By Dave Russell

Jackson County set a new one-day record for reports of COVID-19 cases Monday and the county reported death number 11 on Tuesday.

The Jackson County Department of Public Health said 101 cases of COVID-19 were reported to the agency. Monday reports are often highest of the week, as they encapsulate cases from the previous Saturday and Sunday. The new reported cases top the previous Monday’s 95. The county’s third-highest one-day total, 62, was reported Tuesday. 

An outbreak at another of Sylva’s long-term care facilities makes up a large part of that number. Three of the Sylva’s facilities had reported outbreaks as of last week, with Morningstar Assisted Living the exception.

The Jackson County Department of Public Health on Tuesday reported an outbreak at Morningstar, a 55-unit nursing center off Racking Cove Road.

As of Tuesday, Morningstar reported 11 positive cases among staff and 26 residents.

JCDPH is working to identify any additional close contacts of these individuals. Based on the information provided, county health officials will determine the close contacts’ risk of exposure and what additional measures are needed, such as quarantine and/or testing.

Upon notification of the first positive case, Morningstar coordinated with JCDPH to determine next steps. Morningstar coordinated testing for all staff and residents in the facility. Positive residents were immediately isolated, and staff and residents will continue to be monitored for symptoms and re-tested as appropriate. The investigation is ongoing.

Last week, Skyland Care Center reported 15 staff and 24 resident cases. The Hermitage reported 14 staff cases and 46 resident cases. Vero Health and Rehab reported four staff cases and 14 resident cases.

The person who died was between 50-64 years old with underlying health conditions, and was not associated with any of the long-term care facility outbreaks, JCDPH Deputy Director Melissa McKnight said.

Cases increased in Jackson County by 14.6 percent since last Tuesday.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, the health department reported 1,849 total cases among full-time residents, an increase of 236 cases from 1,613 a week earlier.

The county currently has 318 people isolating due to COVID-19 infection, the most since the pandemic started in March. There were 174 last week.

The county has had 417 cases per 10,000 residents, up from 358 last week according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

According to the DHHS dashboard Wednesday morning, Jackson County has a testing positivity rate of 17.6 percent, the fourth highest in the state.

DHHS on Tuesday reported 446,601 statewide cases (up from 404,032 last week) and 5,881 total deaths (up from 5,605 last week) in the state.

Nationwide, cases numbered 16,317,892 (up from 14,823,129 last week) and deaths 300,032 (up from 282,785) as of Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

The Jackson County Public Schools dashboard (jcpsnc.org/covid) tracks positive cases among staff and students. There have been 37 student cases, with seven active as of Wednesday morning. The active cases are at Cullowhee Valley Elementary School (two), Scotts Creek Elementary School (one), Fairview Elementary School (two) and Smoky Mountain High School (two). There is one active staff case in the school system, that one at Blue Ridge, and 16 total staff cases reported.

The world is universally suffering from pandemic fatigue, probably no one more than healthcare workers.

“Our agency has been responding to the pandemic since early March,” Jackson County Director of Public Health Shelley Carraway said. “Our response has increased dramatically since late October as cases go up and we work through outbreaks and clusters.”

Health department staff all had full calendars before the pandemic.

“This work is in addition to all of the mandated services that we continue to provide to our community,” she said. “Needless to say, our staff is worn out – some working nights and most weekends – and know that we still have much to accomplish to keep our community safe, to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to save lives.”

The health department had to bring in contract contact tracing staff to track where COVID-19 patients might have become infected and who they might have exposed to the illness.

“Our team and our healthcare system can get overwhelmed with large influxes of cases like we are seeing right now, post-holiday,” Carraway said. “ We continue to ask our community to make life-saving choices like wearing a mask, washing their hands and waiting six feet apart from one another. We know this is especially hard during the holiday season when it is tradition to be with the ones we love. Please consider their health and wellbeing; postpone holiday gatherings or find ways to gather safely.”

The volume of COVID cases led the department to examine where it can make cuts in service.

“We are constantly assessing our clinic schedule and modifying it as needed,” Carraway said. “This may include reducing the number of appointments and putting a hold on some services.”

The first North Carolinian received the COVID-19 vaccination when a doctor in Charlotte rolled up her sleeve on Monday. The vaccine is rolling out across the country to much fanfare. Newspapers across the country are offering “live updates,” maps to vaccine locations, “fact-checks,” Q&A’s and advice.

The health department is bracing for what Carraway calls “the largest mass vaccination campaign that our country has ever seen.”

At this stage, it is too early to tell when it might be available in Jackson County.

“States will receive a very limited supply of vaccines at first,” Carraway said. “The federal government will determine the number of vaccines each state will receive. The amount of vaccine sent to states will be based on the size of the state’s population.”

As North Carolina gets its first allotments, the vaccines will be distributed to counties based on population.

“Starting the second week, the distribution is expected to be based on county population,” Carraway said. “The state hopes that by early 2021, health departments and community health centers will start vaccinating other adults who are high risk for complications, meaning they have two-plus chronic conditions. As more vaccine becomes available, vaccinations will be offered in a variety of settings to everyone who wants one, including clinics and pharmacies as well as vaccination events in prioritized settings and in the community.”

Vaccines would not bring an end to the 3W’s, she said.

“While experts learn more about the protection that COVID-19 vaccines provide under real-life conditions, it will be important to continue using all the tools available like wearing a mask, washing your hands, and waiting 6 feet apart. We currently have limited information on how the vaccine works in the general population. It’s possible that vaccinated people may still pick up the virus. Just like the flu, they will not be as sick but they could still spread it.”