Highlands Town Board mandates masks be worn inside town facilities

At a special called Town Board meeting Monday, commissioners voted unanimously to require masks be worn by employees and visitors inside any town facility, effective immediately.

Those facilities include: Town Hall, the Community Building, the Civic Center, the Police station, the Fire & Rescue Department, and the ABC Store.

Mayor Pat Taylor said the town has always stayed in line with and adhered to mandates or suggestions made by NC Governor Roy Cooper and now is no different – though for now, the town’s stance isn’t as stringent as his.

Last Thursday, Governor Roy Cooper and NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy K. Cohen announced that state government would begin verifying vaccination status of its workers. Employees not vaccinated are required to wear a mask and be tested at least once a week. (See story on page 10.)

“He has urged municipalities to adopt a similar order, so I called this meeting to discuss masks and vaccinations,” said Mayor Taylor.

Overall, commissioners were against mandating employees get vaccinated as well as requiring weekly testing of the unvaccinated employees because obviously, that would identify those who have opted not to get the vaccination and risks harassing them.

According to Town Manager Josh Ward 75% to 80% of town employees are not vaccinated and as far as he can tell they have no intention of getting vaccinated.

Though incentives to entice more employees to get the vaccine were thrown around, commissioners agreed that would not help. 

“From my experience, incentivizing will do absolutely nothing,” said Commissioner Brian Stiehler.

“There is a large percentage of people who don’t care about this and aren’t worried about this and take no precautions whatsoever. It’s unfortunate but it’s the reality of it,” he said. “Women are afraid of reproductive harm, people are worried about microchips. I’ve heard them all.” 

Tom Neal, CEO/CNO of Highlands Cashiers Hospital and Dr. Bill Hathaway chief medical officer for Mission Health HCA, NC division, discussed the importance of vaccines and at the vary least wearing masks indoors and socially distancing.

“We are seeing a rise in cases and the Delta variant is far more virulent and contagious. Vaccinated people can catch it and spread it even if they aren’t affected by it,” said Neal.

As with the aftermath of all holiday festivities, there was a rise in COVID cases after July 4th but now it’s due to the Delta variant which presents a slight alteration from the original virus.

“Due to the Delta variant, we are hovering in the mid-40 range of cases a day in just three weeks. It is three to four times more transmissible than the original COVID viruses,” said Dr. Hathaway.

He said a large explosion of cases in Cape Cod, MA, following July 4th shed light on the implications of the Delta variant.

“We weren’t surprised to see cases after the July 4th holiday. That’s what happens after holidays. What surprised us was the number of people who contracted the virus who were previously vaccinated. The CDC identified 469 cases from the outbreak. Of those cases, 346 were in vaccinated people – that’s 74%. The good news is the vaccinated people weren’t very sick. There were very few hospitalizations and very little illness for them.

“What we learned, however, is the vaccinated people were fully able to transmit the virus to other people. The bottom line is we have an uptick, we have more hospitalizations, we have more cases, but the vaccine still works and prevents people from getting ill. The vaccine prevents severe illness and it’s important to get that message out there.”

This led commissioners to discuss having an information and vaccine day for town employees to explain the reality of the vaccine not the bogus information perpetuated on social media.

“Would it behoove us to have the hospital come and do an immunization program for town employees only? Have them sign up so they don’t have to stand in line. Set a time, set a date. It’s free it’s done and they are still on the clock and still getting paid,” asked Commissioner John Dotson.

Neal said the hospital would be willing to do it. 

Commissioners Donnie Calloway and Stiehler said it was a great gesture, but they didn’t think that’s the issue. 

“If we were having this conversation pre-social media, this wouldn’t be the issue it is now. But it’s just amazing the ignorance out there. There are so many people who have their minds made up and they wouldn’t even be open to it. To a lot of people. it’s a political thing,” said Stiehler.

But Commissioner Amy Patterson said the circumstances have changed with the Delta variant and said if people understood the facts they might be willing to get vaccinated.

“We thought, ‘we were over the hill, out of the woods – the vaccine came out, we are going to get herd immunity, everything is going to be fine. We don’t need to do anything more.’ Now we are seeing that’s not the case in a specific way. Not just predictions but facts. So maybe we need to let people know ‘You know what? I am not magnetized; Bill Gates is not tracking me.’ Whatever it is, let them vent and come to some consensus about what their problem is about the vaccine; you may change minds and you may not. You need to counter it with something real if all they are getting is from social media saying all these conspiracy theories,” she said.

Citizen Jerry Moore suggested including town employees who got vaccinated at the information/vaccine session to explain why they were willing to take the risk to get vaccinated. 

“Friends and families are a much better influence than social media, billboards, and newspaper messaging. The more people they know who say ‘this is safe’ the more apt they are to get vaccinated. A billion-plus people have been vaccinated worldwide. They need to get information from reliable sources that they trust.”

Police Chief Andrea Holland said only she and one other person in her department have gotten vaccinated.

“Their excuse is ‘I don’t know what the vaccine is going to do to me in the future.’ Well guess what, if you get COVID you don’t know what that’s going to do to you in the future. I have a best friend who is a paramedic with the county who has severe nerve damage after recovering from COVID. I have another friend who is on a vent and another three years younger than me who is also on a vent. 

“Yes, we don’t know about the future, but I guarantee you the box of food you ate last night with that big long word on it – you don’t know what that’s going to do to you either,” she said.

She said the trouble is people in the area haven’t known or seen anyone get really, really sick from COVID.

“They hear about sniffles and chest congestion. They’ve not seen the people on a vent. I’ve seen it. The sad thing is, if you don’t see something bad happen, you don’t believe it,” she said.

Moore said but “This is real. Why play Russian Roulette with your life?

“There is a 25-year-old man here in Highlands who was on a vent for a month, and he was healthy and living his life. Tracy Hedden at Highlands School almost died,” he said.

Another person suggested Neal let people know about possible interactions with current medications or pre-existing conditions with the vaccine. “Make it clear to the employees what, if any, are the risks,” he said. 

Neal, said interactions with the vaccine from other medicines is very rare.

“There are very few things that would prohibit you from taking the vaccine,” he said.

Dr. Hathaway said vaccine hesitancy is a real thing but if people aren’t vaccinated, they are at risk of being part of the chain of transmission to people who can get very ill.

“They end up in the hospital and die. This is a very serious disease with 1% to 2% mortality, which is far higher than the flu. Anything we can do to vaccinate our communities – social distance, wear masks – that is the agenda I would push,” he said. “We have a highly safe and highly effective vaccine with very few serious side effects. It prevents serious illness, hospitalization and it dramatically decreases transmission.“ 

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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