“This week has been met with highs and lows,” shared Stacie Saunders, Buncombe County’s health director, at the start of a Dec. 17 press conference on the local state of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have rejoiced over the news of a COVID-19 vaccine making its way to North Carolina, and we have lamented the rise of COVID-19 cases in our community.”
On Friday, Dec. 18, Mission Health plans to begin administering its first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, said Dr. William Hathaway, the hospital system’s chief medical officer. Mission is currently in possession of 3,000 doses; if the Moderna vaccine is approved for emergency distribution, Hathaway said he expects to receive an additional 1,300 doses, although the final count will depend on state allocations. Earlier in the week, Pardee UNC Health Care also began vaccinating hospital staff.
But while there’s light at the end of the proverbial COVID-19 tunnel, Hathaway said, Western North Carolina residents cannot let down their guard. Over the last week, the percent of positive COVID-19 tests has risen to 7.8% in Buncombe County; the county’s daily COVID-19 case counts now average 100 or higher, Saunders said.
The number of patients with COVID-19 at Mission Hospital now numbers over 80 on any given day, Hathaway continued — more than double the 30 to 40 coronavirus patients the system cared for at a time throughout November. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services also reported yet another record hospitalization tally, with 2,804 COVID-19 patients receiving care on Dec. 16, the last day of available data.
Mission Hospital and its intensive care unit continue to have sufficient capacity, Hathaway said, but if the acceleration of patients doubles again, it will be “very hard” for staff to adjust. According to NCDHHS data, there are 482 empty and staffed inpatient hospital beds and 79 empty and staffed ICU beds among hospitals in the Mountain Area Healthcare Preparedness Coalition, which covers the state’s westernmost counties.
“What we repeatedly said early in the pandemic — and it’s sort of faded from the lexicon — is that we must flatten the curve,” Hathaway said. “And we must flatten the curve over the post-holiday season. This is the gift we can give to our health care workers and our health systems: Behaving the way that we know we should, despite the temptation not to do so.”
NCDHHS deploys rapid COVID-19 tests to local K-12 schools
Asheville City and Buncombe County Schools are participating in a pilot program to test certain students and staff for COVID-19, NCDHHS announced Dec. 17.
According to a statement from NCDHHS, more than 50,000 rapid antigen COVID-19 tests have been sent to 17 participating school districts and 11 charter schools across the state. The tests will be used to screen students and employees who exhibit symptoms of the coronavirus or are identified as close contacts of someone who has tested positive, state officials said.
To be selected for the pilot program, school districts must offer in-person instruction and confirm to local health departments that each participating school can obtain parental consent for students before testing. Schools must also maintain adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, have trained personnel to administer the tests and quickly report test results to local public health officials.
“When kids and teachers enter the school at the beginning of the day, they’re being screened for COVID. The idea is that if someone shows symptoms, they can be tested and get results within 15 minutes,” Saunders explained. “This is just one of the tools we as a county and the school systems are looking at to keep our students, families and the community safe.”
In other news
- In an effort to protect patients and staff from increased community transmission of COVID-19, the Charles George VA Medical Center has announced restricted visitation policies. Visitors are prohibited from entering the facility except to provide medical care, support patient care activities or visit under urgent circumstances, including grave illness or the imminent death of a family member.
- A holiday celebration at First Baptist Church in Hendersonville over the weekend of Dec. 5 has infected at least 75 people with COVID-19. Local health officials are working to identify close contacts of the individuals associated with the cluster.
- NCDHHS will offer more than 300 no-cost COVID-19 testing sites over the next two weeks to facilitate testing ahead of holiday travel. In addition to the regular testing sites in Buncombe County, free pop-up testing will be available Friday, Dec. 18, in the parking lot of Home Depot in Arden, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. More information can be found here.