SPRUCE PINE — As the holiday season approaches, cases of the novel coronavirus continue to rise in Mitchell County and other rural counties in North Carolina.
As of Sunday, Nov. 15, Mitchell County had a total of 418 positive cases, with 78 of those active and 335 recovered. Additionally, there have been six deaths.
“Our numbers go up every single day,” Toe River Health District Director Diane Creek said.
Creek believes COVID-19 cases are going up because people are spending more time inside due to colder weather, but mostly because people are tired of the pandemic.
“Anytime you don’t follow the main three guidelines, you’re putting yourself and your family at greater risk,” she said. “I just think people are really tired of it. And this is not the time to get tired of it. You’ve got to keep wearing the masks, social distancing and washing your hands when you can. It works, but you’ve just got to be diligent.”
According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ COVID-19 Dashboard, Mitchell County has seen the highest per capita increase in COVID-19 cases over the last 14 days at 104 cases per 10,000 residents. Avery County reported 44 cases per 10,000 residents and Yancey County reported 45 cases per 10,000 residents.
On Tuesday, Nov. 10 Governor Roy Cooper announced the state would continue to stay in phase three of reopening and further limited indoor gatherings from 25 down to 10 people “in an effort to drive down North Carolina’s key COVID-19 metrics.”
The gathering limit went into place Friday, Nov. 13 and will be in place until Dec. 4, notably through the Thanksgiving holiday when indoor mass gatherings are the norm.
“Even with the governor’s new limit on gatherings, I would predict that after Thanksgiving, probably a week or two after, cases will go up dramatically,” Creek said. “Same thing with Christmas and maybe even New Year’s.”
On a personal level, Creek understands how disappointing it is to go even longer without seeing family.
“I told my daughter, she wanted to come out for Thanksgiving with the grandkids, and I said no,” she said. “I’m not going to let them come out. And that’s hard. It’s so hard to say no. But I don’t want them here because of their safety and ours.”
To get the virus under control, Creek said if a person is sick with any symptom of COVID-19, to err on the side of caution.
“If you are sick with any of the symptoms of COVID at all, stay home,” she said. “Do not go to work. Do not go to the grocery store. Don’t go out. Only go out to get tested, preferably a lab test to a rapid test, which can be less reliable.”
Symptoms of the novel coronavirus include but are not limited to fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, headache, sore throat and new loss of taste or smell. However, many people experience the virus differently, with some people not exhibiting symptoms at all.
With the rise in cases across Mitchell County, Creek also highlighted what a person should do if they are exposed to a person with COVID-19.
“If you are in contact with someone who tests positive for COVID for 15 minutes and you’re closer than six feet, now you’re exposed, so now you need to quarantine,” she said. “If you’re living with someone who has COVID, even if you go and test negative, you need to continue to quarantine because you could be a carrier and spread it to other people.”
With rumors swirling around about re-entering a lockdown, Creek said if the people of Mitchell County can follow the guidelines, they can get the virus under control.
“I know there are rumors out there that we might go back down to phase one and we’re all going to be locked down, but I don’t see that happening,” she said. “We don’t have to go there if everybody will wear a mask and social distance and stay home when they’re sick, we can get this under control. Just use common sense. It’s up to the people.”
To help local health departments across the state, including Toe River Health District, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services hired a vendor, Optum Serve, to assist with testing.
“They bring the staff and the equipment and there’s no cost to the health department,” Creek said. “That will take a lot of the workload off of the health department staff. It’ll help them a lot.”
Creek said the testing company will begin in Yancey County this week, Avery County by the end of November and in Mitchell County within a month, because they have yet to find a space that is suitable for drive-thru testing.
Additionally, Creek said the health department is preparing for a vaccine to be distributed to healthcare workers soon.
“It’s coming to health departments and hospitals first, so it will be available to healthcare and frontline workers first and the public later,” she said. “They’re tentatively thinking about sending out the first batch in late December or early January to us.”