Asheville – The Buncombe County Commissioners’ last briefing began mildly, with an update from Health Director Stacie Saunders on local COVID-19 statistics. As might be expected entering another stage of reopening, the numbers were worse. The percentage of persons testing positive was running around 3.3%, compared to the 2.5% rate in recent weeks. The spike was mirrored in the state. And, while Western North Carolina had been tracking better than the state in general, it is now running with the pack in key indicators.
At the time of this writing, North Carolina is now seventh in the nation for case counts (227,431) and 17th for deaths (3,747). Of 80,374 tests administered to date in Buncombe County, 3,417 have come back positive. Buncombe has recorded 92 deaths, with the vast majority of those succumbing being over 65 and in long-term care facilities.
Economic Development Director Tim Love next gave an overview of the economic impact of the COVID shutdown for Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, and Madison counties, for which data is available as the Asheville Metropolitan Statistical Area. Overall, the unemployment rate is getting better. Now at 7%, it had risen to 16.1% in May. Last year, at this time, it had been 3.5%. The average rate this year is 8.4%; last year, it was 3.2%.
Love said in the worst of it, the MSA had “shed” 38,000 non-farm jobs, but it now stands only 20,000 shy of last year’s counts. Of particular interest was the manufacturing sector, where Love said some industries, like aerospace, were “decimated,” and others, particularly those making COVID-related products, have done well. Overall, about half the area’s manufacturing jobs were lost in April, and they haven’t come back. Mining, logging, and construction, by way of contrast, have been growing in spite of a minor drop in April.
In the leisure and hospitality sector, 19,000 jobs were lost in April, and only about 12,000 of them have been restored. Occupancy tax revenues practically zeroed out in April, hotel reservations having declined since the previous fall color season. Recovery continues, though, with collections in July only slightly more than half what they were year-over-year. Two main reasons are the lack of conventions and people preferring Zoom meetings to business travel. Alternative lodging businesses, like Airbnbs, while comprising only a small portion of the sector, have pretty much returned to former levels.
The next set of statistics addressed evictions. Typically running around 40 per month, these, too, zeroed out for three months, which corresponds to the duration of the CARES Act moratorium. Counts resumed pre-COVID levels upon the moratorium’s expiration because, although a CDC moratorium went into effect last month, it requires tenants to give landlords a form declaring their inability to pay rent stems from the COVID shutdown and that they have exerted “best efforts” to obtain federal housing assistance. The moratorium, which provides neither rental assistance nor forgiveness, is effective only through December 31. In addition, the county is partnering with Pisgah Legal Services to help keep people housed.
Next, Preparedness Director Fletch Tove reported the number of families receiving federal Food and Nutrition Services spiked in April and has continued to rise, with recipients now numbering 7,000 more than at this time last year. Worse, he projected caseloads would continue to rise into 2021. (All presenters spoke in relative terms; even the numbers and labels on the axes of the graphs displayed were blurred.)
As an indicator of how people are responding to the devastation, Tove referenced metadata from the Crisis Text Line analyzed by Maggie Suggs at Appalachian State University. The line has received almost five million calls, mostly from teens and 20-somethings. Unsurprisingly, nationwide, counts of crises placed in the categories of depression, stress/anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm, bullying, relationship issues, abuse, substance abuse, isolation, and suicidal ideation were all running high this year.
The microphone was then returned to Saunders, who reminded the audience that, with flu season, the world was now exposed to two serious respiratory infections simultaneously. The CDC recommends getting vaccinated for the flu before the month is over, and those vulnerable populations – people over 65, suffering chronic health conditions, or in long-term care facilities – take precautions. Saunders stressed there is still no FDA-approved vaccine for COVID, but her department was preparing for a rapid rollout. In the meantime, the county continues to modify its testing sites to ensure access by all. School nurses are also receiving training on handling COVID.
With winter coming, Tove said the American Red Cross, county EMS, and public health officials have been preparing to meet the increased demand for homeless sheltering amid social-distancing requirements. Planning is leaning toward using hotels, as opposed to the congregate settings provided in traditional shelters. Staff is also searching for ways to extend shelter capacity for Code Purple events, which are declared during “frigid weather.” One innovation in the pipeline would be sanitary, socially-distanced warming stations people could visit during the daytime when shelters are closed.
But for now, it’s just hurricane season, and, with social-distancing requirements, shelters in coastal areas may prove insufficient. The state has therefore identified venues that could handle overflow, some of which are in Western North Carolina. The decision of if and when these facilities would be repurposed will be made at the state level.