Buncombe suspects local community transmission of COVID-19

Buncombe County seal

As Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, Buncombe County’s interim health director, announced five new cases of COVID-19 in county residents during a March 23 press conference, she noted that at least two of those cases were different from those that came before. Unlike other local instances of the disease caused by the new coronavirus, she explained, county health workers had been unable to trace these infections to a specific source —  suggesting that the disease is spreading within the county at large.

Although Mullendore confirmed that all eight of the county’s current COVID-19 cases are now in isolation, with their close contacts being identified and directed to monitor themselves for symptoms, she declined to share further information about their prior movements in the community. She cited patient privacy laws and said that residents should assume the virus is widely present in Buncombe County.

“The concern is that public notification causes increased public anxiety and does not assist in the identification of new cases or in our general public health response,” Mullendore said. “As we see local cases due to community spread, it will be important that the public does not become hung up on knowing the specific locations where people with COVID-19 went.”

Cooper extends school suspension through May 15

Earlier on March 23, Gov. Roy Cooper said he was issuing a new executive order prolonging the closure of public schools from its previous expiration on Monday, March 30, to the new date of Friday, May 15. While emphasizing that he was “not ready to give up on this year of school,” the governor said that the extension conformed with guidance from public health officials and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cooper said he had asked state education officials to work on additional plans for remote learning and ensure that all school employees continue to receive their salaries throughout the closure. Mark Johnson, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, added that he intended for all students scheduled to graduate in June to keep that commencement date.

Beyond education issues, Cooper’s new executive order lowers the maximum allowable size of mass gatherings to 50 people, closes “personal care and grooming businesses” and “entertainment facilities without a retail or dining component” at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25, and restricts visitation at all long-term care facilities.

In other news

  • Asheville-based nonprofit Hola Community Arts is collaborating with local governments and public health officials to provide Spanish-language communication about COVID-19. According to a March 23 press release, holacarolina.com saw a 260% spike in traffic over the past three days related to its coronavirus resources.
  • The Asheville Police Department is closing all of its buildings to the public until further notice to slow the spread of COVID-19. The closures include the downtown municipal building and all district resource centers.
  • Tampa-based McKibbon Hospitality, which operates several Asheville-area hotels, announced in a March 20 press release that it would establish a fund for employees laid off in response to COVID-19. All who qualify will receive $200 every two weeks for 90 days beginning Friday, April 3; the press release did not note how many former employees would be eligible.
  • The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners has called a special meeting at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 24, in Room 326 at 200 College St. to discuss responses to COVID-19. The meeting will be livestreamed through the county Facebook page and via BCTV.
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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Green Scene editor and a reporter for Mountain Xpress. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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