BOONE — Spanning three days starting on March 16, AppHealthCare received approximately 260 phone calls from community members inquiring about COVID-19, according to Health Director Jennifer Greene.
Greene approached the Watauga County Board of Commissioners on March 17 with an update on the pandemic response. She said information and response about the situation was moving at a quick pace.
While AppHealthCare prepares for public health emergencies on an ongoing basis, Greene said public health officials started watching the presence of COVID-19 after the first cases were reported at the end of December. The agency started more specific planning for the virus in January and the process really escalated in February, according to Greene.
“We’ve been telling people to buckle up because I think we’re in for a marathon,” Greene said. “We’re having to rapidly adapt, and I think it’s stretching all of us.”
Half of the calls AppHealthCare received were from citizens with questions or requesting more information; the other half were others who were sick and had been referred by their health care provider to talk to a nurse. Greene said the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services offers a hotline to providers and health departments to give guidance on communicable disease. She added that the state hotline is receiving more than 600 calls a day from providers around the state concerning the issue.
As Watauga confirmed its second case of COVID-19 on March 18, Greene said the best way to handle the situation is by limiting interaction with others. If someone is sick or experiencing symptoms or signs of COVID-19, Greene said it is recommended that the person seek out care from their medical provider by calling them first. If the person is unable to see their health care provider, then they are welcome to call AppHealthCare.
“We are trying our best to route people to their health care provider first and then to us,” Greene said.
In order to be tested, Greene said a person must meet certain criteria — including close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, or having a fever and respiratory symptoms and a negative flu test.
When given a COVID-19 test, a person is automatically given isolation guidance and instructed to stay home until they are given their test results. The test results are available between 24 and 72 hours on average, according to Greene.
“We might see that increase based on volume of tests,” Greene said.
When a community member is awaiting test results, AppHealthCare checks in with them to monitor symptoms and ask if there are any needs — such as food or medications. If there’s a close contact with a confirmed case, Greene said those people are given quarantine orders as well.
Commissioner Billy Kennedy asked Greene if there had been any signs of community transmission. Greene replied by saying that the state epidemiologist believed that there was likely some community transmission in N.C. that has not been seen locally yet as local cases were related to travel or close contact.
“We have no data to support that there is community transmission yet,” Greene said to the commissioners. “The days ahead will tell us more about that. What will tell us if there’s more transmission is when we start seeing cases pop up and there’s not really a way to link it back to a reason.”
Kennedy also asked if there were any effects of getting tests or treatment to those with Medicaid or the uninsured at that time. Greene said that some private insurers were now providing support for COVID-19 testing.
“It’s very important that we give options to everyone regardless of their ability to pay and regardless of insurance status,” Greene said. “As long as we have supplies to do that, that’s what I want to make sure that we do.”
Greene also asked the public to be responsible community members and not to share unconfirmed rumors. She said it’s important to make sure the community is aware of the situation, but is not panicked or scared.
“We want everyone to have a plan and have supplies at home, but think of your neighbor,” Greene said. “When you’re going to the store, do you need that much toilet paper? We need each person to be responsible and help us.”
The commissioners then heard from Sanitation Operations Services Director Rex Buck, who approached the board with engineering and design service plans for improvements to county facilities at Landfill Drive. The improvements will address the compliance and liability issues at the location that were discussed at the board’s budget retreat in February.
The commissioners approved $25,800 for improvements to the location’s trailer storage area, $74,700 for Innovation Drive improvements and $61,160 for the county’s sediment basin. According to County Manager Deron Geouque’s agenda comments, adequate funds were budgeted to cover the services for these improvements. Requests would be forthcoming in the future to approve construction.
The commissioners also approved a four-year lease renewal for Watauga County Arts Council’s occupancy at the Blue Ridge ArtSpace. The board approved the lease renewal in February, and formally adopted the contract at the March 17 meeting after the lease had been properly advertised.
After coming to a general consensus on approval of the Watauga County Community Recreation Center membership and rental fees during the February retreat, the commissioners also voted on March 17 to formally approve the fee structure.