Nearly four dozen Covid-19 tests have been administered in Haywood County, although none have returned positive as of press time Friday afternoon, March 20, according to county public health director Patrick Johnson.

So far, 45 people had been tested for the new coronavirus in Haywood County as of 2 p.m. Friday, with eight results returning negative and 37 still awaiting results. Everyone tested locally is immediately placed in home isolation until results are returned in two to four days. Any positive cases will be announced by the Haywood County Health and Human Services and immediately reported on

Cases across the state have continued to escalate in both number and geographic distribution. Positive Covid-19 cases in the state doubled from 63 as of Wednesday to 137 cases by Friday. That’s out of 3,233 tests completed statewide, according to data from N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

New testing protocols

Up until Friday, people with a cough or shortness of breath and a fever of at least 100.2 degrees could be tested for Covid-19. That changed March 20, with criteria now being stricter to keep labs from being swamped and keep potentially infected people from going out and about to get tested if they only have mild symptoms.

“The early cases in North Carolina up until recently have been travel associated, but now there has been evidence of community transmission, from person-to-person,” Johnson said. “Because of that evidence, they want people with fever and cough to stay home.”

Only people experiencing shortness of breath should seek care by calling their healthcare provider, while those with fever and cough are now being instructed to stay home, Johnson said. The situation is very fluid, he said.

“The guidance is sort of changing, because of the community transmission concerns,” Johnson said. “We’ll get more information about tests being out as soon as that guidance is clarified, but we’re working on that. Believe me — we’re working on that, I am working on that nonstop.”

Healthcare providers should be called first for a phone screening. Those exhibiting symptoms should not show up in person without a phone assessment, Johnson said.

“If you have no symptoms, there is no reason to be tested. Stay home,” Johnson said. “That’s the big message. Social distancing is our best tool to mitigate the public health crisis.”

The new protocols will also allow labs to process tests in a more timely fashion.

“They’re just getting so many tests,” Johnson said. “I think they’re getting overwhelmed with the number of tests they are getting.”

Haywood County Health Department is working with community partners to explore the feasibility of establishing drive-through testing in the near future, Johnson said.

Haywood Regional assures patients

Haywood Regional Medical Center is reassuring the public that it is prepared to admit and isolate patients with the coronavirus if and when any cases arise in Haywood County. A statement released by the hospital outlined measures in place to prevent spread of the coronavirus — either by inadvertent community spread by an infected patient or visitor who doesn’t realize they are a carrier, or the event the hospital ends up treating affected patients.

“We are prepared with appropriate plans to detect, protect and respond should anyone in our community contract or be exposed to COVID-19,” the statement reads. “While COVID-19 is new, effectively responding to other infectious diseases is not. We have tested processes and plans in place to respond to situations involving infectious disease year-round.”

Haywood Regional Medical Center had previously placed limitations and ramped up screenings for visitors. But on Friday at noon, the hospital announced a total ban on visitors.

“Though Haywood Regional Medical Center has not yet had a positive case of COVID-19, these restrictions and changes are necessary to protect the health of patients, staff and community,” said HRMC spokesperson Lindsey Solomon. “HRMC will work with extended families who have special circumstance, such as critically ill or injured family members, on a case-by-case basis.”

More closures

Meanwhile, county government offices have restricted access to its buildings, requiring visitors to call ahead first. Essential county services including law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services, 911 and health and human services are still operating as usual. Convenience centers, the landfill and recycling center are also operating as usual, along with online county services.

“Individuals can only enter the county offices if they have an appointment,” the county said in a press release. “This will cut down on in-person contacts, which can spread the virus.”

In neighboring Buncombe County, the health department there issued a mandatory closure of all hair salons and barbershops.

Tax deadline delayed

Americans are being given a three-month extension on their tax filing deadline because of the coronavirus. Tax day is now July 15 instead of April 15.

“All taxpayers and businesses will have this additional time to file and make payments without interest or penalties,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin tweeted. Those expecting refunds can go ahead and file to get their money, however.

The delay is available to individuals or families who owe $1 million or less and corporations that owe $10 million or less.

Ministry provides

After shutting down briefly at the beginning of the week, Haywood Christian Ministry has reopened a drive through food pantry. Since the town and county have declared states of emergency, food boxes are provided to all who need it.

“Drivers will speak through a microphone, give their name, and we’ll be entering information inside at that time,” said Steve Nowakowski, the executive director of the ministry. “It takes about one minute.”

Nowakowski said the organization is starting to see a lot of new clients.

“I’ve spoken to hotel workers with children, and we’re starting to see casino people who were laid off,” Nowakowski said. “We keep track of names for our own sake so we know how many orders we are giving out, but no personal information is being taken.”

Haywood Christian Ministry has plenty of food, Nowakowski said.

“We’ve been buying through MANNA, plus a lot of churches have donated,” Nowakowski said. “A lot of restaurants are closing, so they have donated food, too.”

Haywood Christian Ministry’s drive-through pantry will be open from noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Haywood Christian Ministry is at 150 Branner Ave. in Waynesville.

Graduation delayed

Western Carolina University has postponed all graduation ceremonies originally scheduled for May 8 and 9. Colleges across the country are doing the same.

In addition, university leaders do not expect face-to-face classes to resume before the end of the spring semester.

Students should plan to continue online or alternative instruction as directed by their professors through May 8.

Students who complete all academic requirements for graduation at the end of the spring semester will still be awarded their degrees.

Chancellor Kelli R. Brown will announce plans by April 3 for rescheduling graduation.

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