The Sylva Herald, by Dave Russell

New cases of COVID-19 declined for three weeks, but the Jackson County Department of Public Health reports a slight uptick this week. On Monday, the agency reported 13 new cases, the most in a single day since Aug. 31. Another four cases came in on Tuesday, bringing the total for the week of Sept. 16-22 to 20.

The county currently has 30 people isolating due to COVID-19 infection. That’s up from 20 last week.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the health department reported 641 cases among full-time residents, with 12,902 tests reported to the agency.

Last Tuesday, the health department reported 621 cases of full-time residents and 12,431 tests performed.

The county has had 123 cases per 10,000 residents, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS on Tuesday reported 195,549 cases and 3,286 deaths in the state, with 2,824,929 tests conducted.

Nationwide, cases numbered 6,825,697 and deaths 199,462 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 and student. The only active case is a non-staff person in the Smoky Mountain High School Athletic Department. That case has not caused any disruption to workouts, according to Athletic Director Adam Phillips.

Two positive student cases have been reported at SMHS and one at Fairview Elementary as of Tuesday afternoon, but none of those cases are active.

Western Carolina University’s dashboard (wcu.edu/coronavirus/reporting.aspx) reports four new cases the week of Sept. 14-20.

Last week the WCU dashboard showed nine new student cases. Since July 1 there have been 116 cases among students, four among employees and five among sub-contractors.

WCU reports 31 students in self isolation/quarantine, including four on campus. The total is down from 70 last week.

Health officials dread the confluence of COVID-19 and the flu.

“The big thing we are stressing right now is the importance of getting a flu vaccine to protect yourself,” said Melissa McKnight, deputy health director of the Jackson County Department of Public Health. “You can contract both flu and COVID-19 at the same time. To protect yourself and reduce the burden on the healthcare system, we can’t stress enough the importance of flu vaccination this year.”

A COVID-19 vaccine is in the works in seemingly every country capable of producing one, including the United States.

According to McKnight, the goals of the federal vaccination distribution process (Operation Warp Speed) are:

• to ensure the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

• to reduce the morbidity and mortality of COVID-19 disease through effective and efficient distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

• to support rapid vaccine distribution based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for states immunization services.

• to assist with the return to pre-pandemic quality of life.

“Vaccines are being manufactured concurrently with clinical trials so that when one does pass rigorous clinical trials and is vetted by the FDA, it is ready to ship,” she said. “I know this process seems very fast, and honestly, we want it to be fast. We are fighting a pandemic and we want all the tools available to fight it in the quickest manner possible. However, fast does not mean not thorough, unsafe or ineffective.”

Recently, AstraZeneca halted a vaccine trial after a reported side effect in a patient. The company paused as a routine action to investigate the side effect, McKnight said. 

“I think this action is a good example of the commitment to the process of developing a safe and effective vaccine,” she said.

The health department and local medical providers will be ready to offer the COVID vaccination when it is available. 

“As for a timeline, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is working to develop the state COVID-19 vaccination plan based on current data and federal recommendations,” McKnight said. “We will use this plan to guide our vaccination efforts.”