BOONE — Appalachian State University faculty are being asked to prepare to potentially take classes online and other health care centers are on alert following Gov. Roy Cooper’s state of emergency declaration on March 10 as a result of the potential spread of COVID-19 (2019 novel coronavirus).
“The declaration activates the (N.C.) Emergency Operations Center to help agencies coordinate from one location and makes it easier to purchase needed medical supplies, protect consumers from price gouging and increase county health departments’ access to state funds,” the March 10 statement announcing the state of emergency said.
According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the five additional people in Wake County who tested presumptive positive on March 9 for COVID-19 all traveled to Boston in late February to attend a BioGen conference, taking the state total of positive cases to seven.
“These cases are not related to the Wake County individual who tested positive last week,” the N.C. DHHS stated on March 9. “All are in isolation at their respective homes.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, older adults and people who have serious chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease are at a higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. A March 10 N.C. DHHS statement recommends that people at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 avoid large groups of people as much as possible.
“This includes gatherings such as concert venues, conventions, church services, sporting events and crowded social events,” the governor’s statement said. “People at high risk should also avoid cruise travel and non-essential air travel.”
Further, the N.C. DHHS recommends that event organizers urge anyone who is sick to not attend, encourage those who are at high risk to not attend, adopt lenient refund policies for people who are high risk, find ways to give people more physical space to limit close contact as much as possible, encourage attendees to wash hands frequently and clean surfaces with standard cleaners. In addition, all travelers returning from countries and U.S. states impacted by COVID-19 are asked to follow N.C. DHHS guidance on self-monitoring.
“Currently, N.C. DHHS is not recommending pre-emptive school closures,” the March 10 DHHS statement said.
The recommendations are in place through March 31, DHHS said.
Locally, Appalachian State University is currently on spring break, with classes set to resume March 16. However, school officials are drawing up plans.
“At this time, there are no public health recommendations to cancel classes, but faculty may choose to take classes online as they determine best meets the needs of their classes,” ASU’s COVID-19 website stated in information sent out March 9. “While there are currently no cases of COVID-19 in Western North Carolina, anyone who is feeling sick should stay home.”
Faculty guidance was sent out in a March 10 memo to faculty and staff from Mark Ginn, ASU vice provost for undergraduate education.
“Faculty should, to the greatest extent possible, make accommodations (e.g., extended due dates, electronic submission of assignments), for individuals who may be temporarily unable to attend class due to illness,” Ginn’s letter stated.
Ginn also encouraged faculty to explore the use of video-conferencing in the event that courses need to be moved online.
“As a preparation measure, we have asked chairs and/or college offices to make a list of those courses for which it would be difficult or impossible to conduct online and explore options on how those courses could be completed in the event we must suspend face-to-face meetings,” Ginn stated. “Please know we have no directive or immediate plans to do this, but we are prioritizing preparation at this time.”
ASU spokesperson Megan Hayes emphasized that the COVID-19 situation is potentially rapidly changing and that new information could be sent out at any time.
Previously, cleaning frequency had increased across campus, but there are no restrictions on domestic travel or university events, the March 9 information stated.
As of March 10, no COVID-19 cases have been identified in the High Country, but the uncertainty of the disease first discovered in late 2019 has AppHealthCare — the Watauga County district health department — and local senior care centers preparing.
Officials at the Community Care Clinic, a Boone-based health center for under-insured or uninsured people, is requiring patients with respiratory infections to wear a mask when they come into the clinic, according to Executive Director Catherine King.
The clinic has stocked up on personal protection equipment such as masks and gloves in addition to its “large supply” of gowns for providers to wear when interacting with patients who present with upper respiratory symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and sniffling, King said. She added that staff and volunteers were retrained on cleaning procedures to try to be proactive ahead of any infections.
“We’re proceeding cautiously, but business as usual,” King said.
If a COVID-19 case were to present itself in Watauga, King said the clinic would not have the test that would need to be administered to the patient. A patient would need to go to the Watauga Medical Center for the test if they presented with symptoms and the determined protocol is that they should be tested. King said the Community Care Clinic has been in conversation with Blue Cross Blue Shield to discuss options for providing aid for the uninsured, but no firm plans had been set in place.
The N.C. DHHS recommends that all facilities that serve as residential establishments for high-risk persons, such as nursing homes, independent and assisted living facilities, correction facilities and facilities for medically vulnerable children should restrict visitors.
Glenbridge Health and Rehabilitation Center in Boone is restricting entry to its building to necessary employees, federal officials and immediate family members who need to visit for time-sensitive reasons, according to Glenbridge Director of Nursing Alyssa Rainbolt.
“Large groups that are scheduled to visit, as well as large group gatherings, are to be rescheduled,” Rainbolt said in guidance sent to all Glenbridge facilities. “Internal group activities will be restricted and monitored, especially if the facility has residents with respiratory symptoms (those residents will then be in contact isolation per CDC guidance).”
Angie Boignotte, director of the Watauga County Project on Aging, said on March 10 that staff are keeping in contact with AppHealthCare — Watauga County’s district health department — and reinforcing sanitizing practices they’ve already implemented.
“We’re encouraging clients to wash their hands, use hand sanitizer and asking them not to come in if they’re not feeling well,” Boignotte said. “It’s the same policies as always until we’re instructed by the health department to take further action.”
Deerfield Assisted Living Care Director Amanda Berry said on March 10 her facility is continually studying the latest advisories from the different levels of government, and participating in frequent briefings from the facility’s parent company RidgeCare.
“All of our team members are going through refresher training on infection control, such as hand washing,” Berry said. “We’re stepping up our cleaning scheduled in common areas and frequently touched areas such as doorknobs.”
“We’re focusing our energy on keeping our residents and team members safe and well,” Berry added.
In addition to stocking up on personal protective equipment, Berry said Deerfield has sent out notices to families of residents to let them know of the COVID-19 precautions being taken and to limit their contact if they’ve been to a certain area that’s had outbreaks.
Matt Diggs, a nursing administrator at the Foley Center at Chestnut Ridge, said on March 10 that the facility “100 percent” doesn’t have any COVID-19 cases.
“We maintain strict infection prevention throughout the year,” Diggs said.
Diggs said that a hand washing re-demonstration was held with the staff and recommended that people wash their hands to the tune of “Happy Birthday” twice to ensure good hygiene.
“We’re maintaining adequate supplies to make sure we have everything we need,” Diggs said.