The Latest: This week in COVID-19 news

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The number of coronavirus cases in Jackson County continues to rise as North Carolina stares down the next expected step forward in Governor Roy Cooper’s phase-in plan for the state’s reopening.

By the numbers

Jackson County has had 77 cases of COVID-19 reported in the community since the first two cases were discovered on April 12. The number of cases remained relatively steady through June, but since the beginning of the month 41 new cases have been discovered in the county.

On Monday, June 22 there were 12 new cases reported, the highest single-day total so far in Jackson County. Deputy Health Director Melissa McKnight said the spike on Monday was due to a combination of factors, including a testing backlog from the weekend and further community spread.

“We report cases once each case has been vetted by the health department,” McKnight said. “There were three days of data that came out on Monday, as well as the fact that we’re seeing more and more cases. On our dashboard, there is a historical graph that shows cases over time and we are seeing more cases be identified. It’s due to more testing, but there’s also more spread in our community.”

Statewide, the numbers of new confirmed cases, deaths and hospitalizations continue to increase as the virus spreads more widely throughout North Carolina. As of June 23, there have been 54,453 confirmed cases in North Carolina out of 773,828 tests completed. There have been 1,251 deaths in the state, and there were 915 people hospitalized by COVID-19 in North Carolina as of Tuesday afternoon.

The United States has had 2.36 million of the world’s 9.1 million confirmed cases, with more than 122,000 Americans having died from COVID-19 complications as of Tuesday. Of those reported cases, only 733,000 had reported a full recovery in that same time window.

The road forward

On June 24, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced the state would remain on phase two of the three-tiered reopening schedule issued at the outset of the pandemic for three more weeks.

Cooper cited rising infection rates and other key indicators in his decision to extend the "Safer at Home" order.

“North Carolina is relying on the data and the science to lift restrictions responsibly, and right now our increasing numbers show we need to hit the pause button while we work to stabilize our trends,” said Governor Cooper. “We need to all work together so we can protect our families and neighbors, restore our economy, and get people back to work and our children back to school.”

In addition to extending the second phase of the reopening plan, Cooper issued an order requiring face coverings when in public places where physical distancing is not possible. Certain businesses must also require customers and employees to wear face coverings, including retail establishments, restaurants, personal care and grooming businesses, state government agencies, transportation workers and users and workers in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, meat processing and healthcare settings.

“As the leader of the state’s largest health system, I am pro-health and also 100 percent pro-business. In fact, the two are inextricably connected and I’m very proud of the way business leaders and health experts are working together to keep our economy strong,” said Eugene A. Woods, President and CEO of Atrium Health in a press release issued by the governor's office. “Medical science says to reduce the spread of COVID-19 masking works, and my sincere hope is that all the people of North Carolina can join forces to make wearing a mask not something we feel we have to do – but something that we want to do to keep each other, our neighbors, our children and our loved ones healthy and safe.”

To date, Jackson County has followed in lockstep with the governors orders on reopening businesses and relaxing restrictions, but the Jackson County Department of Public Health has been engaged in ongoing talks with county leaders about what a pathway forward for the county might look like pending the new information Cooper is expected to release.

“At this time we’re following what the governor decrees,” McKnight said. “Yesterday, (North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary) Dr. Cohen announced that none of the numbers they are tracking are trending in the correct direction at this time.”

Those four key metrics – the number of new cases, the syndromic spread in the community, the percentage of tests returning positive results and the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations – have been the basis for the state’s decisionmaking on the reopening plan thus far, with the initial governor’s decree requiring a leveling out or downward trend in all four metrics before the next phase could be reached.

Despite this guidance, the state moved forward into phase two of the plan in late May with two of the metrics on an upward trajectory.

Southern Jackson spread

The Jackson County Public Health Department will not release information on individual COVID-19 cases in the interest of protecting patient privacy, but new “clusters” of cases can be reported in the interest of the public health. A cluster in this case is defined as five or more cases of COVID-19 with a shared root cause, whether it be a business or an event or even a family getting sick simultaneously.

To date, there has been only one cluster reported in Jackson County – a worksite at Western Carolina University which was reported early on in the virus’ outbreak. There have been no clusters reported in southern Jackson County.

Regarding community concerns about extensive spread and adherence to social distancing and mask policies, McKnight said it’s important to understand the challenges businesses face in adapting to changing circumstances and, above all else, to act in one’s best interests when making decisions about non-essential business and trips for essential supplies.

“I think people are doing the best they can,” she said. “If you’re shopping at a place where you don’t feel comfortable shopping, the best course of action is to probably patronize somewhere else.”

The county is also continuing to encourage residents to follow the three W’s – wash your hands, wear a mask and wait six feet apart.”

New data tools

Jackson County has released a new tool to track COVID-19 data – the Community Impact Dashboard.

The dashboard provides data insights for all of the metrics being tracked for the state’s phase-in plan, as well as historical views of the virus’ spread to date and archived versions of the county’s COVID-19 data releases from the past two months.

Those interested in staying as up-to-date as possible on COVID-19 numbers in Jackson County can find the new tool online at health.jacksonnc.org/covid19-data-dashboard.