Commissioners hear latest report about COVID-19 situation

On Thursday, the McDowell County Commissioners heard the latest reports about the coronavirus situation. The commissioners are now meeting twice a week to hear the latest information about how COVID-19 is affecting McDowell County and its government.

As of Thursday morning, 79 people in McDowell County have been tested for the coronavirus and three people have been found to test positive. Thirty-two tests came back negative and the remaining 44 test results are still pending.

In addition, North Carolina currently has 608 confirmed cases of COVID-19 statewide.

On Thursday, Emergency Management Director William Kehler gave an update to the McDowell County Commissioners about the coronavirus situation. The commissioners are now meeting twice a week to hear the latest information about how COVID-19 is affecting McDowell County and its government.

Kehler said Emergency Management’s current priorities were supporting public health with pre-screenings and testing. Part of that support is EMS, Community Care paramedics and McDowell County 911 operating two virtual call centers, which have so far vetted almost 300 calls. Nurses from Foothills Health District and McDowell County Schools are assisting with the call center.

On Thursday, Kehler said about half of the calls received were for COVID-19 (coronavirus) pre-screenings and the rest were questions from the public about resources.

Kehler said Emergency Management’s Logistics Team is working tirelessly to ensure an adequate supply of gloves, gowns, masks and other protection equipment is available to health care providers and first responders.

In addition, Kehler said that a team of public information officers were working diligently to send out the latest information on social media, through the local news media and by email and text message through the Nixle system.

Kehler added local leaders, government agencies and non-profit groups were updating one another about COVID-19 (Coronavirus) related matters during coordination calls. He stated all participating organizations were actively working to help those in need and that this was truly a team effort, according to a news release.

Kehler stated that McDowell Cares had been a huge help to the community over the last few weeks. He stated that anyone who needs help, or who wants to volunteer to help, can visit www.McDowellCares.com.

After hearing from Kehler, the commissioners talked about the possibility of placing restrictions on visitors to McDowell who have come here from high-risk areas like major cities like New York City or certain states like Washington. They wanted to know if the county could tell visitors from high-risk areas to self-quarantine for 14 days. Buncombe has taken this action, according to McDowell officials.

“Is it legal for us to do it here?” asked Commission Vice Chairman Tony Brown through a speaker phone.

County Attorney Fred Coats said it could be done here but it would be difficult to enforce.

“We don’t have the manpower to enforce something like that,” said Commissioner Lynn Greene.

Commission Chairman David Walker said he has no issue with placing a restriction like that.

“I want to protect our people,” he said.

Commissioner Barry McPeters said Mitchell County has stopped rentals at bed and breakfasts, campgrounds and other similar businesses for visitors who are from out of state.

The commissioners next heard from Lisa Sprouse, director of McDowell County Department of Social Services. She said the department is running business as usual even with the coronavirus situation. DSS has 105 employees and of those, 28 are teleworking. Employees at the office are using face masks and gloves.

“I can stress enough how resilient our staff is working now,” said Sprouse to the board.

She told the commissioners she appreciates them meeting twice a week now. Walker said he and other commissioners were very impressed with Sprouse’s Continuity of Operations Plan or COOP. This is an important part of emergency planning and provides a way for a county department to ensure that essential services will continue in the event of reduced hours, limited public contact, no public contact or even if the office is closed altogether.

The commissioners asked Sprouse to make sure DSS employees are providing the public with information about companies that are hiring.

“The goal is to be self-sufficient,” said Walker.

Sprouse said the McDowell Chamber of Commerce has developed an informational website about places that need workers.

“I think it’s important to give people good information that gives them hope,” said Greene. “There’s enough panic out there.”

Randall Conley, director of McDowell Transit, gave an update on how the county’s transportation system is handling the COVID-19 crisis.

Conley said the system is operating on a normal schedule but is no longer taking people outside of the county. This can be a problem for people who need to travel outside of McDowell for doctor appointments.

McDowell Transit is transporting people around McDowell for their jobs, getting groceries and doctor appointments here. The system has four drivers on the road and they are disinfecting the vans in between trips.

The riders are kept separate from the drivers. “We’re trying to limit the number of people in a van,” said Conley to the board.

As for those who need to travel outside of McDowell for a medical appointment, McDowell Transit is reaching out to other drivers who can take them and so far this is working out, according to Conley.

“They have been very proactive so we can provide the services the best we can,” said County Manager Ashley Wooten to the board.

Wooten also informed the commissioners that McDowell County now has a hiring freeze and has placed restrictions on purchases by county departments.

The commissioners will meet again at 11:30 a.m. Monday at the County Administration Building to hear the latest reports about the coronavirus situation.

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