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One year later: COVID-19 killed 189 in the four-county area

When life as we knew it slammed to a sudden stop in mid-March of 2020, the novel coronavirus from Wuhan hadn’t yet infected a single resident of Western North Carolina, but with the virus continually expanding its territory  since the United States’ first confirmed case on Jan. 21, 2020, it seemed only a matter of time. 

Buncombe County confirmed its first case March 16 — the patient was a visitor from New York who then traveled to Macon County to isolate — followed by Cherokee County March 18. A part-time resident of Jackson County tested positive on March 23, and Haywood County reported its first cases on April 2. Testing from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians confirmed the first cases  in Swain and Graham counties on April 25 and 26. 

In the year since, 11,130 residents of Haywood, Jackson, Swain and Macon counties have tested positive for the virus, and 189 have died. Statewide, there have been 886,218 confirmed cases and 11,707 deaths due to COVID-19

In the four-county area, 7.2 percent of the total population has tested positive, leaving 0.12 percent of the population dead. In confirmed cases, 1.7 percent ended in death. However, research  from Columbia University released Feb. 9 indicates that official numbers severely understate the number of infections, with numbers likely five times the official count. If this is the case locally, then 36 percent of the population caught the virus, with 0.34 percent of cases ending in death. 

 

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The local death rate is higher than the 1.3 percent rate for the state as a whole, primarily due to a higher burden in Haywood County, where multiple nursing home outbreaks  infected a large number of high-risk patients — including a summer outbreak at Silver Bluff Village that killed 30, only for a second outbreak to claim even more lives over the winter as additional facilities also experienced outbreaks. In Haywood County, 2.29 percent of confirmed cases ended in death. By contrast, only 1.07 percent of Macon County’s confirmed cases ended in death. 

“Most of our cases have been in the 25 to 49 age group, but most of our deaths were in the 75-plus age range,” said Allison Richmond, Haywood County’s public information officer for emergency management. “Cases among the elderly have resulted in much more severe illnesses and, unfortunately, death.”

Statewide, 65 percent of confirmed cases have been in people 50 or younger, but that age group accounts for only 49 percent of hospitalizations. The state website does not offer an age-specific breakdown of deaths. 

The cases rolled in fast over the holiday season, as colder weather moved people indoors and the ties of family and tradition drove people from different households to gather together. In early January, the state would commonly tally 7,000, 8,000 and even 9,000 new cases per day, with that figure occasionally shooting into the five-digit range. 

Thankfully, increasing vaccine availability combined with warmer weather and distance from indoor holiday gatherings that prompted the winter spike have caused the numbers to calm down — a lot — and have given a pandemic-weary population reason to hope that an end to this crisis is indeed in sight. On March 15, 1,337 new cases were reported statewide, with zero in Swain and Macon counties and only two apiece in Jackson and Haywood.  

As of March 15, 19.5 percent of North Carolina’s population had been vaccinated, with much of the local area posting rates in excess of the statewide numbers. 

Macon County is still in the lead among the four counties in The Smoky Mountain News’ coverage area, with 24.2 percent partially vaccinated, followed by Jackson County with 20.4 percent, Haywood with 19.9 and Swain with 19.3 percent. However, county vaccination counts do not include vaccination efforts on the Qualla Boundary, located in Jackson and Swain counties, where 4,560 people are at least partially vaccinated. 

Increased vaccine availability has caused Gov. Roy Cooper to move eligibility dates forward on multiple occasions so far, and as of press time Groups 1, 2 and 3 were eligible to receive the vaccine. On March 17, people in Group 4 who have a high-risk medical condition will be able to get vaccinated. The rest of Group 4 will be eligible starting April 7. 

President Joe Biden has directed states and tribes to make all adults eligible for vaccination no later than May 1, but it appears that North Carolina was on track to meet that deadline prior to Biden’s announcement. Opening Group 4 will leave only one group remaining before everybody is eligible. Meanwhile, the EBCI is offering the vaccine to any tribal member 18 or older, as well as to those who qualify for primary care services at the Cherokee Indian Hospital and non-enrolled spouses of tribal members. 

Local vaccinations will be Moderna-heavy this week. Macon County Public Health expects to administer 500 first doses of Moderna, with Angel Medical Center and Highlands-Cashiers Hospital scheduled to receive 100 first doses of Moderna. Likewise, Haywood County and Haywood Regional Medical Center will receive a combined 600 Moderna first doses, and Blue Ridge Health expects 100 apiece for its Haywood and Jackson County clinics. Harris Regional and Swain Community Hospitals will receive a combined 200 doses of Moderna. 

The clinic at Western Carolina University will administer 100 Moderna doses this week but will mostly be vaccinating with Pfizer, receiving 1,170 first doses of that vaccine. An additional 100 Johnson & Johnson doses will be administered during a Sunday evening clinic in partnership with the Vecinos Farmworker Health Program which serves the largely Latino farmworker population. 

No vaccine distributors in the area have reported severe adverse reactions to any of the available vaccines. 

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