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Cautious and Concerned

JACKSON – With COVID-19 cases climbing into the triple digits and extra scrutiny focused on a deadly outbreak at a local long-term care facility, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners held an emergency meeting here Wednesday, May 13 to address those concerns.

In keeping with social distancing measures, the meeting was closed for the public to attend in person, but they were able to tune in via telephone or Facebook livestream. Several commissioners also participated in the meeting remotely by phone.

Health Department Director Andy Smith provided an update on the situation in the county.

As of Wednesday’s meeting, he reported a total of 125 positive cases in the county since testing began in mid-March. Seventy-eight of those cases have been deemed “recovered,” and there have been nine “COVID-related” deaths. Smith noted that meant that the deaths were caused by a combination of the virus as well as other complications.

He also reported the county health department has performed over 300 tests so far, and more than 200 additional tests have been done by other local health providers and nearby hospitals.

“We’re testing anyone who wants it,” Smith emphasized. “There is no charge for the test. It’s a nasal swab and it is uncomfortable for a couple of seconds.”

Continuing to recount the facts, Smith reported that Northampton County has had two clusters of cases in long-term care facilities. The initial cluster, first reported in late March at Pine Forest Rest Home in Potecasi, is no longer active. The second facility, Rich Square Health and Rehabilitation, is where seven of the county’s deaths have occurred. Smith said they were working closely with the facility to continue testing residents and staff members.

As of Friday, May 15, that facility has 46 confirmed cases, an increase of three from Tuesday, according to the North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services. Of the 46 cases, 31 were residents and 15 are staff members. All seven of the deaths at that facility were residents.

“Our community transmission is down,” Smith said, explaining that most of the recently confirmed positive cases were contained to the Rich Square facility. “Citizens are listening. They understand what they need to do.”

But he also noted the situation could easily change.

“Overwhelmingly, the majority of cases are still mild,” he concluded his report.

After the presentation, Board Chair Charles Tyner opened the floor for questions from the commissioners.

Commissioner Geneva Faulkner, who represents Rich Square as a part of her district, said she’d heard conflicting information about the outbreak at the facility there. She’d heard people didn’t feel like they could receive tests and that the facility is understaffed.

“I need clear information. I’m really concerned,” she said.

“We are happy to test anybody. All they have to do is call the health department at 252-534-5841,” Smith replied. “And we’ve actively tested any employee at any long-term care facility.”

He said he apologized if people didn’t think they were able to be tested. He also pointed out that sometimes the volume of testing requests meant that some people had to wait a day to be tested. But he stressed that they’re doing as much as they can.

“We’re providing information [when we test people]. We’re calming their fears. We don’t just swab and go on to the next person,” Smith explained.

As for the staffing concerns, Smith said every facility experiencing an outbreak is going to be short staffed, especially because it’s hard to replace people immediately and others may not want to go to work while there are positive cases.

“I actually put in a resource request yesterday,” said Ronnie Storey, who serves as Northampton’s Emergency Management Coordinator.

Storey explained the request for staffing first goes to Raleigh who will then contact facilities like Vidant to help provide more people to work in the facility.

Commissioner Nicole Boone asked if the Rich Square facility had a system in place to make sure people infected with COVID-19 were in a separate area to prevent further spread.

Smith said he had been in communication with the facility and that the dedicated staff there were doing the best they can.

Faulkner also asked if the health department was doing contact tracing in the county to help identity other potential cases.

“We’ve been doing that since day one,” Smith confirmed.

“I believe my questions were answered and my concerns were addressed. Thanks for providing the clarity,” Faulkner said after the discussion concluded.

Other people providing updates at the meeting were Storey along with Northampton’s EMS Director Chuck Joyner and Northampton’s County Manager Charles Jackson.

Both Storey and Joyner reported they had been able to get enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for everyone who needed it right now, though Storey said the national shortage will continue to make it a little more difficult to fill requests in the coming weeks.

“Feeding has been an issue, and will probably continue to be an issue for several more weeks,” Storey also said, but commended both Northampton County Schools and Food Bank of the Albemarle for the different ways they’ve helped to make sure citizens still have enough food.

“I know everybody’s getting frustrated, but we have to continue. We’re this far and we don’t want to slip back,” Storey concluded.

In the county manager’s report, Jackson first thanked everyone for their hard work so far, and extended condolences to the families of the people who have passed away.

Jackson also stated that the state had allocated $566,995 to Northampton County in relief funding for COVID-19 related expenditures. He said those funds would help continue providing services and equipment.

The meeting wrapped up with words of caution from the commissioners to continue to take the situation seriously and follow the guidelines to keep safe.

“Don’t get in a hurry to get out,” said Boone.

Tyner reminded everyone the countywide curfew they established on April 7 is still in effect and will remain so until the virus is under control. He also asked people with questions to contact the experts at the health department instead of relying on secondhand information from friends and neighbors.

“If we all work together, we can certainly overcome this,” he said.