People walk through downtown Southport, North Carolina on March 23, 2019. The down town backs up to the Cape Fear River near to where it spills into the Atlantic Ocean. The town boasts a variety of shops and restaurants with a population of roughly 3,730 in 2017. [Melissa Sue Gerrits/For Carolina Public Press]

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As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, many countries are sounding dire warnings for the protection of populations deemed most at risk, which includes people ages 65 and older.

The majority of people who contract the virus may show mild symptoms or none at all. But even the young are not immune. More than 1-in-3 hospitalized patients in the United States were under age 55, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the CDC also says COVID-19 is particularly deadly for people over age 80, who are at “the highest risk for serious illness and death.” Many governments are urging people with underlying health conditions and those over age 65 to leave home as little as possible.

However, that population is not spread equally throughout the state, according to population estimates from the North Carolina state demographer’s office. In 20 of the state’s counties, more than 1-in-4 residents are 65 or older.

Transylvania County has the highest population of those residents, with nearly 1-in-3 being over age 65.

Other Western North Carolina counties with around 1-in-4 residents over 65 years old include Clay, Cherokee, Polk, Macon, Henderson, Alleghany, Haywood, Ashe, Yancey and Graham counties.

Central North Carolina counties with similar large densities of older residents are Chatham and Moore.

Eastern North Carolina counties on the list are Beaufort, Brunswick, Carteret, Chowan, Pamlico, Perquimans and Washington.

Josh Kennedy, Polk County health and human services director, said his department has been advising retirement communities and organizations that serve older residents about the threat of COVID-19 since mid-January. Nearly 30% of the county’s approximately 21,700 residents are older than 65.

“Many (retirement homes) are restricting visitors” or looking at visitation policies, Kennedy said recently. “Communication is key. The more folks stay informed, the better.”

He said the health department is also in contact with churches and other places that older residents tend to gather.

“We are doing our best to communicate to our various stakeholders what’s going on, why this is happening and why these mitigation strategies are being held,” Kennedy said. “We are making sure people are understanding the solidarity in this process.”

Brunswick County, on the coast, has the most overall residents of that group, with an estimated 142,000 residents — and the state demographer estimates more than 30% of its residents are 65 or older.

Earlier this month, Brunswick County closed its senior centers and canceled all events at county-owned parks and libraries, said county spokeswoman Meagan Kascsak. The county is also offering home-delivered meals and drive-thru meal pickup for seniors at five locations in the county.

“Even though the (senior) centers are closed to the public, (Brunswick Senior Resources Inc.) staff are still working to ensure that meals are provided and can assist seniors with some services virtually,” Kascsak said.

“Brunswick County is a retirement destination and one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation,” state demographer Michael Cline said.

Health officials nationwide urge social distancing and hand-washing to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

Correction: The number of North Carolina counties with at least 1-in-4 residents 65-years-old or older is 20. The article as originally posted gave an incorrect count.


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Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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