Halloween different in the era of COVID-19. (Oct. 21)

The Sylva Herald, by Patric Clemons

With Halloween just around the corner, parents might be concerned about their children’s safety during these unprecedented times.

Some local organizations are putting on trick-or-treat in a safe, socially distanced environment for kids and their parents on Saturday, Oct. 31.

T.J. Peoples is organizing an opportunity for kids to walk around and pick up candy from socially distanced tables at 316 W. Hometown Place in Sylva from 5-7 p.m.

East Sylva Baptist Church will host a Drive Thru Trunk-or-Treat from 5-7 p.m., where cars will be directed through the parking lot to various stations while church members hand out candy.

Smoky Mountain High School is hosting a Halloween Drive-by Parade from 6-8 p.m. featuring free candy, fun prizes and activities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that traditional trick-or-treating is a high risk activity that should be avoided. Other activities the CDC puts in this group include trunk-or-treat, costume parties, haunted houses and hayrides.

Instead, they recommend low-risk alternatives such as carving pumpkins with family members and a Halloween scavenger hunt.

Ben Guiney, Sylva town board member, will be following these guidelines.

“For Halloween, I will for sure be decorating my house, but unfortunately, we will not be handing out candy face-to-face,” Guiney said. “We may do something like leave some candy out in a bowl in front or something.”

To learn more about the CDC’s recommendations regarding Halloween, visit www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays/halloween.html.

County, state seeing rapid increase in COVID numbers. (Oct. 21)

The Sylva Herald, by Dave Russell

Jackson County’s reported COVID-19 cases jumped by a record-high 40 on Friday, 29 on Monday and 39 Tuesday, according to the health department.

The county currently has 108 people isolating due to COVID-19 infection, the most since the pandemic began. That’s up 42 from 66 last week.

“This is reflective of trends across the state, unfortunately,” said Melissa McKnight, deputy director of the Jackson County Department of Public Health. “North Carolina reported its highest one-day increase of COVID-19 cases on Oct. 16.”

Friday’s dramatic jump beat the county’s previous one-day high mark of 29 reported cases, reached twice in July.

Community spread is the culprit, McKnight said. 

“At this time, we haven’t associated these cases with a cluster or an outbreak,” she said. “We are seeing cases across all demographics and areas in our county. This virus travels better in cooler, less humid weather and as our weather cools, people are spending more time indoors. Further, our community is experiencing pandemic fatigue – they are becoming less cautious and less likely to follow prevention recommendations. We are seeing more instances of family get-togethers, less mask compliance and more.”

No one should take the easing of COVID restrictions to mean the virus has gone away.

“I have to remind our community that we are still in the midst of a pandemic,” she said. “This virus is still here and still very real. We must make smart decisions that protect ourselves, our children, our families and our community especially as we go into the holiday season.”

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the health department reported 908 cases among full-time residents, with 17,873 tests reported to the agency.

Last Tuesday, the health department reported 779 cases of full-time residents and 15,957 tests performed. That’s an increase of 16.5 percent in a week.

The county has had 197 cases per 10,000 residents, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS on Tuesday reported 248,750 cases and 3,992 deaths in the state, with 3,663,340 tests conducted.

Nationwide, cases numbered 8,188,585 and deaths 219,499 as of Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Western Carolina University’s dashboard (wcu.edu/coronavirus/reporting.aspx) reports 45 new cases among students and no employees the week of Oct. 12-Oct. 18.

The WCU dashboard showed 28 new student cases the previous week.

Since July 1 there have been 216 cases among students, eight among employees and five among sub-contractors.

WCU reports 186 students in self isolation/quarantine, including 36 on campus.

The Jackson County Public Schools dashboard (jcpsnc.org/covid) tracks positive cases among staff and students. There have been nine student cases, with five active as of Wednesday morning. The health department has reported a cluster at Smokey Mountain Elementary School with four active student cases and four active staff cases. Four of the cases have been among Smoky Mountain High School students, with one active case. The other student case was at Fairview Elementary School.

McKnight commends the school system for its handling of COVID-19.

“The public schools have taken great care to keep their students, faculty, and staff safe during these unprecedented times,” she said. “They have worked closely with us to review guidance and recommendations, made changes to their protocols, updated screening tools and made difficult but necessary decisions when needed. Open and constant communication has helped as we work through this together.”

COVID-19 could affect flu season.

“We often try to predict what our flu season will be like based on what the Southern Hemisphere’s flu season is like,” McKnight said. “The Southern Hemisphere’s flu season was very minimal which can be likened to a few factors – hand washing, social distancing, wearing a cloth face covering, and all the prevention recommendations that we were already doing to prevent COVID-19.”

Still, no one should use that information to forgo a flu shot, she said.

“We all should still get a flu vaccine as it is our best tool against contracting the flu,” McKnight said. “We don’t want anyone to get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.”

County schools now feeling impact of COVID. (Oct. 21)

The Sylva Herald, by Dave Russell

COVID-19 has severely impacted the custodial staff at Smoky Mountain High School. Of an eight-person staff, Assistant Superintendent Jake Buchanan reports one positive case and five custodians isolating due to exposure to the victim.

Another custodian is home with a child from Smokey Mountain Elementary School, which has gone to remote-only instruction due to a COVID cluster. That student has not shown symptoms of COVID, Buchanan said.

The school system is organizing personnel to handle the challenge and the high school will stay safe and clean, he said.

“We have some part-time custodians who we are going to make full-time for the next two weeks,” he said. “We also have bus drivers who we are going to allow to get up to 40 hours who have previously served as custodians.”

The school has additional staff who have been trained in the sanitation effort who will take on those duties, including some teachers.

“They will be compensated,” Buchanan said. “But they volunteered to come in and help keep the schools safe. Right now, staffing-wise on the custodians, while it will be a logistical hardship on the school, we don’t see it posing a problem with the school being able to maintain its level of COVID cleanliness.”

The majority of the custodians also drive buses and getting those routes covered is the real challenge, he said.

The schools have so far avoided serious issues with COVID, but schools reflect the rise in the community, he said. 

“The numbers are going up in our community, so the numbers are going up in our school,” Buchanan said. “We are continuing to have to ask our staff to do more and more to be able to operate our schools. People keep stepping up.”

On Monday, the Jackson County Department of Public Health identified a cluster of eight positive COVID-19 cases at Smokey Mountain Elementary, according to a release from Jackson County Public Schools. The eight are four students and four staff members.

A “cluster” is defined by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services as five or more positive test results within a 14-day period and a plausible epidemiological linkage between cases.

Everyone who tested positive at the school is in isolation and following guidance from health care professionals. The names of those who test positive cannot be released due to privacy laws.

The source of the infection is unknown, however contact tracing is underway by the health department. School staff were set to receive COVID-19 testing at Harris Regional Hospital on Wednesday. 

Out of an abundance of caution, instruction at the school was transitioned to remote-only for the remainder of the week, JCPS said. The district’s eight other schools continued on their current schedule, but students associated with an identified virus cluster or live in the same household with someone who tests positive are quarantined and moved temporarily to remote learning.

A decision about returning to face-to-face instruction at SMES will be made on Friday after officials receive updates on contact tracing and virus testing.

Upon discovering the COVID-19 cluster at SMES, the district took immediate steps to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

The school building has been disinfected, and additional resources will be deployed for deep cleaning. Staff at the school are working from home, and the School Nutrition Department is moving quickly to make sure meals are available for students while they are learning remotely.

Despite the week’s surge in positive cases, Jackson County Public Schools continues to maintain a lower infection rate than the surrounding area. Buchanan credits the district’s commitment to following the safety guidelines recommended by health professionals.

“We are requiring masks, we have regular handwashing intervals and we are doing the best we can to maintain social distance,” Buchanan said. “We believe with the measures we are taking, students are still less likely to contract COVID-19 in our schools than they are in the community at large.”

