COVID-19 has again sunk its claws into Haywood County, and now, as the days get colder and winter approaches, cases are so widespread that county services may be affected.

As of 5 p.m. Nov. 19, the total number of cases in the county is 931, with 84 new cases being reported last week. There are 90 people in isolation after testing positive and 212 in quarantine after being identified as a close contact of a known case during contact tracing.

In addition, it was reported Friday afternoon that there were two more COVID-19 deaths in the county. Both deaths list COVID-19 as the underlying cause of death (the disease that initiated the events resulting in death.) Both individuals died in the hospital, were over the age of 70 and had several underlying medical conditions.One had been exposed to COVID-19 through contact with multiple positives in the family, while the other was a secondary contact in a COVID-19 cluster identified at Enchanting Hair Fashions Salon in September. This is the third death to result from that cluster.

Notably, there are now outbreaks at two congregate living facilities. While Maggie Valley Nursing and Rehab has been a known location of an outbreak for a couple of weeks now, it was also reported Friday that seven residents and three employees at Autumn Care have tested positive.

This is in addition to a new cluster identified from a detention officer training at Haywood Community College that led to at least seven confirmed cases in the county.

Keep guard up

Aside from clusters and outbreaks, the ongoing trend in new cases seems to be people letting their guard down around people close to them and inadvertently sharing more than friendship, public health officials say. That false sense of security around people outside their own household is enabling the spread of COVID-19.

“With our rapidly rising case count this week and holidays coming right up, the key message this week is simple: please wear a mask and keep at least six feet of distance any time you’re going to be around anyone who doesn’t live in your household, no matter how well you know them, no matter whether they are close friends, coworkers, extended family, or just people on the street,” said Interim Haywood County Health Director Garron Bradish. “It’s the only tool we have right now to minimize rapid spread in our schools, workplaces, churches, families and community. We can’t mandate a sense of personal responsibility. It’s up to each individual to understand the moral imperative of practicing these simple interventions to keep their loved ones safe and minimize the impact of the pandemic on their community.”

Haywood County Medical Director Dr. Mark Jaben said that while the prospect of the distribution of an effective vaccine over the next several months looks good, he noted there are still things people can do to curb the spread of the virus in the meantime. This is especially needed considering the test positivity rate among close contacts of other positive cases has gone up from 8% to 17% just in the last couple of weeks.

“What that says to me is we have more people who are being less vigilant about what’s going on, which is contributing to the spread,” he said.

Lower risk

During last week’s county commissioners’ meeting, Jaben said the county is now at a crossroads, and it’s up to each individual to determine how they’ll conduct themselves. There is no way to know who is pre-symptomatic, and for now, the tools that have proven to be effective include wearing a mask, social distancing and paying attention to hand washing.

For those worried about infringement of personal liberties, Jaben suggested they think about the freedom of others who want to lower their risk of contracting the illness.

“Is it acceptable for my choice to harm you?” he asked. “The aim is to preserve health and safety, and not just physically, but economically and emotionally.”

While many fear another economic lockdown, that doesn’t have to happen, Jaben suggested at that meeting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated widespread mask-wearing is as effective as a vaccine and would serve society as effectively as a lockdown.

“We now face Thanksgiving, and actions you take now could leave us out of control,” Jaben said, urging families to make common-sense decisions and gather safely by meeting outside, wearing a mask when not eating and staying socially distanced.

“I think right now, the biggest message we can be putting out to citizens and employees in towns and counties is to learn from this to renew efforts and rededicate to being vigilant,” he said Friday.

County services at risk

Within the rising numbers in overall COVID-19 cases has been an uptick in cases among county employees, even to the point that officials are concerned about interruptions in services. Earlier in the week, for a couple of days, the county was even short one ambulance because of a rise in cases among EMS personnel who are exposed to the virus simply doing their job.

At this point, county officials are considering ways to get the word out and encourage people to avoid complacency when it comes to the three Ws. Along with considering an “ad blitz” across print media, TV and radio, Jaben recommended a “grass-roots” effort that would focus on having community and even family leaders not only model safe behavior but also encourage those in their circles to do the same.

“It’s leaders in families, leaders in churches, leaders in all these places where we’re seeing fatigue manifesting itself,” Jaben said.

Jaben said it’s also important to consider how the message is delivered.

“The message needs to be not what we’re running from but we’re wanting to run toward,” he said. “The idea that we all want to run toward is having a safer community. If we can share that consistent message with folks we can talk about strategies and tactics to achieve that safer community.”

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