Sheriff blocks entrance to Graham County

As of Monday morning, North Carolina had confirmed COVID-19 cases in 89 of its 100 counties, not including Graham.

While that could change quickly, Graham officials have taken precautions to insulate their county, which has no hospital, from the infection’s spread.

In addition to having a curfew, Graham County has limited entry to residents and essential traffic.

Neighboring Cherokee County has 11 confirmed COVID-19 cases — nine residents and two visitors in isolation. Cherokee County also has had one person die from illness caused by the new coronavirus.

[The latest: North Carolina coronavirus daily updates]

Graham County Manager Rebecca Garland said county officials are as prepared as possible for any confirmed COVID-19 cases, given there is no hospital in the county.

“This is the reason that we have had to take such strong measures,” Garland told Carolina Public Press.

“As the governor stated (on April 3), staying at home and practicing social distancing is our only defense against this virus. Our emergency responders are prepared to do everything in their power to be an effective first line of response when we have to begin transporting patients out of the county to hospital intervention. Our Health Department has been working hard to educate the public and keep us informed as to the progress of the illness in the state.”

Graham County mandated closure for all hotels, cabins, resorts and other vacation rentals March 23, except for those that accommodate people with “legitimate work-related stay.” The county set up checkpoints at its entrances, allowing only residents and nonresident property owners and nonresident employees of Graham County-located businesses. Vendor and business traffic is allowed with a permit.

Traffic on U.S. 74, detoured through Graham County because of a rock slide in the Nantahala Gorge, had been allowed to pass through the county but not to stop. After taking measures to stabilize the slopes, the road reopened Saturday, reducing traffic through the county.

Larry Hembree, director of Graham County Emergency Services, said people were coming to the county from everywhere before the closure. He said it was overwhelming the area’s one grocery store and presented a challenge to the county’s limited resources.

The county has two ambulances that are used to transport patients to hospitals out of the county, most often to Cherokee, Swain or Jackson counties. Its EMS department has 12 full-time employees.

Hembree said the community has responded well to the county’s measures. “Most everybody’s been really supportive and understanding,” he said. “I believe its working quite well right now.”

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Dale Wiggins, chairman of the Graham County Board of Commissioners, agreed that the community’s reaction has been mostly positive.

“We have had no serious issues,” Wiggins said. “Most people who show up without prior knowledge of our closures are understanding. We have law enforcement at the checkpoints. We hope that nonresident people will just stay away.”

Garland said, “We also want to remind all our residents (full and part time) and our visitors that the lives we are trying to save might be their lives or the lives of their loved ones. We will not rest until we know that we have done everything in our power to keep people safe.”

Wiggins said he continues to ask “for people’s patience and prayers. This is a difficult time. No one has had to deal with this kind of emergency before.”

“Stay home unless you absolutely need to go out,” he said. “We’ll get through this. We don’t know how long, but it will pass. Don’t lose sight of that.”

Graham County is located along the Tennessee state line in southwestern North Carolina. With fewer than 9,000 residents, according to the 2010 census, Graham is the state’s third-least populous county. It borders Cherokee County to the south, Macon County to the southeast and Swain County to the north and east, as well as Tennessee to the west.

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Joseph Martin is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Murphy. Email to contact the Carolina Public Press news team.

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