By Dave Russell


Jackson County Department of Public Health Deputy Director Melissa McKnight gave the Sylva town board a COVID-19 update at last Thursday’s meeting.

The county’s death toll stands at 47, with about 80 percent of those occurring in residents 65 and older, McKnight told the board.

Responding to community concerns that the JCDPH was not saving vaccines for Jackson County residents, McKnight said “we’re just happy to get vaccines in as many arms as possible.”

The health department is obligated to vaccinate anyone who asks and fits the guidelines.

“Our vaccine allocation comes from the federal government, it is a federal resource, a federal supply, which means it has no boundaries,” McKnight said. “So any vaccine that comes to Jackson County or to our health department we can give to anyone and we are required to give to anyone who asks for it.”

The health department has vaccinated people from South Carolina, Florida and other N.C. counties, she said.

On Tuesday the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced new guidelines saying providers no longer have to offer vaccines to those who don’t live, work or spend “significant time” in North Carolina.

The JCDPH drive-thru clinics at the Department on Aging can service about 100-125 people per hour, she said.

“The clinics are not the hard part,” she said. “It’s making sure that we have access and are able to adequately schedule those in our community who are eligible.”

At one point, the pre-registration list had more than 7,600 residents who had signed up, she said.

“As you can imagine, when we were receiving anywhere from zero to 300 vaccines per week, we knew that getting through that list of 7,600 was going to be a huge undertaking,” she said.

As soon as vaccine arrives, the health department gets it in arms, she said.

“The state has told us that we have to prove that we are able to vaccinate quickly and our future allocations are based on how quickly we can clear the shelves, which is what they call it,” McKnight said.

As of the meeting, about 3,000 people in Groups 1 and 2 remained on the list, she said. Group 1 includes any health care workers or staff who come into contact with patients as well as residents and staff of long-term care facilities. Group 2 includes anyone who is at least 65 years old.

The department plans to vaccinate as many of them as possible before moving on to Group 3. Gov. Roy Cooper gave providers the go-ahead to move to Group 3 on Feb. 24.

Other providers might begin vaccinating Group 3 at that time, but the health department is going to whittle down its current list.

“We’re looking forward to more vaccine, first of all, and then more community providers able to help ease the burden,” she said. “Because if I am being frank, it has been a long year and we still have a lot more work to do. We’re pretty tired, I’m not going to lie.”

The clinic in the works at Western Carolina University would follow the health department’s lead on the order of vaccinations.

“WCU has committed to assisting JCDPH in vaccinating those who are awaiting appointments on our pre-registration list,” McKnight said Tuesday.

The health department received 300 doses of the vaccine for the week of Feb. 15-19, she said.

The health department tries not to have leftover vaccines to either waste or hurriedly get into an arm.

“Our main goals during clinics are to vaccinate those eligible as quickly, efficiently and safely as possible and to assure that we don’t let any doses go to waste,” she said. “Sometimes we have extra doses at the end of a clinic, which occurs if someone doesn’t show up for their appointment or if we are able to draw up an extra dose from the 10-dose vial. This instance happen very rarely and, if it does occur, it is usually only a few doses. If this does happen, we are mindful of our volunteers’ time and vaccinate those we are able to reach quickly. We don’t maintain a separate list.”

To avoid waste, McKnight asks the community to keep the appointments.

“If you can’t make your appointment or if you’ve scheduled an appointment elsewhere, let us know so that we can provide a vaccine to someone else who is waiting,” she said. “We are ironing out a new process scheduling appointments for the future and additional groups. Stay tuned.”

The county’s death toll currently stands at 47. The rate of COVID-19 infection in Jackson County continues its downward trajectory, increasing only 1.7 percent since last Tuesday.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, DHHS reported 3,159 total cases in Jackson, an increase of 52 from 3,107 a week earlier.

The county has had 719 cases per 10,000 residents, up from 707 last week. According to the DHHS dashboard, Jackson County has a testing positivity rate of 6.8 percent. That’s just below the state rate of 7.4 percent.

DHHS on Tuesday reported 826,340 statewide cases (up from 802,065 last week) and 10,562 deaths (up from 10,046 last week) in the state.

Nationwide, cases numbered 27,542,421 (up from 26,939,515 last week) and 485,070 deaths (up from 463,659) as of Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

The Jackson County Public Schools dashboard ( tracks positive cases among staff and students. There have been 112 student cases, up eight from last week’s 104. Seven of those cases are active, including one at Fairview Elementary School, four at Scotts Creek Elementary School and two at Smoky Mountain High School as of Wednesday morning. There are no active staff cases.

Since reporting began July 1, Western Carolina University reports 594 total cases among students, employees and contractors, up from 583 last week.

Since Jan. 1, there have been 83 student cases, 34 employee cases and three contractor cases, a total of 120, up from 109 last week.

The campus has 95 quarantine beds, with three in use currently. Off campus, 47 students are in quarantine/isolation.

According to the DHHS dashboard, 4,603 first doses of the vaccine have been given in Jackson County, with 1,088 people having received both doses.