Buncombe responds to COVID-19: March 17

Buncombe County COVID-19 testing at UNCA
TESTING ROLLOUT: Buncombe County opened two drive-through COVID-19 testing sites on March 17, including one at UNC Asheville. Photo by Laura Hackett

Buncombe County opens drive-through testing

During a March 17 press conference, Jennifer Mullendore, Buncombe County’s interim health director, said that Buncombe County Health and Human Services would begin operating two drive-through COVID-19 testing sites starting at 1 p.m. that same day. The first site is Biltmore Church at 35 Clayton Road in Arden, and the second is UNC Asheville at One University Heights.

According to the county’s website, testing will continue at the same sites on Wednesday, March 18, from 2-6 p.m. Tests will be available to all residents, regardless of income or ability to pay, but Mullendore emphasized that only people who are experiencing fever combined with either a cough or shortness of breath, or who have been in contact with someone who has a confirmed case of COVID-19 and are also experiencing symptoms, will be eligible.

As of the evening of March 17, Mullendore said 28 tests had been conducted at the Biltmore site, with an additional 60 tests conducted at UNCA. Results of these tests will not be available for several days. More information at avl.mx/70x.

Ten Buncombe County residents quarantined

Mullendore also said that, while there is only one confirmed or presumptive positive case of COVID-19 associated with Buncombe County — a resident of New York state who visited Asheville March 10-13 — roughly 10 people were considered at risk of contracting the disease through their exposure to that individual. Those contacts have been asked by the county to self-quarantine for 14 days, as well as to monitor and report related symptoms should they develop.

The county’s communicable disease staff, emphasized Mullendore, have thoroughly investigated the individual’s movement within the community and contacted everyone who was identified as a close contact of the confirmed case. “If you have not been contacted by a Buncombe County communicable disease nurse, you are not considered a close contact of the case and do not need to take any action beyond what we are telling the general public to do,” she added.

Just hours later, Governor Roy Cooper announced in a press conference that the state had a total of 40 confirmed cases as of March 17. No deaths from COVID-19 have yet been recorded in North Carolina.

Bars and restaurants ordered to suspend dine-in service

Cooper also announced a new executive order during the press conference mandating that all restaurants, breweries and bars in the state suspend dine-in service starting at 5 p.m. on March 17. The order still permitted delivery and takeout service. The governor also acknowledged the financial strain of the mandate by loosening unemployment insurance requirements to help workers affected by COVID-19.

Fletcher Tove, the county’s emergency preparedness coordinator, said that Buncombe County Public Health had been in communications with Asheville Independent Restaurants, Explore Asheville, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to help prepare local restaurants for the governor’s directive.

“There will be some who will be confused or frustrated by these decisions and some decisions yet to come,” Tove said. “I want to reiterate that these decisions are meant to safeguard the public health in our community and especially those most at risk.”

Later in the day, Tove told the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners that the county was preparing further orders that would supplement the governor’s mandate. These rules, he suggested, would shutter gyms, pools, spas, entertainment centers, and other non-essential businesses in which patrons experience extended close contact.

Evictions halted, low-risk jail inmates released

Calvin Hill, Buncombe County’s chief district court judge, said that his courthouse was temporarily continuing non-essential casework, such as misdemeanor cases involving larceny, shoplifting, trespassing and drinking on city property, for up to 120 days. Other matters such as probable cause hearings, bond hearings and some domestic violence and juvenile cases, Hill continued, are constitutionally required to be heard. However, he noted that the county court would not hold jury trials or process eviction cases.

“Our situation in the courts, just like everywhere else, is changing literally minute to minute,” Hill said. “Yesterday when we got to work, there were already a few eviction cases that were already  in the pipeline. Those cases will probably be processed, but as of about 4 p.m. yesterday, we are not processing any eviction matters. Those did not fall into the category of cases that were essential for us to process.”

Hill said that he is also coordinating with Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller to reduce the number of people being held in the county jail. He added that the inmates who were being considered for release had been charged with low-level offenses and estimated that 30-50 people had been released so far.

With additional reporting by Daniel Walton


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