The Sylva Herald, By Dave Russell

Jackson County COVID-19 cases continue to climb, but the rate of the growth has slowed. From a peak of 29 cases reported on July 21, five were reported to the Jackson County Department of Public Health on Tuesday.

The county currently has 20 people isolating due to COVID-19 infection. That’s down from 39 last week, and down 80.7 percent from a peak of 104 on July 17.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the health department reported 621 cases among full-time residents, with 12,431 tests reported to the agency.

Last Tuesday, the health department reported 602 cases of full-time residents and 11,517 tests performed.

The county has had 121 cases per 10,000 residents, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS on Tuesday reported 186,887 cases and 3,111 deaths in the state, with 2,652,440 tests conducted.

Nationwide, cases numbered 6,537,627 and deaths 194,092 as of 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

The Jackson County Public Schools dashboard (jcpsnc.org/covid), tracks positive cases among staff (currently zero) and students (currently three). Two cases have been reported at Smoky Mountain High School and one at Fairview Elementary as of Tuesday afternoon. The only active case is at SMHS.

Western Carolina University’s dashboard (wcu.edu/coronavirus/reporting.aspx) reports nine new cases the week of Sept. 7-13.

Last week the WCU dashboard showed 19 new student cases. Since July 1 there have been 111 cases among students, four among employees and five among sub-contractors.

WCU reports 70 students in self isolation/quarantine, including seven on campus. The total is down from 96 last week.

WCU cases do not stem from student parties, Director Of Health Services Pam Buchanan said.

The university reports only one cluster, when five or more related cases are found, on campus at Harrill Hall. 

“As the cases classified as Harrill Hall residents were identified through testing in Health Services, our department recognized a potential cluster and worked quickly to quarantine and test the other residents who were potentially exposed to the virus in the residence hall,” Buchanan said. “Quick identification of cases helped speed up the contact trace and identification of the cluster.” 

Testing is available for students and staff at two locations on campus.

“Currently we offer rapid antigen testing to our patient population through Health Services,” Buchanan said. “We have testing capabilities at both our main office located on campus in the Bird Building as well as testing capabilities at our satellite site at Madison Residence Hall. For students who might need isolation or quarantine after testing, having the testing capabilities at Madison, which is the designated isolation and quarantine facility, makes it easy for the patient to get the test and then get a room assignment in that building.”

The cost of a rapid test is $25, and the results are available in about 15 minutes. The rapid antigen test has about a 3.7 percent margin of false negative test values.

“For patients who have a negative rapid test, the FDA still recommends follow up with a Polymerase Chain Reaction molecular test,” Buchanan said. “The molecular test has a turnaround time of approximately 48 hours, and the cost is $100.”

Most major insurance plans pay for COVID testing at 100 percent, a legislated directive through the Families First Coronavirus Act, Buchanan said.

“The value of having rapid testing capabilities has been that quick turnaround has allowed us to isolate patients quickly when the test results are positive and allowed us to reach out to roommates and known close contacts in many cases the same day as the test result,” Buchanan said. “That has been key in helping contain the spread of the virus on campus.”

Students who are tested at other locations can self-report to Health Services.

“We can follow up with that student quickly and understand better any potential clusters,” Buchanan said. “Students who are in isolation and quarantine have been able to obtain medically related absence notifications, and our professors and instructors are very willing to work with students who are out of class to help them keep up in the classroom. Everyone is working hard to do their part to ensure our students are having a healthy, successful fall semester.”