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Henderson County commissioners on Friday adopted a stay-at-home order in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 and spare health care providers a potentially overwhelming wave of patients.

The order, effective at noon Saturday, limits gatherings to 10 people or fewer, places restrictions on nursing home visits and defines essential activities that allow travel outside the home. The 11-page "Supplemental Proclamation of Emergency" order is similar to measures adopted in Buncombe and other metro counties in North Carolina. Read the proclamation here.

Chairman Grady Hawkins suggested people think of the situation as similar to the March 1993 "Storm of the Century," a blizzard that shut down the county for a week. "Instead of having the snow out there, we've got this virus out there, so whatever you did in 1993 in terms of staying at home, you probably need to do now," he said.

Commissioner Charlie Messer questioned the order's effect on manufacturers, small business, restaurants and other parts of the economy already are unsure if they can "weather this storm."

Commissioner Michael Edney asked what effect a statewide stay-at-home order would have on the county. The county cannot enact rules less strict than what the governor orders, Burrell said.

Commissioner Rebecca McCall recommended sending out a letter to every resident "with the hard facts, the truth, what we've learned today, sharing with them what could happen and how important it is to stay home. It concerns me greatly that we're talking about putting people in jail because they made a wrong decison about leaving their home. I don't want to see us become a police state." She opposed the class II misdemeanor penalty for violation, a maximum $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. "I don't want them to feel like they're being overgoverned."

"We're going to use the least restrictive measures possible to enforce this order,"  Sheriff Lowell Griffin responded. "It does give the order some teeth but I guarantee you we're not going to be looking to apply it to people we come in contact with" unless they are willful repeat offenders.

At the suggestion of Commissioner Michael Edney, an attorney, commissioners added that officers would make a class II misdemeanor charge only if violations were "willful and intentional."

Commissioner Bill Lapsley responded to McCall's suggestion that instead of adopting the order commissioners could make a strong public appeal to stay home.

Without a document, "we're back to saying, 'Please do this,' and there's a certain element in every community to just laugh it off," he said. "I think the public has faith in us to say, OK, here's what need to do." Meeting more frequently, he said, commissioners can tweak the stay-at-home order if problems arise.

With Lapsley prepared to make a motion to adopt the order, Messer suggested a 10-minute recess to allow the sheriff, emergency managers and others to read the order. Chairman Hawkins agreed, and adjourned the meeting until 11:30 and directed staff to make copies and distribute them to high-ranking officials dealing with the crisis.

"I feel comfortable with it," Sheriff Lowell Griffin said after the break. "I think it's broad enough that if people will really understand it for what it is, it should not cause any pain." As great a problem now, he said, is panic and rumors, such as unfounded chatter that the National Guard is shutting down interstate highways and that grocers are running out of supplies. He endorsed the information letter and recommended that "we relate the seriousness of what we're facing but encourage folks to remain calm."

Because Henderson County is a retirement community, Emergency Services Director Jimmy Brissie said, it has many nursing home facilities. Many of them have adopted restrictions stronger than the ones in the order, he said.

In the opening section — findings — the order says that areas fighting a heavy outbreak of COVID-19 are experiencing a "severe shortage of medical facilities, equipment, supplies and personnel, and there is an urgent need to prevent or alleviate such a shortage in Henderson County." The order is needed to slow the rate of the disease spread.

The order limits visits to residents of nursing homes and life care facilities. It allows a fairly broad range of essential activities including grocery shopping, takeout restaurant meals, caring for family members and public health and human services work. It requires businesses not deemed essential "to cease all activities" and to conduct "minimum basic operations" by working from home. Essential businesses include "essential critical infrastructure workforce" employers, groceries, convenience stores, farmers markets, health care facilities, news media, gas stations, banks, hardware stores and big box suppliers, post office and delivery services, restaurants for off-premise consumption, residential shelters, child care facilities, hotels and funeral homes.

The meeting opened with Pardee UNC Health Jay Kirby updating the Board of Commissioners on what the hospital is experiencing and what experts expect.

Here are highlights:

  • The state of North Carolina had 500 cases and 630 today.
  • Pardee expects as many as 500 hospitalizations in the coming weeks of patients with COVID-19.
  • In Kirby's "personal opinion," Henderson County will see the peak in late May, early June.
  • Pardee has 18 ventilators, Advent has six. Dogwood Trust bought 20-30 and has them stored for use when needed. Pardee will need many more, Kirby said; 18 "is woefully under what we need."
  • The number of Henderson County-attributed cases is up to 11, counting people from here who tested positive elsewhere, such as at Mission.
  • On top of the medical crisis, with a payroll of $650,000/day, Pardee is under huge financial pressure. Revenue from patient visits is down overall. The emergency relief bill the Senate passed this week will help but won't be enough.
  •  Pardee has doctors and nurses that will rise to the challenge, with some, such as ER physicians and pulmonologist, may be oveerwhelmed. The hospital is working now on plans to reassign primary care physicians to emergency medicine at four "ports of entry," the hospital ER and and three urgent care clinics.
  • It's not clear whether warm weather will cause COVID-19 to subside.

Health Director Steve Smith said around 340 tests have been conducted countywide, with about 140 awaiting results, and eight positive cases. "We're not out of test kits" but the tests are prioritized, not widely available in a setting like the drive-thru site at BRCC. There is a lot of demand but use of the test depends on a patient's symptoms. A large percentage of people that catch COVID-19 will have mild symptoms, Smith said.

Commissioners thanked the community's medical professionals.

Commissioner Bill Lapsley said commissioners among themselves have been talking for weeks about the situation and what measures the county needs to take. "We all agree the public has a right to know what we know and what we've been told," he said. "For me personally this has been a pretty humbling experience. I don't know that I ever anticipated by signing up for this that we would be elected to deal with this sort of thing. This is humbling stuff we're talking about here."

In the early weeks, he said, people thought "we'd get one, we'd get two." As the number of cases climb, it became clear that "unless we do something to slow down people's contact this thing's going to grow exponentially."

Banning large groups was the first step. Then, as they saw the projected number of patients also climbed, the situation again grew more urgent, Lapsley said. Then we hear this morning that it's now jumped to 10 or 12," he said. "Instead of doubling every week, it's going to double every 5 days and then double every 2 days. So that becomes concerns I think for all of us."

With a large number of patients needing ventilators. "If we don't have enough ventilators to handle the people in the hospital we've got a serious situation. Our communty puts the medical staff in a pretty awkward situation to have more paitents than they have the ability to treat."

That leaves "the tough decision" on the table for commissioners. "So what can we do about it?" Lapsley said. The experts told commissioners that "we can't stop it, it's not going to go to zero." Numbers change every day and could change dramatically tomorrow. The ex are telling us we're gong to have a problem and the best that we can do as a communiyt that this board can do is take another step in encourage people in the community to stay home. The more we can get people  to stay home, the statistics tell us, the number of patients is going to go down. If we do nothing, just sit here and keep our fingers crossed, I don't think that's being responsible elected officials. That's what the public wants us to do, make these tough decisions.

"The bottom line I think is we have an obligation to take whatever steps are most appropriate to deal with what we know," he said, and that is to amend the county's emergency order to require more stay at home guidance.

Chairman Grady Hawkins said "whether you call it shelter in place, call it quarantine, stay at home, that means to limit as much as humamly possible to limit personal contact with people in the county. That means stay at home. If we can slow the spread of virus we can lower the number of people Jay Kirby's got to take care of. If we can do that, we can save lives."

"It's not an area where you can just assume this is not happening or it cn't happen to you. We're looking to save lives."