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Macon County health director warns of COVID19 surge; schools considering return to remote learning

Macon County Public Health Director Kathy McGaha updated members of the Board of Education Monday night regarding the current status of COVID19 and the potential impact it could have on in-person learning moving forward. 

“We are seeing an uptick in positive cases throughout the community and I have expressed some concerns with school being in session face to face right now,” Macon County Public Health Director Kathy McGaha said Monday night during the Board of Education meeting. “Most of the transmission we are seeing is in the community, it is not in the schools, however, we are seeing an increase in the positivity rate. We have come to the conclusion that we are going to take this on a day by day basis to see if we need to go virtual.”

On December 7, Dr. Baldwin said that he did not anticipate any changes for students for the Spring semester other than changes to virtual learning at Franklin High School, however, due to concerns about rapidly increasing case numbers, Dr. Baldwin said the board may need to consider beginning the next semester with virtual learning. 

McGaha noted that with 45 new cases on Monday, that is the largest single-day increase the health department has seen. “I have some serious concerns and so does the county’s medical director Dr. Dewhurst who is here with me.”

Dr. Baldwin said school districts across the state are considering the same option due to a rise in cases following the Thanksgiving holiday, which is anticipated to only worsen after Christmas. 

“We will not hesitate to close one or more schools depending on the number of cases at any of our school locations,” said Dr. Baldwin. “In additional to Highlands being approved to conduct remote instruction the first week of school after the Christmas break, we will stay in contact with the health department, and should we see an increase in cases over Christmas break, I hope that parents will understand that we may open schools on January 5 as a district in remote instruction.”

According to Macon County Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin, as of Monday, the Macon County School system has a total of 10 students who had tested positive for COVID19. Seven of the two were Franklin High School students, one at Highlands School, and two at Macon Middle School. In addition to the 10 students who have tested positive, another 85 students are currently quarantined due to possible exposure. Since November 16, a total of 30 students have tested positive for COVID19 and a total of 206 have needed to quarantine. Highlands has had seven students test positive since November 16. 

There are currently seven staff members positive for the virus; three at Cartoogechaye, one at East Franklin Elementary, one at Franklin High School, and two at Macon Middle School. There are a total of 19 staff quarantined throughout the district. Since November 16, there have been a total of 23 staff members who have tested positive and 47 who have had to quarantine. 

Nancy Lindell, Director of Public and Media Relations for HCA Healthcare North Carolina Division said that as of 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 15 Mission Health system has 99 lab-confirmed positive COVID-19 patients; 84 at Mission Hospital; 4 at Angel Medical Center; 7 at Blue Ridge Regional Hospital; 3 at Mission Hospital McDowell; 1 at Transylvania Regional Hospital. 

Macon County Board Chairman Jim Breedlove asked McGaha for information regarding the local hospital system’s capacity to care for COVID19 cases. 

“They are seeing an increase in inpatient need, but they are not at capacity at this time,” McGaha said. “However, we have one large hospital system and we don’t have the number of hospital beds that some metropolitan areas have, so a surge in our area — it wouldn’t take much to put them at capacity.”

McGaha noted that with the current increase in COVID19 cases, while Macon County is currently ranked as a yellow county on the state alert system, she anticipates it to soon change to orange, or even red, the worst designation, due to the county’s increased positivity rate, which is above 9 percent, when a week ago it was at 4 percent. The county’s positivity rate is determined by the percentage of tests conducted that result in confirmed positive cases. 

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