NCDHHS Submits COVID-19 Vaccination Plan to CDC. (Oct. 16)

North Carolina today submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention its COVID-19 Vaccination Plan. The goal of the plan is to immunize everyone who is eligible for and wants a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Leaders from across sectors came together under tight timelines to collaboratively develop a vaccine plan that leads with equity and prioritizes building trust. We will continue to update this plan as we learn more from the science and data on vaccines and in response to the needs of North Carolinians,” said NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy K. Cohen, M.D.

North Carolina’s vaccine plan reflects five principles that guide the planning for and distribution of one or more COVID-19 vaccines in the state. The principles include:

1. All North Carolinians have equitable access to vaccines.
2. Vaccine planning and distribution is inclusive; actively engages state and local government, public and private partners; and draws upon the experience and expertise of leaders from historically marginalized populations.
3. Transparent, accurate and frequent public communications is essential to building trust.
4. Data is used to promote equity, track progress and guide decision-making.
5. Appropriate stewardship of resources and continuous evaluation and improvement drive successful implementation.

“North Carolina Emergency Management has been working with our partners at the NC Department of Health and Human Services to ensure we have a solid coronavirus vaccine plan,” said NCEM Director Mike Sprayberry. “From an operational perspective, this plan engages the state’s resources down to a county and local level and allows for flexibility based on data so we can pivot quickly and get the vaccine to those who are most in need.”

Currently, multiple vaccines are in development. For a vaccine to be authorized, studies must show it is safe and can prevent someone from catching COVID-19. Thousands of people have volunteered to be part of research trials across the United States and around the world to see if a vaccine is safe and prevents COVID-19 illness. Promising vaccines are being manufactured at the same time they are being tested, so there will be an initial supply when the science shows which vaccines are found to be safe and effective.

Once the Food and Drug Administration authorizes a vaccine, it will take time for manufacturers to ramp up production. Therefore, states will receive limited vaccine supplies at the start and will need to determine which populations receive the vaccine first. North Carolina’s prioritization framework was developed based on the National Academy of Medicine framework and in consultation with an external COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee convened by the North Carolina Institute of Medicine.

“Our convening of the COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee informed the state’s plan with independent and diverse perspectives from experts and community leaders across our state. The committee was composed of a broad range of leaders, including from those populations most significantly affected by COVID-19, including racial and ethnicity groups, health care, public health and academia, who worked diligently over the past month in order to fully address equity, inequalities and health issues that are driving the pandemic and creating mistrust,” Michelle Ries, Interim Director, North Carolina Institute of Medicine.

The NCIOM Vaccine Advisory Committee was co-chaired by:

  • Dr. Goldie Byrd, Director, Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity at Wake Forest University;
  • Dr. Leah Devlin, Professor, Department of Health Policy and Management at UNC School of Public Health; and
  • Dr. Art Apolinario, a family medicine physician at Clinton Medical Clinic and Board member of the North Carolina Medical Society.

“My patients have taught me how important it is to recognize the mistrust that the current health care system has created with non-white communities,” said Apolinario, M.D., MPH, FAAFP. “We worked to ensure that racial disparities and equity in delivery of care were recognized and put in the forefront of this COVID-vaccine decision making process. We had stakeholders at the table to make sure we made unbiased decisions. Our work was independent, free of political bias, open to all opinions and strictly adhered to data and science as the main tenets for good decision.”

“Old North State Medical Society is an established trusted health care entity in North Carolina. Since early 2020, Old North State Medical Society testing team has been focusing on efficient and effective ways of testing the vulnerable population for this aggressive and lethal COVID-19 virus, as well as promoting culturally sensitive education and messaging,” said Charlene Green, MD, President, Old North State Medical Society. “Trust is the key to success. Old North State Medical Society strongly recommends the inclusion of established community leaders in supporting distribution of these new vaccines.”

This is an interim plan and will continue to be revised based on further information and guidance from the CDC and other federal agencies, increasing data on safety and efficacy from vaccine trials, ongoing input from state and local partners and the Vaccine Advisory Committee, and refinements needed as the state progresses through the planning and operational stages.

North Carolina’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan builds on the foundation of the state’s overall goals and pillars of response to the pandemic: Prevention, Testing, Tracing, Isolation and Quarantine. North Carolina took early and aggressive action to slow the spread of the virus, built statewide capacity for testing, personal protective equipment supplies and contract tracing, developed hospital surge plans, and promoted aggressive prevention strategies.

NCDHHS Reports Highest One-Day Increase of COVID-19 Cases. (Oct. 16)

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is reporting the state’s highest one-day increase of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases to date with 2,684 new cases reported. The department is also reporting the second highest number of hospitalizations in the past 30 days, with 1,148 reported.

As the numbers continue to move in the wrong direction on this key metric, it is more important than ever that all North Carolinians use the tools we have to slow the spread of the virus: wearing a face covering over your nose and mouth, waiting at least 6 feet from others and washing your hands often. Masks have been proven to slow the spread of COVID-19, especially if worn correctly and collectively. Whatever your reason, get behind the mask.

NCDHHS also encourages people download and use SlowCOVIDNC, the official exposure notification app for North Carolina. SlowCOVIDNC alerts users when they may have been exposed to someone who has tested positive. The app relies on users to anonymously submit their positive result to notify others. The more people who download and use SlowCOVIDNC, the more we can slow the spread.

The department has issued guidance for fall-related events to help organizers and consumers minimize the risk for COVID-19 transmission. Even in small groups of close friends or extended family, it is critical that all North Carolinians wear a face covering whenever they are in close contact with anyone outside their immediate household.

To find out more about the response to COVID-19 in NC, visit nc.gov/covid19. Additional data is posted on the NC COVID-19 Dashboard at covid19.ncdhhs.gov/dashboard.

SlowCOVIDNC Surpasses 100,000 Downloads; State Health Officials Encourage NCians to Use Exposure Notification App. (Oct. 7)

More than 100,000 people have downloaded SlowCOVIDNC, the official exposure notification app of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

SlowCOVIDNC alerts users when they may have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. The app relies on users to anonymously submit their positive result to notify others. It is free, completely anonymous and does not collect, store or share personal information or location data.

“This is a great milestone, but we can’t stop here. The more people who download and use SlowCOVIDNC, the more we can slow the spread. And by anonymously notifying the app if you have a positive COVID-19 test, you can help protect your loved ones and your community,” said NCDHHS Secretary Mandy K. Cohen, M.D.

NCDHHS continues to work with partners and the media to promote SlowCOVIDNC. The SlowCOVIDNC Communications Toolkit is designed to equip local organizations with resources and collateral to promote SlowCOVIDNC.

SlowCOVIDNC leverages Google and Apple’s Exposure Notification System (ENS) and alerts users who have the app if they have been in close range of an individual who later tests positive for COVID-19. It is voluntary to download and use and is designed to enhance the state’s existing contact tracing efforts. The app can be downloaded for free through the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.

Here’s how SlowCOVIDNC works:

  1. Download the free SlowCOVIDNC Exposure Notification app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store and enable Bluetooth and Exposure Notifications. Bluetooth must be on for the app to work.
  2. After opting-in to receive notifications, the app will generate an anonymous token for the device. A token is a string of random letters which changes every 10-20 minutes and is never linked to identity or location. This protects app user privacy and security.
  3. Through Bluetooth, phones with the SlowCOVIDNC app work in the background (minimizing battery) to exchange these anonymous tokens every few minutes. Phones record how long they are near each other and the Bluetooth signal strength of their exchanges in order to estimate distance.
  4. If an app user tests positive for COVID-19, the individual may obtain a unique PIN to submit in the app. This voluntary and anonymous reporting notifies others who have downloaded the app that they may have been in close contact with someone in the last 14 days who has tested positive.
  5. PINs will be provided to app users who receive a positive COVID-19 test result through a web-based PIN Portal, by contacting the Community Care of North Carolina call center or by contacting their local health department.
  6. SlowCOVIDNC periodically downloads tokens from the server from the devices of users who have anonymously reported a positive test. Phones then use records of the signal strength and duration of exposures with those tokens to calculate risk and determine if an app user has met a threshold to receive an exposure notification.

