The Sylva Herald, written by Dave Russell

Jackson County COVID-19 cases rose by just 3 percent over the last week. That’s down from almost 40 percent a month ago.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the Jackson County Department of Public Health reported 479 cases of full-time residents, with 9,965 tests reported to the agency.

Last Tuesday, the health department reported 465 cases of full-time residents and 9,286 tests performed.

Jackson County currently has 18 people isolating due to COVID-19 infection. That’s down from 21 last week.

The county has 106 cases per 10,000 residents, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS on Tuesday reported 146,779 cases and 2,396 deaths in the state, with 1,951,120 tests conducted.

Nationwide, cases number 5,422,242 and deaths 169,870 as of 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Local healthcare entities have an eye on students returning to school.

“We’ve been working closely with Jackson County Public Schools, Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College all summer to prepare for the return of students,” said Melissa McKnight, deputy director at the Jackson County Department of Public Health.

Twice a week, the health department confers with representatives from Harris Regional Hospital, the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Public Health and Human Services Division to plan, troubleshoot and brainstorm ways to ensure students, faculty and communities are safe, she said.

School closure decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis, McKnight said.

“Since each circumstance is very situational, we don’t have a formal rubric that we follow to switch to remote learning and/or close classrooms,” she said. “This decision will be made using many data points – like those in isolation, those in quarantine, percent positive and more. We know that through these twice weekly calls, and more when and if needed, we can make these decisions as a team with our community’s best interest in mind.

“The WCU Health Services staff send the health department daily reports on those tested as well as the results,” she said. Additionally, we’ve collaborated with their administration on increased education, messaging, quarantine options and more,” McKnight said.

The department has a similar relationship with SCC.

WCU has set up a website offering information about cases on campus.

The website, www.wcu.edu/coronavirus/reporting.aspx, is updated daily Monday through Friday and weekend case counts will be included on Monday.

Wednesday morning they reported no current cases among staff and seven among students. Cumulatively, they report three staffers and 16 student cases since July 1.

Harris EMS responded to multiple COVID related calls to the WCU campus on Tuesday, according to scanner traffic.

WCU had a successful first day of classes and is moving forward with residential instruction, spokesman Bill Studenc said in a statement.

“We have implemented a series of changes including a mask mandate, lowering classroom density and many other protocols through our Catamounts Care initiative,” he said. “Additionally, we have erected outdoor tents throughout campus for student, faculty and staff use.”

WCU would make decisions on the way forward using health indicators and involving local and state agencies, the governor and the University of North Carolina System and the Board of Governors, and regular meetings with local health and education leaders, Studenc said.

WCU is prepared for many possible scenarios if local conditions warrant, including a change of instructional methods.