Macon County Public Health officials, elected leaders and county department heads gathered on Friday at the Robert C. Carpenter Community building in Franklin to explain a recent spike in local COVID-19 coronavirus cases.
As of Tuesday, there have been 90 confirmed cases in Macon County. That number is up from 18 active cases one week prior.
Of the 90 cases in the county, 81 are considered active positive, eight are deemed recovered and one patient has died as a result of COVID-19.
“In a period of less than 48 hours we have confirmed 42 positive cases of COVID-19 and we are very confident that the coronavirus is now community spread throughout the county, as it has throughout most of the state,” MCPH Director Kathy McGaha said. “We have also identified two clusters, which are five or more cases associated with one community setting or location in a 14-day period.”
McGaha explained that the clusters were related to seven positive cases at Ebenezer’s Evangelical Church in Franklin and six positive cases at Old Edwards Inn in Highlands. Some of the additional cases have been traced back to the two clusters, but are not directly connected to either of those locations.
The identified positive patients have been isolated and prospective positive cases have been asked to quarantine until their test results are known.
“The difference between isolation and quarantine is a matter of degree,” MCPH physician Dr. Donald Dewhurst said. “Someone who is confirmed positive is expected to fully isolate and remain away from other people, including their family, until their symptoms subside. Quarantine is for people who have been exposed, but have no symptoms, or are at a high risk for exposure.”
Macon County Emergency Services Director Warren Cabe advised the public to abide by the state’s “Safer at home” order and take proper precautions in regards to their own health and the health of the public.
“When we lifted our county restrictions, we put in place a means to follow the state guidelines with the caveat that if conditions worsened locally we could go back in and re-implement stricter measures,” Cabe said. “We are not at a point where we need to do that yet, but we want the public to understand that the state’s restrictions are for your own good and the public’s good.”
Cabe added that the jump in positive cases in a short time may be a shock to the public, but it isn’t a shock to public health officials. The increase in confirmed positive cases coincides with an increase in the number of tests being performed locally.
As of Tuesday, 1,314 Macon County residents had been tested for COVID-19.
“We had an extremely low positive count for a long time, and as we saw the number of tests administered go up, we expected the positives would go up,” Cabe said. “We still have plans in place for contact tracing and for non-congregate sheltering if those are needed. We are confident in our plan and in our procedures should we have to take additional measures to slow the spread of the virus.”
County commissioner Jim Tate pointed out that Macon County has received $833,000 from the state to fight the spread of COVID-19 and that the county has allotted an additional $150,000 for public health services to combat the pandemic.
“I was on the phone less than an hour ago with NC Rep. Kevin Corbin and he assured me that additional funds are going to become available and to use the money we have liberally to fight Covid-19,” Tate said. “From our perspective at the county level, the health and well being of our citizens is our top priority.”
The three W’s
McGaha urged residents and visitors to the county to heed the “Three W’s” that are being promoted by the state to slow the virus – Wash your hands, wear a mask and wait six feet from others in public places.
Along with the “Three W’s,” MCPH is advising businesses, churches and community gathering places to do temperature checks of all employees prior to the start of their shift, require masks for employees and frequently disinfect high-touch surfaces.
McGaha noted that leadership at the Ebenezer’s Evangelical Church and Old Edwards Inn are cooperating fully with health department suggestions.
“Our staff has made sure that the business owners and managers have the information they need to properly clean and disinfect their buildings,” McGaha said. “For the past several weeks we have had environmental health inspectors and nurses reaching out to businesses to answer their questions. We are working closely with Old Edwards Inn and they have been very cooperative.”
In a written statement, Old Edwards Inn Director of Marketing and Public Relations Amanda Sullivan noted that all employees who worked in close contact with the patients that tested positive have been quarantined. All other employees with possible contact have been tested.
“So far, all the results are coming back negative, which tells us that our safety measures are proving effective at protecting our guests and our other 450 employees,” Sullivan said. “So, our approach has been to continue reinforcing our mandatory safety measures of masks, gloves and obsessive hand sanitizing for employees. We are continuing to check temperatures of employees and guests, prohibiting symptomatic employees from coming to work and providing extra paid time off for any affected employees.”
There are two call centers, one for English speakers and one for Spanish speakers, at the health department to track down close contacts of positive COVID-19 patients. The CDC defines close contacts as being within a short distance of a person for a period of 10 minutes or longer.
“We want to remind the community that if they are feeling ill, or if they think they have been exposed to the coronavirus, they can call 828-349-2547 and our staff will screen them and if necessary get them in for testing,” McGaha said. “We don’t want people to hesitate if they feel sick.”
Today from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. there will be a free drive-in testing site set up at The Farm at Old Edwards located on Arnold Road. Testing is free and no appointment is necessary.
Anyone who wishes to be tested is advised that masks are mandatory and that they should bring their health insurance information, although insurance is not required to be tested.
The Highlands Cashiers Health Foundation will conduct two drive-in testing events in coming weeks. The first will be June 6 in Cashiers and the second will be June 13 in Highlands.
Anyone wanting to be tested during those events must pre-register and receive an appointment time. To register, call 828-506-6907.