Stacie Saunders, Buncombe County’s public health director, stopped short of recommending a new state of emergency in her COVID-19 briefing to the Board of Commissioners on Aug. 3. But due to the rapid local spread of the coronavirus’s delta variant, she said, county health officials are asking all residents — regardless of vaccination status — to resume wearing masks in indoor public spaces.
That recommendation aligns with the guidance of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which called for universal indoor masking “in areas of substantial or high transmission” on July 27. Saunders noted that Buncombe had seen over 150 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the last week, well over the CDC’s high transmission threshold of 100 new cases per 100,000 per week.
At least 90% of the county’s new cases, Saunders continued, have been reported in residents who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The new cases also skew younger than was observed earlier in the pandemic, with an average age of just over 39.
“Vaccination is working to protect our elders, who eagerly got vaccinated,” Saunders said. She noted that over 80% of Buncombe residents 65 or older had received at least one shot, compared with 55% of the total county population.
Unlike areas such as Denver and New York City, Buncombe is not currently considering a vaccine mandate for private-sector workers or patrons of indoor venues. But Michael Frue, the county’s senior staff attorney, said management was developing a policy for county employees that would require either vaccination or a weekly negative COVID-19 test. The proposed approach mirrors the one introduced for state cabinet department employees by Gov. Roy Cooper on July 29 through Executive Order 224.
Further measures for the general public, Saunders said, may be introduced if Buncombe’s COVID-19 test positivity rate, hospitalization numbers and deaths worsen. She called for all eligible residents who remain unvaccinated to receive their shot through the county’s Health and Human Services office at 40 Coxe Ave. or another local health care provider.
“Please honor the sacrifices that our emergency services personnel, our nurses, our restaurant workers, our business owners, our teachers, our school-age kiddos have all made by getting your vaccine,” Saunders said. “Please don’t squander the hard work of our entire community by choosing to let the virus use our bodies.”
Commissioners appoint comprehensive plan committee
As the county prepares to develop its first comprehensive plan, commissioners appointed 23 residents to a committee that will help steer the work. The document, required by state law to be adopted by next July, will guide Buncombe’s long-term land use and infrastructure decisions.
Board members evaluated 111 applicants for the committee, aiming to pick representatives with experience in a range of fields, from housing and transportation to food security and resilience. The following people were chosen: Jennifer Billstrom, Kareen Boncales, Brandon Bryant, Kit Cramer, Ron Dumas, Kevan Frazier, Andrea Golden, Alan Hall, Damon Hearne, Iliana Hernandez, Chris Joyell, Karl Koon, Debbie Lane, Rich Lee, Christopher Link, Robin Merrell, Sara Nichols, Megan Robinson, Bruce Snelson, Dede Styles, Robert Thomas, Nancy Waldrop and Virginia Ward.