Health officials field questions on COVID-19

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More than 150 community members called in to listen to Highlands-Cashiers Hospital CEO Tom Neal host a virtual town hall meeting Thursday evening.
Neal and Mission CMO Bill Hathaway answered questions from the Highlands and Cashiers communities about COVID-19 and its impact on the area.
In an opening statement, Neal, who came to Highlands early this year, said Highlands-Cashiers Hospital is here to serve. 
“As much as you need us, this hospital (…) we need you,” Neal said. 
So far, more than 100 patients have been assessed locally for the COVID-19 virus, Hathaway said. 
“Fortunately, we have had no positive test results to date,” he said.
While the COVID-19 virus hasn’t appeared full force in Jackson County yet, Neal said it’s coming and the community needs to be prepared. 
“You cannot over-prepare for this,” he said. “We have been a little late coming to the party. We know it’s going to come and we’re working hard to prepare.”
A total of five cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the western North Carolina area, including one confirmed case in Jackson County. Two more cases were reported in Watauga County, one in Macon County and one in Cherokee County. 
Hathaway warned residents to stay at home.
“State of emergencies are not an over-reaction in any way,” Neal said. “As best we can we will be as prepared as we can. Take care of yourself  and don’t become a patient.”
Neal advised residents to remain informed and to stay away from large gatherings. 
Terms and phrases such as “social distancing” and “shelter in place” have now become part of the vernacular of the American public.
“These are unprecedented times,” he said. 
So far, testing for COVID-19 has been reserved for those who are the most sick. 
“Widespread testing has left hospitals short-handed in regard to materials,” Hathaway said. “We are concerned for the most vulnerable, but it can affect anybody.”
As medical officials conduct COVID-19 testing, they have already gone through a staggering amount of medical supplies.
“We have limited supplies,” Neal said. “Testing is done in full protective gear.”
Mortality rates average between 1-2 percent of the infected population, Neal said, but the percentages can be misleading.
“While the mortality rate for those around 20-years-of-age may be less than one percent, the mortality rate is above 10 percent for those more than 80 years old,” he said.
Neal said the hospital was as well-equipped in Asheville to handle “this great unknown,” as anyone.
“If you are not exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus, you won’t be tested,” he said.
With concerns over the spreading of the COVID-19 virus closing schools, restaurants, businesses and canceling all gatherings involving more than 10 people, face-to-face meetings and public forums have been shuttered in favor of something more isolated. Neal sought to do his part in easing public concerns and getting the word out to neighbors. 
Highlands Mayor Patrick Taylor thanked HCA, Mission Health and Highlands Cashiers Hospital for its efforts. 
Neal said COVID-19 will be a part of the American lifestyle for some time as there was no short term fix. 
“There are no vaccines available at present,” he said.
Despite the downturn in new COVID-19 cases in China, which first appeared 10 weeks ago, COVID-19 could affect the international community for the next 12-18 months. 
“Look at other countries and how long their numbers are projecting to see how long this will last,” Neal said. “I would prefer longer than shorter. This way we can implement procedures that could be sustained in combating this virus.”
For local residents, Neal said the best thing they could do would be to continue to practice good hygiene. 
“Utilize good hand hygiene,” he said. “Wash your hands. Don’t touch things. And don’t touch your face.”