To learn more about SlowCOVIDNC and to download the app, visit www.covid19.ncdhhs.gov/slowcovidnc, which also includes an FAQ

NCDHHS Provides Guidelines for Voters and Polling Locations as Early Voting Begins. (Oct. 15)

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is providing guidelines for voters and local polling locations to help protect the health of North Carolinians during the voting process. In addition, NCDHHS and the NC Department of Public Safety Division of Emergency Management provided personal protective equipment to local election boards and locations.

North Carolina residents who plan to vote in-person should wear a face mask and keep it on throughout the voting process, stay 6 feet apart from others while at the polling location, and wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before and after voting.

“Everyone should make their voting plan, and just like going to the grocery store, take your mask and wait apart from others. I’ll be voting in person during early voting,” said NCDHHS Secretary Mandy K. Cohen, M.D.

NCDHHS also issued guidelines to local polling locations to protect people while they vote, work or volunteer at voting locations. Masks are required in public and voting places must have enough masks to provide one to anyone who does not have one. If a voter has an exception for wearing a mask, election workers should try to accommodate them and should not turn voters away. 

Election workers at voting locations must routinely clean and disinfect high-touch areas, such as doors, tables and chairs, with an EPA-approved disinfectant for SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — especially during peak voting times. Many locations are providing single-use pens to voters.

The guidelines, adapted from the CDC’s Considerations for Election Polling Locations and Voters, also require elections officials to post signage at each voting place reminding voters and workers about social distancing by staying at least 6 feet away from others. Officials are required to provide physical markers, such as tape on floors or signs on walls, to help ensure people remain at least 6 feet apart.

Additionally, county boards of elections must:

  • Require election workers and observers to wear a mask when social distancing is or may not be possible, unless they state an exception applies.
  • Require election workers to encourage people to wear a mask while they vote or campaign and offer masks to those who are not wearing them.

To monitor the health of elections workers, county boards of elections are required to:

  • Immediately separate and send home election workers who have symptoms when they arrive at work or become sick during the day.
  • Conduct daily symptom screening of workers before opening the voting place each day.
  • Post signage at the main entrance asking people who have a fever and/or a cough not to enter. Signage from the NCDHHS Know your Wscampaign is available to download.

All 100 county election offices have received gloves and face shields for poll workers; disposable masks for workers and others who do not have a mask; and hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray and paper towels. Anheuser-Busch and McDonald’s donated a portion of the hand sanitizer to the Association of State Election Directors. NCDHHS and NCDPS are providing the rest of the supplies and equipment. Additionally, the NC State Board of Elections is sending single-use pens to county election offices for use as needed.

WNC COVID Counts. (October 16)

Confirmed Cases at Western NC

New Positive Cases – October 16

(# of new positive cases made known to the University as confirmed through university testing, surveillance testing, and self-reporting over past 24 hours or 72 hours for weekend case counts reported on Monday)

Students -16; Employees* – 0; Subcontractors – 0

Weekly Confirmed Positives Cases – October 5 – October 11

(total # of new positive cases known to the University for the week specified above)

Students – 28; Employees* – 2; Subcontractors – 0

Cumulative Positive Confirmed Cases Since July 1

(total # of positive cases known to the University since July 1, 2020)

Students -189; Employees* – 7; Subcontractors – 5

* Employees full and part-time

 

Positivity Rate – October 5 – October 11

(calculated once per week based on number of tests administered on campus for the week specified above)

Number of Tests Administered – 473; Number of Tests Returned Positive – 25; Percent of Positive Tests to Tests Administered – 5.3%

Total # of Students Currently in Self-Isolation/Quarantine Off-Campus Per University Instructions – 147

Instructions for Self-Reporting for COVID-19 Testing

For Students

If you have been tested at location other than Health Services, please complete the COVID testing self-report at info.wcu.edu/selfreport

Once submitted, a representative of WCU Health Services will be in contact shortly to help support your ongoing medical care.

 

For Employees

Employees who have been notified of a confirmed positive COVID-19 test should immediately self-isolate at home and contact their supervisor as soon as possible to notify them.

Specific protocols may be viewed at COVID-19 Diagnosis/Symptoms Protocols for Employees and Supervisors.

COVID-19 cases see new jump across Jackson. (October 14)

The Sylva Herald, by Dave Russell

Western Carolina University reported 30 new cases of COVID-19 over the last week. The bump contributed to a 7.6 percent increase in Jackson County from last week. The county currently has 66 people isolating due to COVID-19 infection. That’s up from 50 last week.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the health department reported 779 cases among full-time residents, with 15,957 tests reported to the agency.

Last Tuesday, the health department reported 720 cases of full-time residents and 15,175 tests performed.

The county has had 177 cases per 10,000 residents, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS on Tuesday reported 234,481 cases and 3,816 deaths in the state, with 3,437,598 tests conducted.

Nationwide, cases numbered 7,787,548 and deaths 214,446 as of Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Western Carolina University’s dashboard (wcu.edu/coronavirus/reporting.aspx) reports 30 new cases – 28 students and two employees – the week of Oct. 5-Oct. 11.

The WCU dashboard showed 11 new student cases the previous week.

Since July 1 there have been 163 cases among students, seven among employees and five among sub-contractors.

WCU reports 93 students in self isolation/quarantine, including 12 on campus. The total is down one from 94 last week.

The Jackson County Public Schools dashboard (jcpsnc.org/covid), tracks positive cases among staff and students. There have been six student cases, with two active as of Wednesday morning. Four of the cases have been among Smoky Mountain High School students, with one active case. There is also an active case at Smokey Mountain Elementary School. The other case was a Fairview Elementary School student.

School staffer infected

Jackson County Public Schools on Tuesday reported its first staff case.

“It was a part-time instructor who lives outside the county,” Assistant Superintendent Jake Buchanan said.

Three students – two at Smoky Mountain High School and one at Jackson County Early College – are in isolation due to contact with the staff member, he said.

“I think that brings our total to six students and one and a half employees, and neither of them have been full-time employees for us, so we are happy and satisfied with the low numbers, but we know we have to continue to monitor it,” acting Superintendent Tony Tipton said.

“Everyone is taking it seriously,” Buchanan said. “We didn’t expect it to go this well, knock on wood.”

Restaurant closed 

Kostas Express Restaurant in Dillsboro announced Sunday that COVID had affected the eatery.

“We have decided to close Kostas for a week,” owner Dean Christopoulos wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “We have had three employees test positive for the virus while not being here at work. We have advised all employees to get tested this upcoming week although not one person has showed any symptoms. During this down time we will sanitize the establishment very intensively as we have been since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We are and have been striving to do everything we can during this time to keep our employees and customers safe. Thank you for your understanding and be safe and wear your masks and avoid contact.”

Phase III

“We have seen an uptick in our cases of COVID-19 in the past week,” said Melissa McKnight, deputy director of the Jackson County Department of Public Health. “I worry that, as we are eight-plus months into our response, that many in our community are tired of the preventative measures that we have been working so hard to implement. They miss seeing their friends, family members and loved ones, and they miss doing the things they used to enjoy.”

Moving the state into Phase III does not make COVID-19 any less real or present in our community, she said.

“Anytime you attend gatherings where you are around others, the potential for exposure exists,” McKnight said. “We are seeing more and more cases that occur among those who attended gatherings with family and friends. I try to reiterate to people that, just because you are allowed to do something doesn’t mean you should do it. We all need to assess our personal risk as well as make sure we still take protective measures if we choose to participate in activities where we could be exposed to COVID-19.”

The state moved into Phase III on Oct. 2.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services released guidelines, recommending that churches:

• Limit in-person worship when possible and provide an option for virtual services.

