale Adcock, a Democrat from Raleigh and a member of the House Health Committee, had always felt that calm in Cohen’s presence.

Maybe it was because Adcock had spent her career as a family nurse practitioner, and she found that commonality with Cohen’s mother. But when Cohen spoke, she didn’t sound to Adcock much like a detached government official. That was “part of her magic,” Adcock said — Cohen’s ability to relate.

“You meet people where they are when you are a healthcare provider,” Adcock said, “and she’s really good at that. She’s never lost that sense that she’s in the exam room with her patient. And the state is her patient.”

Cohen has spent much of the past nine months trying to build trust with North Carolina citizens the way the doctor might try to build a relationship with a patient. She said she’s proud of her team’s transparency, and of sharing data and speaking openly and explaining the rationale behind decisions.

Earlier this month, she led a 45-minute press briefing about the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine, and the anticipated arrival of one made by Moderna. She took notice that several reporters from national outlets were on the call.

“So that tells me a couple things,” Cohen said later, at the start of her regular afternoon meeting with her staff. “One, no one else is talking about vaccines and sort of setting the stage and being transparent. So, A-plus, team. … We’re setting expectations. We’re sharing what we know. We’re being concrete. We’re talking about all our plans, so I’m really pleased.”

She spent most of the next hour listening to her staff members detail their work. By the time the meeting was ending, Cohen had changed her virtual background to that of a picture of her family for some Throwback Thursday show-and-tell. The picture was from her oldest daughter’s baby-naming ceremony, a Jewish ritual, and the family was standing in front of a menorah.

“Throwback Thursday and Hanukkah,” Cohen said with some excitement, introducing her family.

Like her family, her faith has played an important role in helping her navigate the pandemic. She wears a necklace with the chai (pronounced like “high”) symbol around her neck. The symbol represents the Hebrew word for life and health.

When Cohen and her husband moved to North Carolina, they did not know anyone. The synagogue they chose became a second home.

“And I also joke with the rabbi that I think Jews were public health people before they knew what public health was,” Cohen said, referencing Jewish dietary restrictions, and how even before the pandemic there was “a lot of washing your hands in Jewish ritual practices.”

Back on the work call, Cohen wished a Happy Hanukkah to those celebrating. It was the first night of the festival, and she needed to hurry home.

“I’ve got to run, to the kids, to open some presents,” she said.

Most nights, Cohen made it home just as Sam was finishing making dinner, just in time to sit down with him and their daughters. Usually they’d eat, and sometimes the girls would play piano. They were learning just as Cohen had when she was younger. Sometimes they’d all play cards. The girls had taken a liking to a game called Spit, Sam said, “and they are very good, so we no longer beat them.”

In those moments, Cohen can be a mom and take a break. But then morning comes soon enough, and another day of leading a state through a pandemic begins.

This month’s arrival of vaccines means that the other side is approaching, and people can start to feel some hope. But that other side still can feel far away. These long days of the virus seem certain to stretch on, and it can’t be known what they might bring or how many more might become sick.

When Cohen addresses North Carolinians nowadays, she does so in even more serious tones. She emphasizes that now is not the time to let up. She shares her concerns, the way a doctor might with a dismissive patient, and she hopes, as she has hoped for the past nine months, that people will listen.

Tar Heel of the Year: Dr. Mandy Cohen

Age: 42

Occupation: Secretary of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

Hometown: Baldwin, N.Y.

Family: Husband, Sam; two daughters

Education: Cornell University, bachelor’s in Policy Analysis and Management; Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, master’s in public health; Yale University School of Medicine, medical degree

Accomplishments: Among Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women Leaders in Healthcare, in 2019; 2020 Leadership in Public Health Practice Award from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Tar Heels of the Month 2020

This year, we highlighted newsmakers and people making a difference each month. They were considered nominees for Tar Heel of the Year.

John Forslund, former broadcaster for the Carolina Hurricanes, named 2019 North Carolina Sportscaster of the Year by the National Sports Media Association.

LeVelle Moton, North Carolina Central University Men’s Basketball coach, inducted into the CIAA Hall of Fame. The Raleigh City Council renamed Lane Street Park after the coach.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, who has guided the state’s coronavirus response.

Dr. Ralph Baric, researcher and professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, whose work has laid the groundwork for COVID-19 treatments, including the drug remdesivir.

Kizzmekia Corbett, viral immunologist and scientific lead for the government’s search for a coronavirus vaccine at the National Institutes of Health.

Machelle Sanders, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Administration, who is leading the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental and Health Equity Task Force to seek solutions to address these disparities facing North Carolina residents.

Andrea Peet, whose Team Drea Foundation has so far raised more than $500,000 for the ALS Therapy Development Institute and the Duke ALS Clinic. She works with Google and the ALS Therapy Development Institute to help develop speech recognition tools for ALS patients and has a goal of completing a marathon in all 50 states.

Sabrina Goode, founding member and director of The Friends of Oberlin Village, which works to share the history of the community founded by freed slaves.

Nolan Smith, former Duke basketball player on the 2010 NCAA national championship team and current Director of Basketball Operations on Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke basketball staff. He was recently named a George H.W. Bush Points of Light Inspiration honoree for “his activism and community outreach.”

Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at UNC in North Carolina, has led efforts to stop spread of coronavirus and find vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.


1997: Hugh McColl, Bank of America

1998: John Hope Franklin, Duke University historian

1999: Franklin Graham, CEO, Samaritan’s Purse

2000: Larry Wheeler, Director, N.C. Museum of Art

2001: Molly Broad, UNC system president

2002: Kay Yow, NC State women’s basketball coach

2003: Jim Goodmon, Capitol Broadcasting

2004: Howard Manning Jr., State Superior Court Judge

2005: Martin Eakes, CEO, Self-Help Credit Union

2006: Ann, Jim Goodnight, SAS founder, community leaders

2007: Christine Mumma, N.C. Center on Actual Innocence

2008: Joe DeSimone, Chemist at UNC

2009: Phil Freelon, Architect

2010: Ray Buchanan, Stop Hunger Now

2011: Betsy Bennett, Director, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

2012: Robert Lefkowitz and Myron Cohen, Researchers at Duke and UNC

2013: Mary-Dell Chilton, Agricultural scientist at Syngenta Biotechnology

2014: Steve Schuster, Architect

2015: Aziz Sancar and Paul Modrich, Cancer researchers at UNC and Duke and Nobel Prize winners

2016: John Kane, Developer

2017: Ashley Christensen and Vivian Howard, Chefs and restaurateurs

2018: The Rev. William Barber Jr., Pastor and activist

Runners-up: William Lewis, Rhiannon Giddens, Jaki Shelton Green and Richard Brunson

2019: Gregg Warren, Affordable housing developer

Runners-up: J. Cole, Sandi Macdonald, Bob Phillips and Tim Sweeney

2020: Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

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Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.

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