Buncombe County, Asheville declare states of emergency over COVID-19

Brownie Newman at Buncombe COVID-19 press conference
WORD OF WARNING: Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman, center, declares a state of emergency for the county due to COVID-19 at a March 12 press conference. Photo by Virginia Daffron

During a March 12 press conference, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman declared a local state of emergency due to the increasing number of cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina. The move followed a statewide emergency declaration over the disease caused by the new coronavirus from Gov. Roy Cooper just two days earlier. Mayor Esther Manheimer subsequently declared a state of emergency for the city of Asheville later on March 12.

Newman said the county’s declaration applies to Asheville, Biltmore Forest, Black Mountain, Montreat, Weaverville and Woodfin and would make those municipalities, as well as unincorporated Buncombe County, eligible for state and federal resources when they become available. He also said the declaration would strengthen coordination among local governments as they respond to and communicate about the impact of the virus.

We think it’s very important to just send a clear message to our community that this is a serious public health concern,” Newman said. “There are practical and effective steps that we can all take as individuals, families, businesses [and] local government organizations that can reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Newman also recommended against attending or hosting nonessential public gatherings. His advice mirrored statewide guidance, delivered by Cooper in a press conference just hours later, for all residents to avoid gatherings of over 100 people. Asheville’s emergency declaration initially prohibited all gatherings of more than 250 people on city-owned property, but restrictions were tightened to 100 people following Cooper’s announcement. (Mountain Xpress has compiled a running list of event cancellations at avl.mx/70h.)

“From other parts of the world that have been wrestling with this for longer than we have, we know that taking this step is one of the most effective things that we can do to slow and prevent the spread of this illness, which will help more people from getting sick,” Newman said.

Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder said that the county is also partially activating its emergency operations center as a way of uniting government leaders, school officials and members of the medical community for daily communications and coordination efforts.

Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, director of the county’s Health and Human Services, said that as of 2:30 p.m. on March 12, there were 14 presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina, along with one case confirmed as positive through the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She said that no cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Buncombe County but that the number of tests performed in the county was in the “dozen range.”

“Be assured: We will notify the public if and when we get our first case of COVID-19 in the community,” Mullendore added.

Mission Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. William Hathaway said that while testing is now more widely available in the county, health officials are still not advocating testing for low-risk or asymptomatic people, even those with a history of travel to affected regions. Buncombe County residents are eligible for COVID-19 testing if they are experiencing fever and lower respiratory symptoms, such as cough or shortness of breath, and have already tested negative for flu.

Mullendore went on to say that people with critical symptoms such as severe fever, coughing and difficulty breathing should call 911 and communicate with a dispatcher, who will determine whether hospitalization or home care is necessary. Those experiencing milder symptoms are advised to contact their primary care provider by phone and avoid entering medical offices or hospitals without prior instruction.

Residents who do not have a primary care provider may call an urgent care clinic or Buncombe County Health and Human Services to speak with one of the agency’s communicable disease nurses. Mullendore stressed that people should not call the local agency unless no other health care provider is available due to the high volume of calls that the department is receiving.

To reach Buncombe County Health and Human Services Communicable Disease Control, call 828-250-5109. Nonemergency questions about coronavirus preparation can be emailed to ready@buncombecounty.org. Further information is available through the Buncombe County website.


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