• Conduct the worship service outside, if possible.

• Limit occupancy to 100 people per room or 30 percent of stated fire capacity, whichever is less (If there is not a fire capacity number for the room, limit occupancy to 100 people, or 7 people per 1,000 square feet, whichever is less.)

• Ensure sufficient social distancing with at least 6-foot separation between groups other than those in their household.

“I have worked with some places of worship,” McKnight said. “We sent the toolkit as well as a summary graphic to some local church leaders so that they could be equipped to keep their congregations safer during this pandemic. We have also shared the graphic on our social media in hopes that it reaches other religious organizations that we may not have connected with directly.”

Sylva cancels Christmas parade (October 8)

Smoky Mountain News, written by Holly Kayes

The Sylva Town Board has voted unanimously this evening to cancel this year’s Christmas Parade, citing coronavirus concerns.

“Having our traditional Christmas parade is not something that’s good for public health,” said Commissioner Ben Guiney, who is a doctor at Harris Regional Hospital.

Guiney said that a widely distributed vaccine is not likely before Christmas, and that the cold weather’s tendency to drive people indoors often results in a spike in respiratory illnesses that time of year anyway. Therefore, hosting a large event like the Christmas Parade is not a good idea.

“If you want a motion to cancel the parade, I’d be glad to make it,” said Commissioner David Nestler.

Case counts are currently on the upswing, said Commissioner Greg McPherson. He agreed that cancellation was the best move. Commissioner Mary Gelbaugh said that it makes her sad to cancel such a well-loved event, especially on top of all the other COVID-related cancellations that have happened already, but she agreed it was the right decision.

“I think it’s just not feasible,” added Commissioner Barbara Hamilton, a retired nurse. “We’re going to hit the flu season with the COVID season and I don’t look for things to get very much better.”

Mayor Lynda Sossamon suggested that boar members spend the next month or so thinking of alternative ways to celebrate Christmas without risking transmission of the virus.

“I’m sad about this,” she said. “I think it’s one of our best events. It brings so many people downtown, but we have to be safe and keep everyone that would come safe.”

NC has distributed over $2.6 billion in Coronavirus Relief Funds. (Sept. 29)

Office of Pandemic Recovery has distributed 75% of CRF funds as of September 21

North Carolina has distributed over $2.6 billion in coronavirus relief funds as of September 21 and continues to work to administer remaining funds in coordination with federal requirements.

“North Carolina families, businesses and communities have been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis and we’re working to get relief to those who need it. I’m proud of our administration’s work with federal, state and local officials to quickly and efficiently distribute funds across North Carolina to ensure we can bounce back stronger from this devastating pandemic,” said Governor Roy Cooper.

In May 2020, Governor Cooper established the NC Pandemic Recovery Office (NCPRO) to oversee and coordinate the fiscal response to the COVID-19 pandemic. NC PRO is responsible for overseeing the distribution of the $3.5 billion ($3,585,391,176.20) in Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) from the U.S. Treasury to provide support to state agencies, local governments, nonprofits, hospitals, educational institutions, and research organizations.

Because North Carolina has over 2,000 sub-recipients, the U.S. Treasury Office of Inspector General (OIG) is providing North Carolina with an upload feature to report on CRF expenditures. Under the federal Department of Treasury’s timeline, this feature is not expected to be ready for reporting until December 2020. While information on North Carolina’s CRF obligations and expenditures will not be included in the reports to the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee until December 2020, OSBM and NCPRO offered an interim update to members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation.

As of September 21, 2020, NCPRO distributed $2.6 billion ($2,683,164,603) to local governments, state agencies, nonprofits, hospitals, educational institutions, and research organizations. This distribution is equal to 75% of the $3.5 billion allocated by the General Assembly.

Distribution of these funds included:

  • $562,008,548 to the Department of Health and Human Services to support local health departments, increase testing and tracing, aid rural and underserved communities, support food assistance programs, and increase social services
  • $535,727,849 to support public and private education entities to enhance and support online learning, provide additional support to students, and cover the additional costs of the pandemic including: $312,903,999 to the Department of Public Instruction; $80,813,032 to the NC Community College System; $105,260,818 to the UNC System; $36,750,000 to NC Private Colleges and Universities
  • $467,106,136 to state agencies including the Departments of Administration, Agriculture, Commerce, Information Technology, Health and Human Services, Natural and Cultural Resources and the Administrative Office of the Courts to improve broadband, assist businesses impacted by the pandemic, and serve NC’s communities
  • $440,541,000 to the Department of Revenue to provide a one-time grant to NC’s parents to assist with the additional costs incurred for virtual schooling or childcare expenses
  • $300,000,000 to county and municipal governments to cover increased costs of responding to the pandemic
  • $187,378,268 to the Department of Public Safety to assist with the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and support the State Highway Patrol and NC National Guard
  • $97,513,263 to hospitals across the state to offset the expenses incurred for providing patient care, purchase PPE and necessary equipment, retrofitting separate areas to treat patients, and expanding telehealth capabilities
  • $92,889,539 to nonprofit organizations including Golden LEAF, NC Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, NC Community Health Centers, and the NC Biotechnology Center.

NCPRO has established a robust and efficient system for distributing, tracking, and auditing the funds provided from CRF. All entities receiving funds must submit the required documents, then NCPRO works with the entities to disburse the funds. Each entity must submit documentation monthly which is reviewed by the NCPRO audit team, ensuring that funds are distributed in a timely manner and are spent in accordance with state and federal law.

Governor Cooper Moves North Carolina to Phase 3 With Stable Numbers. (Sept. 30)

NC DHHS

North Carolina will ease cautiously some restrictions while continuing safety measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 as the state’s metrics remained stable in September, Governor Roy Cooper announced today.

“Our top priority remains getting children back to in-person learning. This month marks a major shift for many families now and in the coming months as schools open their doors, some for the first time since the pandemic,” said Governor Cooper. “The virus continues to spread, so we must take the next steps methodically, and responsibly.”

“We must continue our hard work to slow the spread of this virus,” said Secretary Mandy K. Cohen, M.D. “By practicing the 3Ws — wear, wait and wash, — getting your flu shot, and downloading the SlowCOVIDNC app, each of us can protect the progress we have made.”

Dr. Cohen reviewed the state’s key metrics:  Trajectory in COVID-Like Illness (CLI) Surveillance Over 14 Days

  • North Carolina’s syndromic surveillance trend for COVID-like illness has a slight increase.  Trajectory of Confirmed Cases Over 14 Days
  • North Carolina’s trajectory of lab-confirmed cases is level.  Trajectory in Percent of Tests Returning Positive Over 14 Days
  • North Carolina’s trajectory in percent of tests returning positive is level.  Trajectory in Hospitalizations Over 14 Days
  • North Carolina’s trajectory of hospitalizations is level.

In addition to these metrics, the state continues building capacity to adequately respond to an increase in virus spread in testing, tracing and prevention.

No-cost testing events are being deployed across the state and testing turnaround times are improving. New contact tracers are bolstering the efforts of local health departments. A new NCDHHS app, SlowCOVIDNC, is notifying users of exposure to the virus. Personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies are stable.

As these metrics and capacity remain stable, the state will ease some restrictions starting Friday. Executive Order 169 begins Oct. 2 at 5 p.m. and continues for three weeks through October 23. Its new provisions include:

  • Large outdoor venues with seating greater than 10,000 may operate with 7% occupancy for spectators.
  • Smaller outdoor entertainment venues, like arenas or amphitheaters, may operate outdoors at 30% of outdoor capacity, or 100 guests, whichever is less.
  • Movie theaters and conference centers may open indoor spaces to 30% of capacity, or 100 guests, whichever is less.
  • Bars may operate outdoors at 30% of outdoor capacity, or 100 guests, whichever is less.
  • Amusement parks may open at 30% occupancy, outdoor attractions only.
  • The limits on mass gatherings will remain at 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.
  • The 11 pm curfew on alcohol sales for in-person consumption in locations such as restaurants and outdoor bars will be extended to October 23.

