In an order issued Monday, March 23, the county banned gatherings of 10 or more people and lodging facilities like hotels and Airbnbs with leases of 30 days or less, allowing some exemptions, including homeless services and lodging for essential workers.
A subsequent order issued Monday, March 30, required people coming to Jackson County from outside the state or country to remain in their homes for 14 days following their arrival, with exemptions for essential workers crossing state lines for their jobs.
The order issued last week rescinded the restrictions imposed by these earlier orders but strongly advised residents to continue practices aimed at reducing transmission, and it asked non-residents to avoid visiting Jackson County at this time. The terms of the order apply in the municipalities of Sylva, Dillsboro, Webster and Forest Hills as well, and the original State of Emergency declared on March 10 remains in effect.
“Though lodging facilities such as hotels, motels and short-term rentals are allowed to have a limited opening under Executive Order No. 138, individuals need to remain vigilant to stop the spread of this virus,” the order reads. “Jackson County looks forward to the return of tourists to the area when appropriate, but this is not the time for a vacation.”
When leaving their homes, residents are asked to stay at least 6 feet away from those who are not part of their immediate household; to wear a cloth face covering in indoor public spaces, as well as outdoor public spaces where it’s not possible to maintain a 6-foot distance from others; to carry and use hand sanitizer when leaving home; to wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds whenever possible; and to regularly clean high-touch surfaces like steering wheels, wallets and phones. Residents should stay home if sick.
County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan issued the order following discussion at a May 5 commissioners meeting. During that meeting, he said that while he believes it’s prudent to lift the regulations in question, restrictions could tighten up again in the future should Jackson County experience an outbreak as visitation picks up.
“This is going to be a trial and error,” McMahan said. “As we start to see people come here and visit, the numbers are going to show some potential spikes. We’ll just have to be very careful and watch and adjust accordingly.”
State guidance lays out four metrics for measuring progress and lifting restrictions. These are sustained leveling or decreased trajectory over 14 days of: COVID-like illness surveillance, lab-confirmed cases, percent of positive tests and hospitalizations.
Health Director Shelley Carraway told commissioners that, while the county doesn’t check all those boxes, it has the monitoring in place to assess the situation and respond as it changes.
“As we reopen things, these data points will help us see if there’s suddenly a second surge so we can jump in and take action,” she said.
Carraway said that the hospitals have been in good shape “since day one,” so that fourth criterion is checked. Her department does not have definitive data on the trajectory of COVID-like illnesses but is working to acquire it. The state uses representative sites from across North Carolina to evaluate this metric, but because none of those sites are located in Jackson County, Carraway’s office has to do its own research. Currently, this involves giving some employees the task of calling every provider in the county every week to ask how many patients they’ve seen with COVID-like symptoms.
Carraway said Jackson County is not currently meeting the second and third metrics related to case counts and percentage of positive tests. Between April 27 and May 11, confirmed cases among full-time residents nearly doubled, from 12 cases to 20. The percent of positive tests has jumped from 2 to 4.5 percent.
However, said Carraway, the county has drastically increased the number of tests it’s performed over that same time period, and 13 of the 22 positives among county residents as of Tuesday, May 12, are associated with a single outbreak at the Apodaca Science Building construction site at Western Carolina University. County health providers have diagnosed an additional 20 non-residents with the disease, and of those 19 were associated with the construction site.
“If it hadn’t been for that terrible outbreak, we would have been at seven (cases),” Carraway told commissioners. “Maybe once this outbreak’s gone and we don’t have another one, we’ll be OK.”
The outbreak at WCU has now been contained, and the jobsite reopened last week, said Deputy Director Melissa McKnight. The construction company, Skanska USA, has implemented temperature testing for workers and those entering the jobsite, she said.
Testing drive coming to Sylva
The Walmart in Sylva has been selected as one of five in the country to host a drive-thru testing event, Jackson County Health Director Shelley Carraway announced during a May 5 meeting of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
Few details are available at this point, but the department has been told that people will be able to sign up using an app the company created and that a Walmart pharmacist will administer the test.
Carraway said the county might see a spike in positive case counts following the event as asymptomatic cases are revealed, and that this will create work for the health department as it seeks to trace and test the contacts of these positive cases.
“We will be ahead of the curve and right on target, having that big event getting us rocking and rolling with testing,” she said.