Coronavirus hits home

  • The Town of Highlands has closed Town Hall and the Rec Center to the public until further notice.
    The Town of Highlands has closed Town Hall and the Rec Center to the public until further notice.

Macon County Public Health confirmed the first presumptive positive case of coronavirus in Macon County on Monday.

In a written statement, MCPH officials noted that the patient has been quarantined and is doing well in isolation. A coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, test has been sent to the Center for Disease Control for verification.

“The patient is a resident of New York State and traveled to Buncombe County, where they became ill and were tested, and then traveled on to Macon County,” the statement read. “Since cases are reported under the state of residence, this will be reported as a New York case and not a North Carolina case.”

Due to federal law, the health department is not allowed to disclose the patient’s identity, exact location or condition. The patient is being monitored daily by a public health staff member.

The Macon and Buncombe county health departments are working to identify any close contacts that the patient may have made since coming to North Carolina. The CDC defines close contact as being within six feet for a period of 10 minutes or longer.

MCPH has set up a call center to answer questions from the public regarding the coronavirus and the local response. The call center is staffed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the number is 828-349-2517.

Also in response to the ongoing outbreak, the Town of Highlands has closed Town Hall and the Highlands Rec Center to the public. 

Mayor Patrick Taylor indicated that the closures will be in place for at least the next two weeks, and then reevaluated. All essential town services, including trash collection, will remain open and on schedule.

“We have had a change in policy and the Town Hall doors will be closed to routine business,” Taylor said on Monday. “We are asking people who may have utility bills to pay to use the metal bill pay box in front of Town Hall. The Highlands town board meeting scheduled for this Thursday (March 19) has been postponed until further notice.”

The town board of commissioners approved a state of emergency declaration on Tuesday afternoon aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. The declaration opens up access to state and federal relief funds, should they become available, and also allows town law enforcement the power to disperse any large gatherings.

“Our goal through all of this is to keep town services operational and also to keep our citizens, our employees and their families healthy,” Taylor said. “It’s a very fluid situation and we have been adjusting quickly since the end of last week.”


Highlands-Cashiers Hospital

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital CEO Tom Neal joined the town board meeting where the state of emergency was declared via conference call.

Neal explained that the hospital is taking steps to protect the health of patients, visitors and employees. He applauded hospital staff members for their flexibility in fast-changing times.

“We have a plan in place that we feel is solid in dealing with COVID-19 and even though it seems like the federal and state guidelines are changing hour by hour, or certainly day by day, we are as prepared as we can be,” Neal said. “Despite any rumors that may be out there we are not at capacity and we are certainly not overrun due to the virus.”

Neal explained that HCH’s normal maximum census is 24 patients, but due to measures taken at the federal and state level the hospital can now hold as many as 35 patients if the need arises.

“Over the last few days our census has been between 8-12 patients and that is a number we certainly can handle,” Neal said. “We have restricted hospital access to one entrance, and that is so we can screen every person that comes in for potential symptoms and determine what type of treatment they need.”

HCH has adopted other measures aimed at stopping the potential spread of COVID-19. There are no visitors allowed at the Eckerd Living Center until further notice and hospital visitation has been limited to 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The cafeteria has been closed to the public but is still providing patient meals.

Neal noted that COVID-19 testing is not being done on site at the hospital, but samples can be collected at HCH and delivered to Macon County Public Health for testing.

“If someone comes in with symptoms we are first ruling out other possible illnesses such as the flu or pneumonia,” Neal said. “If those tests come back negative then we can take a sample and send it to the health department for a COVID-19 test.”

Neal encouraged the public to maintain the practice of social distancing and to self-isolate if they are ill.

“We have been ahead of this and our sister hospitals through HCA have been as well,” Neal said. “We are not overwhelmed, but rather at a heightened state of preparedness. Our staff are well trained and well informed and every patient coming here for treatment is receiving treatment.”


Cooper takes action

The Town of Highlands’ state of emergency announcement came less than three days after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper made the decision via executive order to close all schools statewide from March 16 – March 30. Monday was a teacher workday as school staff members tried to get materials prepared should the school closure last longer than two weeks.

Also part of Gov. Cooper’s order, was a measure to stop mass gatherings of more than 100 people statewide. Due to that order, several public events have been cancelled or postponed through March 30. 

Following Cooper’s order, the Fontana Library system made the decision to close its facilities to the public from March 17–March 31.

“The scientific data show that early, aggressive social distancing is vital in slowing the virus’s spread,” librarian Karen Wallace said. “By not delaying the decision to close, the benefits of social distancing will be maximized.”

During the closure, overdue fees will be waived and materials placed on hold can be picked up via curbside service. To pick up materials, call Hudson Library at 828-526-3031.

Cooper announced a second executive order on Tuesday that closed all dine-in restaurants and bars statewide. Restaurants are allowed to stay open, but only for carryout or delivery business.


What is coronavirus?

COVID-19 coronavirus is a new virus that has not been previously identified. The virus causing COVID-19 is not the same as coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illnesses and common colds.

The COVID-19 coronavirus was first detected in January in Wuhan, China. According to the CDC, the first infections were linked to a live animal market, but the virus is now being spread from person to person.

Because the virus is airborne, the CDC has recommended a specific set of guidelines related to slowing the spread of COVID-19. Those recommendations include:

• Staying home if a person feels ill.

• Practicing social distancing and staying six feet away from others in public.

• Avoiding large crowds and mass gatherings.

• Washing hands with soap and warm water, or alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

• Covering all coughs and sneezes with a tissue.

• Wearing a facemask if a person is sick (not necessary if healthy).

As of 5 p.m. on Monday there have been 3,487 cases of COVID-19 coronavirus in the United States and 68 confirmed deaths. In North Carolina there have been 33 confirmed cases and zero deaths.

Monday night the CDC announced that it has awarded the state of North Carolina $13.8 million to combat coronavirus.