State and public health officials will continue watching the key COVID-19 trends over the next several weeks to determine if any further restrictions can be eased when the current Executive Order expires October 23.

Holidays, re-opening could lead to ‘second wave’. (Sept.30)

The Sylva Herald, by Dave Russell

Total Jackson County COVID-19 cases rose by 28 over the last week. The county currently has 21 people isolating due to COVID-19 infection. That’s down from 30 last week.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the health department reported 669 cases among full-time residents, with 14,090 tests reported to the agency.

Last Tuesday, the health department reported 641 cases of full-time residents and 12,902 tests performed.

The county has had 152 cases per 10,000 residents, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS on Tuesday reported 209,137 cases and 3,494 deaths in the state, with 3,014,780 tests conducted.

Nationwide, cases numbered 7,129,313 and deaths 204,598 as of Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

The Jackson County Public Schools dashboard (jcpsnc.org/covid), tracks positive cases among staff and students. There are two active cases connected with Smoky Mountain High School. One is a student, and the other is a non-staff member associated with the athletic department.

Four total students cases have been reported – three at SMHS and one at Fairview Elementary School.

Western Carolina University’s dashboard (wcu.edu/coronavirus/reporting.aspx) reports eight new cases, all among students, the week of Sept. 21-27.

Last week the WCU dashboard showed four new student cases. Since July 1 there have been 122 cases among students, five among employees and five among sub-contractors.

WCU reports 72 students in self isolation/quarantine, including four on campus. The total is up from 31 last week.

Eyebrows were raised Friday when the Jackson County Department of Public Health COVID-19 Dashboard showed a doubling in deaths, from seven to 14.

The department acknowledged an error in a Facebook post on Sunday:

“We want to take a moment to provide some clarification about our most recent COVID-19 Data Dashboard update from Friday (Sept. 25). We erroneously updated the Dashboard to show that we have 14 total deaths related to COVID-19 in our community. It should read that we have seven total deaths as we thankfully have not had a new death related to COVID-19 in over a month. We made a mistake and apologize for any confusion that it has caused.”

Health officials at all levels are warning of a second wave of COVID-19 cases as the holidays see families gathering, people gathering at churches and parties, and holiday shopping.

Jackson County would not be immune.

“We may see a second surge on par with the summer or a ‘second wave,’” said Melissa McKnight, the county’s deputy health director. “This second wave could be worse than the first as it would occur during the fall/winter when people spend more time indoors therefore increasing the risk of transmission.

“We begin to see ‘waves’ or ‘spikes’ of COVID-19 after communities begin to re-open or after prevention measures are lessened. The intention behind re-opening is, while we encourage folks to resume some regular activities for a variety of reasons, we stress the importance of doing them safely while following the 3Ws. If these prevention activities are relaxed in addition to re-opening measures, COVID-19 infections will rise.”

Jackson County cases have shown the biggest increases following a holiday or other event, but in general cases have decreased since mid-summer, she said.

Case numbers are dependent on human behavior.

“If folks relax their prevention efforts, cases will increase,” McKnight said. “COVID-19 trends follow prevention measures – if we wash our hands, maintain social distance and wear face coverings in addition to following stay-at-home guidelines, infections will decrease.”

Decisions on re-opening are not easy ones to make, she said.

“We provide guidance to our leaders from a public health perspective and they use this, combined with guidance from other experts, to make re-opening decisions,” she said. “I appreciate the time and effort that our local leaders have taken to take cautious and measured steps.”

The Jackson County Department of Public Health is part of a regional communications campaign asking the community to share their reasons for practicing the 3Ws (for example, to protect their grandmother, to keep their customers safe, etc). Anyone who would like to submit a photo and quote is welcomed to do so at https://tinyurl.com/MyReasonJacksonCounty. 

Gov. Roy Cooper at a press conference last week said North Carolina would take another step toward Phase 3 in October if coronavirus cases remain stable. He also said outdoor venues seating over 10,000 could open at 7 percent capacity beginning Oct. 2. 

A news briefing was set for Wednesday afternoon to address the issue.

Sylva will grant $20,000 to local nonprofits. (Sept. 30)

Smoky Mountain News, written by Holly Kays

A new grant program approved by a unanimous vote from the Sylva Board of Commissioners Sept. 24 will allocate $20,000 to help nonprofit organizations better serve Sylva residents during the pandemic.

“We tried to keep it very simple,” said Interim Town Manager Mike Morgan. “Just basically tell us what you want to do with the money and then we could go through the process of approving the grants.”

The program will provide grants capped at $5,000 to assist with programs related to food insecurity, public health measures, medical access, supplies for nonprofits, emergency needs and other COVID-related expenses. The town will award the funds on a first-come, first-serve basis but will not vote on any applications prior to the board’s Oct. 22 meeting. While it can award grants of up to $5,000, it may restrict the grants to smaller amounts if a large number of organizations apply.

Commissioner David Nestler first floated the idea for the program Aug. 13 when Morgan presented his plan for spending the CARES Act money. Sylva received $411,583 from the program, most of which — $391,846 — will reimburse the town for dollars it spent on police officer salaries between May and August.

“This is money we could be putting back into our community in a time like this, instead of our general fund, so I wanted to see what options were available to us there,” Nestler said to begin the Aug. 13 discussion.

There are clear rules as to how CARES Act money can and cannot be used, and those rules would likely have prevented the town from directly allocating the money to a grant program. However, funding public safety personnel during the pandemic is an acceptable use, and because the town had already paid out police salaries for the timeframe in question, the money rolled back into the general fund, meaning that it is no longer subject to any restrictions other than those that apply to any other town expenditure.

Commissioner Mary Gelbaugh voiced support for the program but said she believed the town could do even more to help its nonprofits.

“It’s a little over $400,000 that we were given, and I was thinking more along the lines of tithing of a 10 percent,” she said. “I don’t know if our budget could support a 10 percent tithe of this money, but that would bring it more at $40,000.”

Additionally, she said, a lower cap on awards might be good in order to allow more nonprofits and more projects to benefit.

“I would like to see us broaden our spectrum on how many people could apply, even if that meant a lesser number for those few awarded,” she said.

Mayor Lynda Sossamon pointed out that in the past, the town’s contributions to nonprofit organizations have maxed out at $1,000. However, Nestler said, he’d rather keep the larger cap because it gives the town more flexibility in granting awards.

“It seems to me when organizations discuss having these sorts of grants — not in a time of crisis — we tend to overestimate the number of people that are going to apply to it and sort of bootstrap people by the amount they can’t apply for and making it less worth it for these nonprofits to apply,” he said. “Having a $5,000 max, I think that’s OK. It doesn’t mean we have to approve $5,000.”

As to the $20,000 number, Morgan allowed that it was mostly a “random number” he’d put in the resolution for discussion purposes but stated that, while it’s ultimately up to the board how much they want to allocate, he wouldn’t recommend going higher than $20,000.

“We have some tremendous expenses coming upon the town, especially with the Allen Street slide project,” said Morgan. “That’s going to be a major, major hit to the town budget. But then again we’re trying to provide a number that would make it worthwhile for a nonprofit to go through the grant process.”

Morgan was referring to the cost of repairing a landslide that has resulted in the closure of Allen Street. He and Public Works Director Jake Scott are currently working on putting together repair estimates, but they expect the cost to exceed $500,000, and that expense is not accounted for in the budget commissioners approved in June.

Ultimately, commissioners heeded Morgan’s concerns.

“I think that even though that ($20,000) number was pulled out of the air, I think that’s a solid number for us to start to work with,” said Commissioner Greg McPherson. “Maybe this could go to more later.”

