Brittney Lofthouse _ Contributing Writer
Monday afternoon, Public Information Officer for Macon County Health Department Kathy McGaha reported that the health department had tested 64 people at the health department and had received 43 COVID19 test results back, all of which were negative. The health department has another 21 tests pending with residents awaiting results. Wednesday saw the first positive case returned in Franklin.
Jennifer Garrett with the health department told Macon County Commissioners on Thursday that the health department sends the majority of COVID19 tests to LabCorps, a private lab conducting testing across the country. Although the North Carolina state lab has a two to three day turn around for testing results, Macon County has elected to use LabCorps over the state lab, with test results averaging seven to 10 days. McGaha said that the state prioritizes testing and test patients found to be “high risk” first, which is why the county sends “low risk” patient test to LabCorps, despite the labs having a nearly two week back log for results.
To be tested by the health department, patients are asked to sign a quarantine waiver agreeing to not leave their residence for any reason other than a medical need pending test results. In the event that someone meets other screening benchmarks, such as fever, being in contact with someone who tested positive, or traveling to an area with a high concentration of COVID19 cases, they are tested at the health department and then sent home to wait for test results. Because the back log at LabCorps, residents are finding themselves home, unable to work, or do other items for up to 12 days waiting for results – when the state lab could theoretically return the test results in a matter of a couple of days.
To stop the spread of the virus in North Carolina, which as of Tuesday has seen eight deaths and 1,500 confirmed cases since the beginning of the month, Gov. Roy Cooper issued a “Stay at Home” order that went into effect on Monday.
Cooper ordered people in the state of North Carolina to stay at home for 30 days, until April 29, 2020, in an attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Governor Cooper’s Executive Order No. 121 took effect on Monday, March 30. The order provides for essential businesses to continue to operate while prioritizing social distancing measures.
This Order permits the following essential businesses to remain open (partial list)
• Restaurants that provide take-out, drive-thru, or delivery
• Grocery stores
• ABC stores and beer and wine stores
• Doctors and other healthcare providers
• Hardware stores
• Post offices
• Office supply stores
• Gas stations and convenience stores
• Veterinarians and pet supply stores
• Hotels, airlines, buses, taxis, and rideshare services ( Macon County has implemented additional restrictions concerning Hotels)
• Places of worship
• Child care providers (that are following the required NCDHHS procedures)
* Food, Beverage Production and Agriculture
The order directs people to stay at home except to visit essential businesses, to exercise outdoors or to help a family member. The order also bans gatherings of more than 10 people and directs everyone to physically stay at least six feet apart from others. While many people had already been voluntarily participating in such practices, the order was intended to mandate the practices rather than just suggest them.
The order also says that in the event a local order is more strict than the state order, the more strict rules will also apply—which is the case in Macon County.
On Thursday afternoon, Macon County Commissioners voted 4 to 1 to follow recommendations by Macon County Emergency Management Director Warren Cabe to provide additional screening at the airport for visitors, close lodging facilities for people attempting to enter Macon County for vacation, and require a 14-day quarantine for second home owners coming to the county. Cabe worked with Sheriff Robert Holland and interim Macon County Public Health Director Carmine Rocco to develop the recommendations.
Cabe says that the situation is unlike anything he’s experienced, and this is the time for action.
“We have no choice but to err on the side of caution for the health of our citizens,” said Cabe. “That’s a difficult decision that we have to make, it hurts a lot of people in various ways, and it’s not one that we take lightly. My concerns are: we are essentially at war with something that we can’t see, we can’t hear, and we don’t know when it’s coming, and when it gets here when we discover it, it’s almost too late. We are basically handicapped with that at the moment as far as the ability to respond to it.”
Despite Cabe, Sheriff Holland, and Rocco urging all commissioners to support the recommendations, Commissioner Paul Higdon voted against the measure, citing the need to consider the health risks, which he compared to the flu, against the economic risks. Higdon said that he believes closing lodging facilities and other businesses will hurt the economy and be of greater consequence than “the few who may get sick.”
Cabe explained that the health risk isn’t necessarily COVID 19, but the strain it puts on the healthcare system as a whole.
“At the moment, my fight is not necessarily with COVID. The disaster that we’re attempting to avert at the moment is the failure of our healthcare system,” said Cabe. “We have to maintain the structure of our healthcare system, not just for the folks that may be affected by the COVID-19 virus. For instance, if my neighbor had a cardiac issue, and needed a facility or a bed [at a healthcare facility] and wasn’t able to get that because the system is degraded to the point where it can’t handle any more patients. There are other issues that we have to look at as opposed to just the COVID-19 situation.”
With access to seven ventilators in Macon County, Cabe informed commissioners he put in a request for 10 ventilators, all of which were denied. Cabe said he also ordered 30,370 masks, face or eye protection for local healthcare workers, but only received 353 from state providers. Of the 1,400 gowns Cabe ordered, he received only 370.
With a large number of second homeowners in Macon County, many residents have asked county officials to prevent them from returning to their second homes altogether, something that Cabe said isn’t legally possible.
“Prohibiting second homeowners from coming to their homes could be a constitutional issue but would require a significant legal review prior to any kind of implementation,” said Cabe. “Macon County is not considering that at this time. We are encouraging second home owners to consider not coming now for a brief period of time to mitigate our chances of someone unintentionally bringing an illness into our area that might contribute to a significant strain on our healthcare system. If people do come, they are requested to self-quarantine themselves as appropriate for 14 days for the same reason.”
The town of Highlands has established checkpoints throughout the town at various entrances to educate residents about the virus and the current stay at home order. The checking stations are also an opportunity to inform second home owners returning to Highlands of the various regulations put into place. Other towns and counties such as the Town of Andrews and Graham County have implemented similar restrictions and checking stations. Road blocks to completely cut off main highways into Macon County are not as feasible due to the number of entrance points and the amount of traffic. While other towns and counties have different regulations in place to address visitors traveling to their respective areas, none of the regulations currently being implemented prevents second home owners from accessing their properties in the mountains.
“Macon County is a large county with many entrances and attempting to control ingress and egress would require a significant amount of resources that are just not available in Macon County as law enforcement and other appropriate agencies are still trying to maintain their normal services. North Carolina resources such as NC SHP and other enforcement agencies are not available to assist and the N.C. National Guard has been tasked with only delivering supplies as needed,” said Cabe. “The benefit analysis of what could be achieved by this versus the manpower requirement to effectively accomplish this does not indicate that this is a feasible option for us. We can hopefully accomplish the same result through other means.”