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Following the weekend announcement of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Buncombe, Henderson and Cherokee counties, Transylvania and Jackson counties both announced their first confirmed cases Monday.
With the new coronavirus pandemic now firmly established in Western North Carolina, local government and health agencies in mountain counties are bracing for what’s to come.
Precautionary measures underway vary from simply stepping up public awareness to more drastic actions, such as travel restrictions enacted in Graham County.
Watching carefully in Yancey
In Yancey County, Health Department spokesperson Jessica Farley said her agency is diligently following the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gov. Roy Cooper.
“We’re taking it one day at a time,” Farley said. “We’re in constant contact with the county and emergency manager.”
She said Yancey County officials are closely monitoring news coming out of surrounding counties.
“We’re sending nonessential staff home,” she said, a policy that rolled out last week, with more sent home Monday. Other county employees are expected to be sent to work from home by the end of the week.
Farley also noted that Yancey County businesses are taking more precautions now that the coronavirus is in WNC, which she admits isn’t a surprise.
“It’s becoming real,” she says. “Just because we’re in a rural area doesn’t mean we are immune to the virus.”
Health Director Diane Creek, who oversees the Toe River Health District that encompasses the Yancey, Mitchell and Avery county health departments, is using Facebook to keep area residents regularly informed and reassured as test results trickle in.
A post from Creek on Sunday announced what to do and expect if residents think they should be tested for COVID-19. Creek promised to announce test results from the three counties nightly via the Yancey County Health Department’s Facebook page.
In addition to fielding questions, she reminded residents to “stay home, social distance, wash your hands and don’t touch your face. And try to get outside in your yard and get some sunshine today if you’re not sick.”
Preparing at WNC hospitals
In Haywood County, Haywood Regional Medical Center, like other health facilities, has created a Coronavirus Preparedness Information webpage to keep residents informed. Marketing communications coordinator Lindsey Solomon said staff members there are staying abreast of the latest CDC guidelines and have suspended all inpatient visitations, a policy that went into effect Friday.
The Mission Health System followed suit on visitor restrictions on Saturday, no longer allowing visitors into any facilities, except one visitor at a time to the pediatric and labor-and-delivery departments, until further notice.
According to Mission Health media relations spokesperson Nancy Lindell, “In accordance with new guidelines from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, we have also canceled all nonessential surgery procedures, as defined by CMS.”
Mission Health System, which has branches serving 18 western counties, is continuing to work in partnership with local health departments and the CDC to provide updates, Lindell said, adding that the hospital system is bolstering its preparedness efforts, including shoring up necessary supplies and equipment and emergency planning.
Closing the borders in Graham
Graham County may be taking the most drastic measures in response to the outbreak. Dale Wiggins, chairman of the Graham County Board of Commissioners, announced a local state of emergency on Saturday.
He announced that all accommodation businesses, such as hotels, were to close by noon Monday. By noon Friday, Wiggins said, a number of highways would be closed or have restricted access. This would make Graham, on the Tennessee border, the second North Carolina county to close or limit its borders, following Dare on the Atlantic Coast.
Closing the borders in Graham is both a precautionary measure and a reaction to the recent announcement of confirmed cases in WNC, said County Manager Rebecca Garland.
“We’re trying to flatten the curve as quickly as we can,” she explained.
“We’re remote and limited in resources. There is no hospital in the county and only two ambulances running at a time. With a 40-minute commute to the nearest hospital, we’re trying to do everything in our power to protect the residents and our resources. If our paramedics get sick, we’re in a worse situation than we were before.”
She also added that the county is implementing a telecommuting work policy to try and stay ahead of the curve.
For details on Graham County road closures and travel restrictions, check the Graham County Local Government’s Facebook page.
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