Sylva received its CARES Act funding via Jackson County, which received it from the state, which received it from the federal government. The federal CARES Act established the Coronavirus Relief Fund, which provided the state with $4.067 billion in funding. Of that, $300 million was sent to the counties, each of which were required to allocate at least 25 percent of their funding to municipalities within the county.

Jackson County received $1.8 million, of which $454,408 must go to municipalities. Jackson County decided to allocate the funding with the same formula it uses to disperse sales tax receipts, meaning that Sylva received most of the money. However, Dillsboro received $25,766, Webster got $6,323 and Highlands — which is partially located in Jackson County but sits mainly in Macon County — was allocated $1,000 in a Sept. 15 vote of County Commissioners.

 Sylva’s grant program is open to 501c3, 501c4 and 501c6 organizations that serve Sylva residents. For more information, call the town at 828.586.2719.

County set to offer expanded hours, waive fees for flu shots. (Sept. 23)

The Sylva Herald, by Beth Lawrence

Jackson County commissioners voted unanimously to allow the health department to temporarily suspend fees for flu shots as a measure to help meet the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health officials nationwide are worried that a typical fall and winter rise in flu cases could place undue strain on hospitals already caring for COVID-19 patients.

“As you all know, we’re dealing with the pandemic and the flu season on the way,” Public Health Director Shelly Carraway told the board. “This year is going to be even more crucial for as many folks to get the flu immunization as possible.”

To make the flu vaccine more easily accessible, the health department has planned mobile clinics and expanded hours at its permanent location including weekend hours.

Not only will access be expanded, more vaccines will be available. 

“With the concerns about the strain on our healthcare system this fall if we were to have a bad flu along with COVID in play, the CDC actually is providing additional flu vaccines for adults with a focus on adults that are at increased risk from flu complications because those are the ones that’ll strain our healthcare system,” Carraway said.

The state has also suggested health departments remove possible financial barriers. The recommendation led Jackson County Department of Public Health to request commissioners suspend vaccine fees this flu season. The department will continue to bill insurance companies who usually cover the full cost of their client’s immunization.

Drive through clinics begin in October for flu shots only. No appointment is necessary.

Clinics will be held at Jackson County Department of Public Health 154 Medical Park Loop.Dates are 9-11 a.m. Oct. 3, 10, 17, 24 and 4-6 p.m. Oct. 6, 13, 20 and 27. For more information, call 586-8996.

Schools move to Plan A for elementary students here. (Sept. 23)

The Sylva Herald, by Dave Russell

The Jackson County Board of Education voted Tuesday to send pre-K-5th grade students to school four days a week. The board decided to move those students from Plan B to Plan A starting Oct. 5, with in-person teaching every day except Wednesday.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced last week that school districts could choose to transition elementary school students into Plan A starting Oct. 5.

Districts still have the option to choose Plan B, a mix of in-person and remote learning, or Plan C, remote learning. Schools must allow parents the option of all-remote learning for students.

Cooper did not announce a timeline or plan for allowing other grade levels to return for full-time in-person instruction. 

“We have been working on developing a plan that would move Jackson County Public Schools into alignment with Plan A for pre-K–5th grade,” Interim Superintendent Tony Tipton told the board. 

Neither clusters nor outbreaks of COVID have struck the schools so far.

Under Plan A schools must still follow specific guidelines, such as wearing masks, washing hands often and maintaining social distancing.

“It is still required that we follow Plan B while on school buses,” he said. “There will be one student in each seat, if it’s a family, a brother and sister can share a seat. We believe we’re OK right now with the buses we’re running.”

Moving to Plan A required the school board to approve a calendar change.

A staff development day set for Oct. 5 will move to Wednesday, Oct. 7. That Wednesday will remain a mandatory workday.

“Recently we asked parents to let us know if they want to remain on remote learning or return to school at the beginning of the second nine weeks,” Tipton said. “We are suggesting that these students who want to return from remote to face-to-face, they come back Oct. 5th.”

Remote-only students in the county’s pre-K-8 schools could return for face-to-face instruction as well.

“To minimize students changing back and forth between remote and face-to-face, we are requiring parents decide now for the entire school year,” Tipton said. “We understand various family circumstances may change between now and June which may require a change in this option.”

The schools would address those situations on a case by case basis, he said.

“Plan A means we will no longer offer an A-B schedule in pre-K–5th grades,” Tipton said. “We will be only four days a week, or full-time remote.” 

Middle and high school students will still be on an A/B schedule, attending class two days a week and learning remotely three days.

“Wednesday will continue to be a remote learning day,” he said. “Currently we still have a large number of families requesting to remain on remote learning. Our teachers simply cannot have school five days a week full time and still offer quality remote learning at the same time. Our teachers are great, but they are not superhuman.”

In an effort to minimize exposure, schools will keep students in the same small group whenever teachers are doing group activities, such as reading groups, he said.

Tipton pointed to the athletic programs, which work in a pod system. Smaller groups limit the number of students who could be exposed by a positive classmate.

The board voted unanimously to adopt Tipton’s proposals to move to Plan A and change the calendar.

COVID-19 delays R-5600 N.C. DOT project. (Sept. 23)

The Sylva Herald, by Patrick Clemon

Like many other facets of life in 2020, COVID-19 is affecting various N.C. Department of Transportation projects, including R-5600. The project to reshape Sylva’s commercial corridor has been postponed from fiscal year 2022 to 2025.

R-5600 is the DOT proposal for Sylva’s commercial corridor, N.C. 107, including the elimination of the center turn lane with sidewalks replaced and a 5-foot bike lane. Upgrades are slated for the N.C. 107/U.S. 23 Business intersection, and from U.S. 23 Business to Dillardtown Road and Municipal Drive, near the Sylva Fire Department. DOT’s preliminary estimate lists 55 businesses facing potential relocation or impact, though that number is fluid.

Residents of Sylva and the surrounding areas may not see physical changes anytime soon, but work is still ongoing behind the scenes.

“This project will continue to move forward with design,” said Jeanette White, DOT senior project engineer. “However, for land use needs or right-of-way acquisition, it’s being offset from this year to 2022.”

White said the early construction stages have been deferred as well.

“We’re not sure exactly which month it’s going to be, and we’re not 100 percent certain that these changes are going to go forward because we’re waiting on the state transportation board to vote on these potential probable changes next month, so that’s for the right-of-way acquisition needs and then construction is being offset to the fiscal year 2025 from 2022,” she said.

Even though the project has been delayed for some time, construction is inevitable.

“It is expected to take approximately three years for construction,” she said. “This project is definitely very huge. It has over 20 walls with cleaning lines along the project to help minimize impacts, so right now, we’re still estimating three years for construction.”

White also gave a brief step-by-step summary of what community members will experience during this time.

“We’re going to put the work in to construct all the bulb-outs on each side of the road first and then it’ll be up to the contractor to pick which side or the other that they choose to begin the construction,” she said. “We’re going to widen the road along that side, and then we’re going to move traffic to that side, and then we’re going to continue to widen the road on the other side.”

Many residents are concerned about how this eventual construction will affect their day-to-day travel.

“There’s going to be no permanent detours,” White said. “Most of the work can be completed at night except in the residential areas if there are any specific residential areas of concern.”

R-5600 would also affect local businesses.

“We’re in the process now contacting property owners from Pizza Hut, Verizon, roughly in that generalized area, all the way down to the first entrance to Lowe’s,” White said.

DOT is trying to address concerns of business owners who fear a loss of income over this period.

“We’re going to do all we can to maintain access to all businesses during construction,” she said. “There may be temporary closures for maybe a day because we’re putting a pipe in the front of a driveway, but we’re really trying to maintain access to all businesses throughout the project during construction.”

White detailed the choices some businesses will have to make for the project.

“We had two very large stormwater pipes that were being proposed between Verizon and across the street from Verizon,” White said.

Alternatives are given to landowners on how they would like to handle the situation, she said.

