Asheville – The following represents the latest COVID updates as Buncombe County offices closed for the weekend. In the next few weeks, case counts are expected to be on the rise across the nation, as the virus has been incubating long enough to cause symptoms in friends and family members that could not resist breaking isolation protocols over the holidays. In Buncombe County, the latest available data, published January 4, showed a week-over-week increase in COVID case counts of 8.8%. The testing positivity rate was 11.4%.
New cases were reported as 382 per 100,000 in population, the population of Buncombe County is estimated at 275,000. Total cases in Buncombe County numbered 9,890; deaths were up 950% week-over-week and numbered 8.4 per 100,000. COVID patients occupied 13.6% of hospital beds and 30.0% of ICU beds.
For half of the key indicators, the county was in the Red zone. The government likes to color-code quantities since there is the perception that the masses grasp abstractions better than numbers. For COVID, the traffic light colors are used.
Statewide, 84 counties had reached the Red zone, up from 65 counties on December 22. Consequently, the state issued a Secretarial Directive on January 6. In general, citizens are to continue to stay home except to care for the necessities of life, as they have been, and they should not mingle. Masks are still required along with the six feet of social distancing. The 10 PM-5 AM curfew remains in effect, with a few exemptions that include grocery stores and daycare centers.
In the meantime, the Buncombe County Commissioners approved receipt of a $900,000 federal grant for mortgage, rent, utility, and internet assistance. Phillip Hardin of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services indicated additional clarification would be forthcoming once the federal government delivers the grant documents, the receipt of which is undergoing delays.
The county plans to allocate $824,070 of the total on bill payments, $50,100 on processing, and the rest on administration. People residing in Asheville are not eligible for funds because Asheville is an entitlement city, and it has already received its allotment of federal funding through the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Commerce. Those funds, in turn, were passed to Pisgah Legal Services and Community Action Opportunities for disbursement.
When Commissioner Parker Sloan asked how people in need should get connected with the grants, Hardin said the county was slow about releasing the contact information because, rather than being deluged, they wanted to maintain a 24-hour turnaround time. However, to get on the list, persons must submit an inquiry by calling 828-250-5500 or 828-250-5000. After that, they will wait for a callback from a case manager.
Hopefully, though, the country will soon get enough vaccinations to justify returning to normal life; and government leaders, medical laboratories, and other experts are working diligently to make that happen as soon as possible. At the last county briefing, Health Director Stacie Turpin Saunders said the county has been administering vaccines, but its initial prioritization scheme has been updated to conform with revised state and federal guidelines.
That did not interrupt the program in its then-current phase, which was 1a. In Phase 1a, vaccinations were made available to critical medical providers as well as staff and residents of long-term care facilities that are not enrolled in the federal program for those facilities. The facilities that are enrolled tend to be the larger ones, and their staff and clientele are being vaccinated through a separate federal program at CVS and Walgreen’s.
Scheduling for Phase 1b was supposed to begin on January 7, but due to phone problems, that was delayed a day, and all slots were “sold out” within an hour of the announcement that the lines were back up. Eligibility criteria for vaccination in Phase 1b were among those revised. The phase is now is divided into 1b1, which will treat persons 75 years and older regardless of health; 1b2, which will treat all essential workers 50 and over; and 1b3, which will treat all essential workers. Saunders said the county will receive more details on who will get the vaccine in subsequent phases as those stages of vaccination approach.
The last to speak during the COVID update was Mission’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. William Hathaway. He said Mission now had 130 COVID patients. That amount had tripled in the last two months. Hathaway said he is in daily conversations with other chief medical officers in the 18-county region Mission serves, and most of their hospitals have all gone from taking care of fewer than half a dozen on any given day through last year to keep 20-40; Advent, the best off, was now only “pushing 20.”
Mission gets vaccinations from a separate federal program than the rest of the county, and it has received 9,000. Hathaway, however, said people need to take some personal initiative. He said the hospital has the space to treat additional patients, but nurses have been working hard and burning out. Across the nation, hospitals have had to stretch the number of patients their nurses serve. To accommodate COVID patients, he said the hospital continues to define what constitutes elective surgery with a dimmer switch.
Chair Brownie Newman asked, “Is it possible for the hospital to share with us, ‘Community, you need to know: We have this much more capacity, but if we go beyond this point, it’s going to be really bad for the folks who are getting sick from COVID or something else’?”