At a March 21 press conference, public health officials from Buncombe and Henderson counties announced that one person in each of those jurisdictions had tested positive for COVID-19 as of that morning. Although a case of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus had previously been reported in a visitor to Buncombe County on March 16, the two newly announced cases are the first to be confirmed in residents of Buncombe and its surrounding counties.
Dr. William Hathaway, chief medical officer at Mission Health, said that both patients had come through Mission facilities for testing but would not comment further regarding their health status. The health directors of Buncombe and Henderson counties — Dr. Jennifer Mullendore and Steve Smith, respectively — said the patients are in isolation and that health workers are identifying and notifying their close contacts.
No further details were provided about the whereabouts, activities or timelines of the cases under investigation. The press conference was streamed via Facebook, with no members of the media permitted to attend in person, and officials did not take questions via phone or internet comment during the event.
Neither Buncombe nor Henderson officials announced new measures to slow the transmission of COVID-19. However, Smith emphasized that the confirmation of a case in a local resident gave new urgency to existing measures such as business closures, limits on mass gatherings and social distancing.
“I want to be blunt and frank about this point,” Smith said. “I’ve been asking you about this and I’ve been recommending this. But today, I am telling you to stay home if you are sick.”
Van Taylor Jones, Buncombe County’s emergency services director, noted that the community would “see changes in our first responders and how they answer 911 calls.” He said that county staff would make increased use of telemedicine to maintain capacity in emergency rooms and health clinics; ambulances, he added, will “only transport the most critical and acute patients,” but did not provide further details about those criteria.
And Fletcher Tove, the county’s emergency preparedness coordinator, urged Buncombe residents to remain calm and comply with public health directives over the next several weeks. He reiterated the need for regular handwashing, cleaning of high-contact surfaces and maintaining social distance to slow the spread of the virus.
“We often speak about how the threat of COVID-19 is unprecedented. But what’s also unprecedented is the way in which we are uniting as a local and global community,” Tove said. “This affects all of us, and this is the time to come together as One Buncombe.”