“Potentially a 7-foot by 7-foot box culvert would go either underneath the road or offset of the road so that we can really minimize impact so we’re actually getting property owners the ability to help assist in the decision process whether they would like a box culvert put along their property or if they would like an open stream literally along their property,” she said.

More information can be found at ncdot.gov.

Flu, COVID-19 on a collision course. (Sept. 23)

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.”

Gov. Cooper: $40 Million to Connect with Internet & Remote Learning. (Sept. 9)

Today, Governor Roy Cooper announced nearly $40 million in funding for NC Student Connect, a new partnership created to address internet connectivity gaps that are a barrier to remote learning for many North Carolina students. When school resumed in August, superintendents estimated that at least 100,000 students still lacked a reliable internet connection at home.

Many North Carolina students are currently attending school remotely and need reliable internet access to be able to connect with their teachers and access their lessons. Students who are attending school onsite may also need internet access at home to be able to complete assignments.

“Long before COVID-19, expanding access to high-speed internet has been a top priority for my administration, and this pandemic has made the need even more urgent,” said Governor Cooper. “NC Student Connect will make critical investments in high speed internet access and remote learning that will help students, health care and businesses in our state.”

Today’s NC Student Connect investment includes:

  • $30 million to distribute 100,000 wireless high speed hot spots for students to connect with their remote learning classes.
  • $8 million to create accessible sites in convenient locations across the state such as school parking lots, municipal areas, and state parks, museums and historic sites. These NC Student Connect sites will provide free high-speed internet for students to connect to the Internet to download lessons and complete assignments offline.
  • $2 million for educator professional development, parent training and student involvement in a spectrum of activities that go into effective remote learning. More than 1,300 educators from rural North Carolina already participated in a virtual conference focused on remote learning to help them be better prepared to teach throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about that conference.

NC Student Connect is a partnership across state government including the Department of Information Technology (DIT), the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (DNCR), Governor Cooper’s Hometown Strong initiative and the NC Business Committee for Education (NCBCE), an educational nonprofit in the Governor’s Office. These and other agencies have already worked to build partnerships to help leverage public investments to increase internet access in underserved communities. Purchasing began before Labor Day and thousands of hot spots will be shipped to school systems this week and will continue throughout the month.

“This announcement illustrates the state’s unwavering commitment in connecting all our students and all of NC,” said DIT Acting Secretary Thomas Parrish. “There’s no greater action than investing in our children, our future world changers. We are grateful to our private partners, and all those who are assisting in this effort; our tomorrow says thank you.”

“As a parent with a child that is remote learning at home, I can testify to the urgent need for devices with high speed connectivity,” said DNCR Secretary Susi Hamilton. “As a leader in State government, I can answer the Governor’s call to help school children by lending them devices through our State Library and add to their learning experience through outdoor and cultural programming that this department offers.”

“Today’s actions significantly advance Governor Cooper’s commitment to quality, accessible high-speed internet for every North Carolina school district. Our Remote Learning Working Group continues to produce meaningful solutions for our most marginalized students. The time is now for bold, innovative, and collaborative solutions that deliver high-speed internet to every North Carolina home,” said Jeremy Collins, Director of Innovative Connectivity with Hometown Strong.

“Google is proud to work with our state, local, and corporate partners to provide innovative connectivity solutions—such as our Rolling Hotspots program in North Carolina—to help students access Wi-Fi. NCBCE’s Remote Learning Working Group is thrilled that the state will invest in the NC Student Connect Program and provide professional development for educators as part of a collective effort to make it possible for more students to engage in school work remotely,” said Lilyn Hester, Head of External Affairs – Southeast, Google, who serves as vice chairwoman of NCBCE and Chairwoman of the NCBCE Remote Learning Working Group.

Initial private sector investments in remote learning and NC Student Connect include, AT&T, Duke Energy Foundation, Fidelity Investments, Google, Smithfield Foundation, Verizon Foundation, and Wells Fargo Foundation.

NC Schools Can Choose to Implement Plan A for Elementary Schools Starting Oct. 5.

Governor Roy Cooper yesterday announced that after several weeks of stable COVID-19 trends and continued low virus spread in school settings, North Carolina public school districts and charter schools can choose to implement Plan A for elementary schools (grades K-5) starting Oct. 5.

Plan A continues to include important safety measures like face coverings for all students, teachers and staff, and symptom screening. But schools will not be required to reduce the number of children in the classroom to meet social distancing of 6 feet.

As the Governor announced in July, every district will continue to have flexibility to select Plan A, B or C based on their unique needs. In addition, districts should still provide an option for families to select all remote learning for their students. Read the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit to learn more about the requirements under each plan.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services shared an update on North Carolina’s data trends. Dr. Cohen explained that North Carolina has seen a sustained leveling or decrease of key metrics.

“Our trends show that we are on the right track. It’s up to all of us to protect our progress. Our individual actions like those 3 Ws will help keep our school doors open,” said Secretary Cohen.

Secretary Cohen also explained that as schools have opened, the current science shows that younger children are less likely to become infected, have symptoms, experience severe disease or spread the virus.

Find all public health guidance for K-12 schools here.

COVID Cases Rise, But Rate Slows Down

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.”

Low-Interest Loans Available For Businesses Impacted By Covid. (Sept. 10)

Smoky Mountain News, written by Admin

The Southwestern Commission Council of Governments is pleased to announce the availability of low interest loans for small businesses and entrepreneurs adversely affected by COVID-19. Loans are available to qualifying applicants in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties.

The Commission was awarded $2 million in EDA CARES Act Recovery Assistance grants to help with the creation and retention of jobs in local business and industry. Loans may have interest rates as low as one percent; credit restrictions apply. Business, nonprofits and governmental units interested in applying can visit regiona.org/COVIDLOAN/.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and so many of our local businesses were severely impacted by the pandemic,” said Sarah Thompson, executive director, Southwestern Commission. “The hope is that these loans will help them rebound from these unprecedented times by providing the necessary resources to stay in business and create a rewarding future.”

“Once again, the Southwestern Commission is leading the way in providing flexible, innovative funding for the businesses that need it the most,” said Zeb Smathers, Mayor of the town of Canton. “I have no doubt that this financial partnership will not only stabilize our local economy, but prepare us for future growth.”

The U.S Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) established the funds to capitalize and administer Revolving Loan Funds (RLFs) to help small businesses and entrepreneurs who’ve been adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The funds can be used for machinery and equipment, construction and renovations, land or property acquisition, and working capital. All projects must create economic activity through job creation and retention or community revitalization.

Applications are now being accepted. Visit regiona.org/COVIDLOAN to apply.

The Southwestern Commission Council of Governments serve as a technical, economic, and planning resource to local towns and counties in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, and Swain, the 17 municipalities therein, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The Southwestern Commission provides community, economic and workforce development, and services for older Americans. To learn more, visit www.regiona.org.

Jackson County Approves Plan To Return Students To Classroom. (Sept. 8)

Smoky Mountain News, Written by Admin

The Jackson County Board of Education voted to proceed with Phase 2 of the district’s reentry plan at their work session on Sept. 1.  Interim Superintendent Dr. Tony Tipton recommended the change that allows students to return to their classrooms on an A/B schedule beginning Sept. 14.

The decision was primarily based on information and data from local health officials showing a flattening rate of COVID-19 infections in the area. “We’d only had two cases of an in-school student being identified, so we felt pretty comfortable going forward,” Tipton said.

The A/B schedule divides students into two groups that attend classes in-person on different days of the week to reduce the number of people in each classroom.  Families also have an option to keep children at home and participate in fully remote learning.

The district began the school year in August with two weeks of orientation on the A/B schedule followed by the current two weeks of remote learning for all students.

“I was very happy,” Tipton said of the two orientation weeks.  “All of the principals reported that the kids were responding tremendously well.”

During those two weeks, 63% of students attended school in-person on the A/B schedule and 37% chose fully remote learning.

Despite the successful opening, Tipton remains concerned about the toll the schedule is taking on the district’s nearly 300 teachers as well as parents who have been forced to become part-time teachers.

