By Brooke Randle and Virginia Daffron
With Gov. Roy Cooper’s March 14 announcement that all North Carolina public schools would close for at least two weeks beginning March 16 in response to the coronavirus outbreak, things got a lot more real for many local residents.
That decision followed March 12 declarations of local states of emergency in Buncombe County and the city of Asheville and behind a statewide emergency declaration two days earlier. President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for the entire U.S. on March 13.
Today, the effects of the public school closure and a mandatory statewide ban on gatherings of 100 or more people are rippling through the community. And the county health department confirmed that an individual with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, visited Buncombe County March 10-13.
Health officials’ understanding of the outbreak’s extent remains incomplete due to limited patient testing. During a March 16 press conference, Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, Buncombe County’s interim health director, said that the county had tested 10 individuals as of 10:30 a.m. that day and that an additional 70 tests had been conducted by local health care providers.
Mullendore said that the county health department had up to 25 test kits available and that only people experiencing fever and lower respiratory symptoms such as cough would be eligible. Dr. William Hathaway, chief medical officer at Mission Health, said that Mission had “many more test kits available” but did not know the exact number. Following a test, results may not be available for up to four days.
Fletcher Tove, the county’s emergency preparedness coordinator, encouraged restaurants and bars to offer takeout and delivery only to limit the spread of the illness — and to prepare for expanded mitigation measures as the virus impacts Buncombe County.
“We are acutely aware of the impacts and secondary impacts that decisions like these have on our local independent businesses and local economy, but in light of these unprecedented events, it is in our community’s best interest to follow guidance from the [federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], state Department of Health and Human Services and our local health officials to limit the congregation of people,” Tove said.
Tove noted that public health officials were working with Asheville Independent Restaurants, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to determine if or when to mandate closures. For now, he said, the county was asking for voluntary cooperation among business owners. “This can mean the difference between life and death for some of our most vulnerable family, friends and neighbors,” he continued.
Asheville City Schools: The district said it would begin remote instruction and meal delivery on Tuesday, March 17. Breakfast and lunch will be delivered to Pisgah View, Hillcrest, Klondyke and Livingston apartment communities, and Isaac Dickson Elementary will offer a drive-through option.
Buncombe County Schools: Student meal service for breakfast and lunch began Monday at schools throughout the district. Food boxes for adults are also available for pickup. The system said it will notify families upon the launch of BCS Virtual Days and that students will be provided with a device to continue education from home. Parents who are experiencing difficulty reaching any of the meal pickup locations or are seeking academic or technical support should call 828-350-6000.
YMCA of Western North Carolina: All YMCA facilities closed to the public on March 16, and all YMCA programs were suspended. The organization said it would provide emergency child care for the children of public school staff on March 16 at its Beaverdam facility, and that it was in discussions with county emergency managers about providing child care for health care workers and emergency responders while schools are closed.
N.C. Court system: Most court functions are closed in response to the outbreak, N.C. Chief Justice Cheri Beasley said in a statement. “All civil and criminal district and superior court matters must be postponed unless they are absolutely essential for constitutional or public safety reasons,” she wrote. More information is available at avl.mx/70p.
Buncombe County Detention Facility: The public lobby of the Buncombe County Detention Facility is closed, and only essential staff may enter the jail. The Magistrates’ Office lobby and City County Identification Bureau remain open to the public.
On March 12, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman said the county’s declaration of a local emergency would make its six municipalities, as well as unincorporated areas, eligible for state and federal resources when they become available. He also said the declaration would strengthen coordination among local governments as they respond to and communicate about the impact of the virus.
Newman also recommended against attending or hosting nonessential public gatherings. On March 15, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance that all in-person events of over 50 people be suspended for the next eight weeks.
Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder said that the county is also activating its emergency operations center as a way of uniting government leaders, school officials and members of the medical community for daily communications and coordination efforts. The Buncombe commissioners are scheduled to vote on $250,000 of emergency funding on March 17.
Mullendore said that people with critical symptoms such as severe fever, coughing and difficulty breathing should call 911 and communicate with a dispatcher, who will determine whether hospitalization or home care is necessary. Those experiencing milder symptoms are advised to contact their primary care provider by phone and avoid entering medical offices or hospitals without prior instruction.
Residents who do not have a primary care provider may call an urgent care clinic or Buncombe County Health and Human Services to speak with one of the agency’s communicable disease nurses. Mullendore stressed that people should not call the local agency unless no other health care provider is available due to the high volume of calls that the department is receiving.
To reach Buncombe County Health and Human Services Communicable Disease Control, call 828-250-5109. Nonemergency questions about coronavirus preparation can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Further information is available through the Buncombe County website.
This post was updated at 2:43 p.m.