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'This is not the time to let up’ on Covid precautions

Public Health Director Steve Smith speaks to leaders of the county’s Epidemiology Team as Covid-19 was ramping up last March 5. Public Health Director Steve Smith speaks to leaders of the county’s Epidemiology Team as Covid-19 was ramping up last March 5.

Steve Smith, the director of Henderson County Department of Public Health, thanks the vast majority of people who are wearing masks and staying six feet apart in public while warning that maintaining these safety measures is imperative as winter sets in.

“It’s reasonable to assume that we’re going to have more transmission and spread,” he said. “This is not the time to let up despite the fatigue that we all have about this issue. We have a choice to make every day about how bad we want this to be in our community.”
In an interview on the current status of Covid-19 in the county, Smith also warned that holiday gatherings are fertile grounds for infection and urged families to consider alternatives to big in-person gatherings.
“In general, we do see an increase in activity in our daily new cases per day, and also cases per 100,000,” he said. “Before, we had been fortunate to be in the eight or nine daily new cases range. Today we’re at a little bit over 12.” The percentage of people testing positive has also inched up, from 3 to 5 percent. “That’s consistent with what we see in the region and the state and even the country. Overall, activity is increasing for us.”
Unlike in the first weeks of the pandemic, the majority of Covid infections now are in people 25 to 49 years old. That range accounts for 54 percent of the cases. The remaining 46 percent is split about evenly among people older than 64 and younger than 25.
On the bright side, Smith said, the public school system has reported just one infection occurring in a school building, test results are coming back much faster and the mortality rate has dropped significantly.
Here is the Lightning interview with Smith:

What accounts for the increase in positive cases?


“I think there’s a little bit of pandemic fatigue. People are relaxing their safety measures and their precautions like wearing masks and social distancing. People do also tend to trust that they don’t have to do things around people that they’re familiar with, like a neighbor or a church event or a funeral. In those common kind of settings, where people feel more comfortable, that’s where they’re prone to kind of drop some of those precautions and that’s where we really see most of the cases being promulgated today in the community.”

How does the spread occur?

“What happens is somebody that’s asymptomatic but they are positive for Covid-19, they have a close interaction, often indoors, they’re not using those protective measures and out of that one moment in time, we have five or six cases. This is the most common thing now versus large outbreaks, these small clusters of outbreaks that are happening.”

How are the schools doing?
Schools have reported 37 positive cases. “That’s honestly not unexpected for us. I think they’ve done a great job in the precautions they’ve taken inside the schools. Parents and kids are trying to be mindful of those standards and staff certainly is.”


What accounts for the drop in the average age of a positive case patient?
“Obviously the elderly were the first that were infected. Testing was limited and tilted heavily toward long-term care facilities. “One of the bright spots is that the scope and the specificity of medical care for Covid cases has really evolved in this country and I commend Pardee and Advent Health for doing an incredible job with adjusting and calibrating different strategies.”

How are hospitals doing?
“I think today they’re OK. I think the tricky part for the public to understand is that we can go from OK to not OK really quickly.” The health department is currently responding to an outbreak at one congregant care facility. “If one of those goes south really quickly, just one outbreak could tax our hospitals and starting pushing them with capacity. That’s one of those lines in the sand that we’re trying to avoid so that critical care is available for all when they need it.”


What do you recommend families do about the holidays?
“This is a very personal issue (and) it’s important time for families to visit loved ones, oftentimes a lot of our senior elderly family members like grandparents. … I urge people to think about alternate ways of doing this, including not gathering as a big family unit, particularly if you’re not going to be able to social distance and not going to be able to wear a face mask. Of course when you’re eating a large holiday meal together you’re not going to be able to do that. Just try to think about some practical alternatives to what you would normally do.”


What is the most common infection scenario?

“Consistently, an indoor gathering for a larger number of people, not social distancing, no mask wearing, very close contact face to face. You do that, you just automatically have to assume one person in that group is going to be positive, even though they might be asymptomatic, and that multiple people come out of that event being positive cases. We talk to those (Covid-positive) people every hour of every day.”


Where are we now, the third inning?

“I’m not even trying to estimate that anymore. I wouldn’t have thought that we would be at this point eight months later but here we are. I think we’re all to some degree trying to incorporate this as part of life right now.”

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More information is available at the Henderson County Public Health Department and NC Department of Health and Human Services dashboards.