“Everybody from the safety part of it has been wonderful,” Tipton said.  “The part that is not as well as we would like is the super-load that we’ve put on our teachers and parents.  Public education was never meant to operate the way COVID has forced us to.”

Efforts to control the virus have also wreaked havoc on extracurricular programs.  Fall sports have been postponed for several months, however district leaders are hopeful that teams will eventually have an opportunity to play.

“We are fully committed to going with what the high school athletic association says,” Tipton stated.  “However, if we do have to close down a school or the district, we’ll come back together and revisit that and determine if it needs to change.”

While Tipton is optimistic about keeping students in school for the long-term, he maintains a realistic perspective on any eventual move to Phase 3 of the district’s plan.

“All Phase 3 does is change the number of people at an event,” Tipton said.  “So, I envision sadly that we’ll be with these restrictions for the rest of this school year.”

Even so, Tipton emphasized the responsibility everyone has in preventing another shutdown.

“We have the ability to keep schools open by following the guidelines of wearing a mask, staying apart, and keeping our hands clean,” Tipton said.  “That is something we control, so we must be vigilant and do it.”

Community Table Taking a Breather from Pandemic Grind (Aug 27)

The Sylva Herald, by Jim Buchanan

The grind of dealing with a significant uptick in food need during the coronavirus crisis has led Sylva’s Community Table to take a short break to regroup and prepare for increased needs in coming months.

Paige Christie, the organization’s director, announced last week that the organization would close from Aug. 26-Sept. 2. The Table put out a notice for clients who would have normally had a food box pickup during the closure days to arrange for boxes in advance prior to the closure.

MANNA FoodBank, which serves 16 Western North Carolina counties, including Jackson, reports that even prior to the COVID pandemic, one in seven North Carolinians were struggling with food insecurity.

With the arrival of the pandemic and accompanying economic crash, those numbers have jumped.

MANNA reports that since the pandemic caught fire in mid-March, it has served a record average of 4,034 people each month in Jackson, a jump of 25 percent from pre-COVID distributions. From mid-March through June nearly 236,000 meals have been served in the county, and increased needs are predicted for the coming months.

All told, MANNA distributed 6.9 million meals across WNC in the same timeframe, an increase of 37 percent from the identical period in 2019.

Local providers like The Community Table have received a boost from efforts like Blue Cross NC’s collaboration with Feeding the Carolinas and six food banks across the state to help improve access to fresh produce and perishable food by providing refrigerators and freezers.

The Table has also benefited from a partnership MANNA created with the Katie Button Restaurant group and the World Central Kitchen, an organization out of Asheville that received a grant to put restaurant workers back to work at a fair wage. The venture creates up to 1,500 meals a month for distribution to those in need, with The Community Table receiving 200 meals a week. But despite additional help, The Community Table, running on a skeleton crew, has simply been worn down.

Christie said, “In the early days of the pandemic, we saw an immediate uptick of about 30 percent in use of all our services. Many new people visited us for the first time, mostly young families, or folks who had just been laid off. Once the extra financial assistance kicked in from unemployment, we stabilized at pre-pandemic numbers.”

With the end of the federal emergency relief package at the end of July and no replacement passed by Congress, Christie said “We are seeing a steady rise again, and expect that to continue into the fall and winter. We continue operating on a skeleton crew (two staff and two volunteers). Everything that needs doing, setting up and taking down tents and cones and banners, making supply runs, uploading trucks, sorting food and building boxes, running boxes and meals to vehicles, cooking and packing dinners, etc. is done by this small crew.

“The stress has been enormous, as we are striving to make sure everything that needs to get done gets done well, while keeping ourselves, our families, and our clients safe and healthy,” she said. “We have gotten very used to wearing masks and face shields for hours at a time. In the midst of all this, the support of the community has been mind-blowing. From businesses to individuals, to Eagle Scouts and farmers, we’ve received so much kindness and hard work and financial support that we almost don’t have words to truly express how grateful we are.”

But Christie saw the need for the organization to take a brief break to recharge its batteries and prepare for what appears to be a prolonged crisis.

“We don’t see this terrible health crisis going away anytime soon, and we are doing everything we can to be here for the long haul – including taking some scheduled breaks every couple months in order to be mentally and physically healthy enough to support those in need as we head into winter.”

The Community Table is located at 23 Central St. in Sylva. To learn more go to communitytable.org.

First Public School Student COVID-19 Case Reported ( Aug. 27)

The Sylva Herald, By Dave Russell

Jackson County COVID-19 cases rose by 9.6 percent over the last week. That’s down from an almost 40 percent jump a month ago but up from a 3 percent increase last week.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the Jackson County Department of Public Health reported 525 cases of full-time residents, with 10,532 tests reported to the agency.

Last Tuesday, the health department reported 479 cases of full-time residents and 9,965 tests performed.

Jackson County currently has 45 people isolating due to COVID-19 infection. That’s up from 18 last week.

The county has 109 cases per 10,000 residents, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS on Tuesday reported 157,741 cases and 2,570 deaths in the state, with 2,102,359 tests conducted.

Nationwide, cases numbered 5,715,567 and deaths 176,617 as of 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Jackson County Public Schools has set up a dashboard to relay information about COVID-19 in the school system. Available at www.jcpsnc.org/covid, it tracks positive cases among staff (currently zero) and students (currently one). The student cases are broken down by school. The only case is at Smoky Mountain High School as of Tuesday afternoon. 

That student is in isolation, Assistant School Superintendent Jake Buchanan said. 

“We’re following all the CDC and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines for when students test positive, which is essentially 14 days isolation and they have to meet other criteria to be able to return,” he said 

The student was tested outside of school, and the case was immediately reported to the health department, which did contact tracing. 

The student was on campus for just a part of Monday, Aug. 17, and did not attend school for the rest of the week, Buchanan said. 

“At this time the health department has made no recommendations for other quarantines related to this case,” he said.

Families of SMHS students who had close contact with the positive case have been notified, according to Human Resources Director Kevin Bailey.

Western Carolina University has updated its online COVID-19 dashboard to include additional information about testing, positivity rates, isolation and quarantine.

In addition to a daily count for new positive cases and a cumulative count of cases going back to July 1, the updated dashboard includes a weekly count of new confirmed positive cases, information about the number of tests administered and a weekly positivity rate. The revamped dashboard includes cases involving subcontractors (in addition to employees and students). The site also has a section providing information about the number of isolation or quarantine spaces in use.

The dashboard, found at www.wcu.edu/coronavirus/reporting.aspx, reports 58 student cases since July 1. The count jumped 10 cases from Monday to Tuesday of this week, and three more were added Wednesday morning.

Of 55 beds on campus reserved for isolation/quarantine, 21 are in use. An additional 85 students are in self-isolation/quarantine off campus bringing the total to 106.

Chancellor Kelli Brown sent an email to the WCU community admonishing students to adhere to the requirements of the Catamounts Care campaign, specifically large gatherings such as parties. 

“While I have observed many of you doing a good job adhering to our community standards of wearing face coverings and washing or sanitizing your hands while on campus, it is on this last point – avoiding large gatherings and parties – where I am concerned,” she wrote. 

“You already are well aware of what I mean. Our neighbors across Jackson County and beyond are expressing their worries about behavior that may lead to further spread of COVID-19.”

Jackson County Department of Public Health Deputy Director Melissa McKnight expects cases to continue to climb.

“We do anticipate an increase in cases as more people come into our community,” McKnight said. 

Parties and other gatherings are part of the problem, she said.

“When we congregate in groups, in close proximity to one another, the virus is more likely to spread,” McKnight said. “We can slow (and potentially even stop) the spread of the virus if we continue to physically distance ourselves from one another.” 

The Jackson County Department of Public Health COVID-19 Dashboard can be found by going to http://health.jacksonnc.org/ and clicking on the COVID response button.

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