42 Macon County residents test positive for COVID-19 in 48 hours
The Macon County Public Health Department announced yesterday at a press conference that 42 new positive cases of COVID-19 have been identified in Macon County over a two day period, May 28-29.
MCPH Health Director Kathy McGaha said among those 42 positive cases is a cluster at Old Edwards Inn & Spa in Highlands with 6 employees who tested positive for COVID-19.
MCPH reported the first cluster of COVID-19 cases in Macon County at the Evangelical Ebenezer Church in Franklin on May 24 with 7 members of the congregation testing positive for COVID-19. Read full article HERE.
Clusters of COVID-19 in workplace, educational, and other community settings are identified as having a minimum of five cases with illness onsets or initial positive results within a 14-day period.
McGaha said some people identified through contact tracing from the cluster at the church are associated with positive cases at OEI. McGaha said OEI can continue to operate if they follow proper safety guidelines and procedures.
“We’re working closely with Old Edwards Inn to make sure that they are doing everything that they possibly can,” said McGaha. “They are very cooperative. We’re testing additional employees and they understand the recommendations for sanitation, cleaning, and disinfection so we’re happy to be working with them.”
Old Edwards Inn & Spa President Richard Delaney said all but one of the cases came from contact with the cluster at the church in Franklin, and there has been no spread within the company from those employees.
He added that OEI is reinforcing mandatory safety measures of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizing for employees as well as all the additional protocols for cleaning and safety around the hotels. All individuals who test positive for COVID-19 are required to isolate themselves for 14 days.
“Extra cleaning and sanitizing measures were put into place in the areas where the employees worked and continue to be practiced throughout the company,” said Delaney. “All guests are still being strongly encouraged to wear masks in indoor common areas and mandated in certain areas.”
Delaney said he is not at liberty to disclose what departments the infected employees work in, but everyone who worked in the vicinity of the affected employees has been tested. Employees being tested are quarantined while awaiting their results. As of Friday, all tests have come back negative.
“We are pleased that the results are coming back negative from employees who were quarantined and tested as a result of working around the affected employees,” said Delaney. “We are continuing to check temperatures of employees and guests, prohibiting symptomatic employees from coming to work, providing extra paid time off for any affected employees, and ensuring that all of our stepped-up cleaning and safety measures continue. We are encouraging all employees to get tested and working on programs that make it quick and easy for them to do so.”
Spike in positive cases attributed to increase in testing
The additional 42 positive cases bring Macon County’s total to 63; 59 active positive cases, 3 recovered, and 1 death. McGaha said there were 27 new cases on Thursday and 15 more on Friday, but MCPH went from testing 10 people a day, to over 100 a day over the past week.
MCPH Medical Director Dr. Donald Dewhurst said at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, testing guidelines primarily focused on symptomatic people, but that spectrum has broadened over the past week.
“Early on, we were testing by the guidelines pretty much only symptomatic people and that was somewhere between 7-10 tests a day,” said Dewhurst. “Over the last week, we’ve done over a hundred tests a day. So, we’ve done a huge number of more tests and certainly as a result we’re seeing more cases.
Dewhurst added that an increase in positive cases in rural areas is a trend throughout the country.
“The opening up to some degree was recommended at the state level, but the state is quite diverse, and in the rural areas we have not been hit nearly as much as more urban areas, which is also true across the country,” said Dewhurst. “But now across the country we are seeing rural areas having more and more cases.”
Emergency Management Director Warren Cabe said Macon County maintained only 3 positive cases for over a month, while surrounding counties were reporting numbers reaching the teens and 20s. He said if things become worse, Macon County can always put restrictions back into place under Governor Roy Cooper’s Executive Order, but the county isn’t there yet.
“It’s a little surprising for folks to see the increase in numbers this week, but it’s not necessarily surprising to us,” said Cabe. “We had an extremely low positive case count for a long time, and we knew that when the amount of tests started going up, we would see those numbers go up. So it’s not unexpected to some degree, it’s more surprising that it happened very quickly. We are prepared to deal with the circumstances, and we do have processes in place to manage the situation.”
McGaha said it’s a big undertaking to test over a hundred people a day at an agency with a staff of approx. 63, and she said their efforts are incredible.
“It is all hands-on deck, I can’t be prouder of the staff at the Health Department, they are fabulous,” said McGaha.
MCPH has a nursing staff and environmental health staff, it operates English and Spanish call centers, collects samples for lab testing, manages drive thru processes getting necessary paperwork, and educates each individual that’s tested so they understand what the process is and what they need to do after they are tested regarding quarantine.
McGaha said she wants the community to know if they are feeling ill, or have any reason to think they have been exposed to the coronavirus, they can call 828.349.2517 and MCPH staff will screen them and get them in for testing.
“We do encourage our community members to call us if they have any questions or if they’re feeling ill, we don’t want them to hesitate,” she said. “Please reach out and we’ll get you tested at the health department.”
Personal protective equipment
Cabe and McGaha said the county is “reasonably” supplied with most personal protective equipment, but there is a minor shortage of gowns. Cabe said gowns tend to be the most sought-after item across North Carolina.
“Obviously, the longer this goes on we anticipate some more surges along the way, so we maintain the use of that (PPE) sparingly and hopefully the supply chain will catch up,” said Cabe.
In terms of ventilators, Cabe said that medical facilities have a reasonable supply and are available if necessary. He said North Carolina issued a purchase order early on in the pandemic timeline for several million dollars worth of ventilators, and those will be issued throughout counties once they reach a certain threshold, or if there’s a shortage.
“In some ways it is a numbers game,” said Cabe. “The restrictions that were put in place early on were set in place in order to get our system ready to handle positive patients and we did that. Now we’re starting to see more of those positive patients come in, but we’re effectively able to handle that because we’ve got that space built into our system and we’re prepared for it.”
Isolation versus Quarantine
Dewhurst clarified the difference between isolation and quarantine. Isolation is for someone identified as a positive case and is expected to truly isolate with minimal contact with others, even family members within the household should keep their distance.
Quarantine is for those who have been identified as having been exposed to someone infected with COVID-19 but has no symptoms, or people who are at high risk for exposure. It is recommended those individuals to keep their contacts minimal, but since they do not yet have the actual disease, they are not expected to isolate to the same degree of someone with a positive diagnosis.
MCPH is recommending that businesses, churches, and community meeting locations take the temperature of all employees before the start of their shift, implement flexible pay policies for absence due to illness to allow employees to take a break if they or your immediate relatives are sick, encouraging the disinfection of high contact surfaces (such as door knobs, keyboards, tablets, etc.) and to require masks for all employees.
“Based on the large number of positives we have received over the past week, we have determined that there is a community spread in Macon County,” said Dewhurst. “We encourage everyone who can stay home, do it.”
However, Cabe said the outlook for Macon County looks good if people continue to follow protocols and processes in place.
“This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” said Cabe. “We’re in this to finish strong, and we’ll position ourselves to finish strong at the end of the race.”
Pictured at the top of the article is a view of Old Edwards Inn & Spa campus from Main and 5th Streets in Highlands.