Asheville residents may have hunkered down for the holidays under a blanket of snow and ice, but across the region, the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. In Buncombe County, new dining and mass gathering restrictions are set to change the game for local business owners; at the state level, hospitalizations and test positivity rates remain high.
Here’s what you may have missed over the Christmas holiday.
New local restrictions begin Saturday
On Dec. 23, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman and Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer announced new local restrictions to help slow the rate of infection. Starting Saturday, Jan. 2, indoor restaurant capacity will be reduced to 30%. The indoor mass gathering limit for social events will drop to two individuals from outside a household unit, down from the previous 10-person limit. All previous local and state COVID-19 protocols, including the statewide face covering mandate, will remain in effect.
The move came a day after state health authorities released an update to the COVID-19 County Alert system that tracks viral spread across North Carolina. As of Dec. 22, 92 counties were classified “red,” indicating critical community spread, or “orange,” marking substantial community spread. For the first time, Buncombe County was classified orange, joining Cherokee, Clay, Macon, Haywood and Yancey counties in Western North Carolina.
Elsewhere in WNC, Henderson, Transylvania, Jackson, Swain, McDowell, Rutherford and Mitchell counties are all classified as red. Madison, Graham and Polk are three of only eight counties across the state ranked in the lowest “yellow” tier.
The current statewide executive order, which established a daily curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., will expire on Friday, Jan. 8. Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to announce any changes next week.
COVID-19 hospitalizations near 3,200
Before the holidays, Dr. David Ellis, the chief medical officer at Pardee UNC Health Care in Hendersonville, shared a stark warning with the community. “The wave of COVID-19 patients expected eight months ago has arrived,” he wrote in a Dec. 22 statement. “Over the past week, we’ve seen our case counts rise dramatically and we don’t see that changing in the near future.”
So far, his prediction has rung true. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported 3,192 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Dec. 27, with 96% of hospitals reporting, setting yet another state record.
As of Dec. 28, Mission Health reported that 125 COVID-19 patients were receiving care across its Western North Carolina facilities. Mission Hospital in Asheville is currently housing 102 of those patients, said hospital spokesperson Nancy Lindell; eight are at Blue Ridge Regional Hospital, seven are at Angel Medical Center, five are at Mission Hospital McDowell and three are at Transylvania Regional Hospital.
Statewide, 14.7% of COVID-19 tests reported on Dec. 26 (the latest date with available data) returned positive — a figure significantly higher than the 5% target health officials are aiming for. In Buncombe County, the positivity rate on Dec. 26 fell at 8.7%.
Much like after Thanksgiving, health officials expect daily COVID-19 figures to reflect reporting and testing delays from the Christmas holiday. Inflated single-day spikes in cases may occur as data reporting catches up with the holiday backlog.
Vaccine rollout continues across WNC
A new online dashboard to track the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is now publicly available through the NCDHHS. As of Dec. 22, 24,500 people had received a first dose of the Moderna or the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, including 237 health care workers in Buncombe County.
AdventHealth Hendersonville received its first shipment of the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 22, joining Mission Health and Pardee UNC Health Care in vaccinating frontline healthcare workers. The same day, Buncombe County Health and Human Services began administering 700 doses of the Moderna vaccine to paramedics, firefighters and public health staff working at COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites.
Frontline health care workers and the staff and residents at long-term care facilities are first in line for vaccines in North Carolina. According to the state’s vaccination plan, adults with two or more chronic conditions and those at highest risk of exposure will go next. More information can be found here.
In other news
- Restaurants, breweries and bars are now allowed to sell mixed drinks for take-out or delivery, thanks to a new state executive order introducing alternatives to onsite consumption. The order only applies to establishments holding certain permits from the ABC Commission; eligible businesses must follow all protocols outlined in the guidelines.
- The North Carolina eviction moratorium on residential evictions for nonpayment of rent will be extended through Sunday, Jan. 31. Additional information is coming soon, said the governor’s office.
- Due to a growing number of COVID-19 cases, the Henderson County Department of Public Health announced it will prioritize high-risk case investigations for contact tracing. The current caseloads make it “increasingly unlikely” that tracers can contact each positive case in a timely manner, officials acknowledged in a Dec. 21 statement. All positive cases should continue to follow isolation guidelines as warranted.