By Catharin Shepard •
Staff writer •
Hoke is one of 10 North Carolina counties deemed “critical” because of the number of positive COVID-19 tests among people who live here, state health officials said Tuesday.
The county has the third-highest 14-day percent of positive COVID-19 tests of any county in North Carolina, at 13.6 percent positive, according to the state. The only two counties with a higher positive percentage are Alexander and Columbus.
Local health officials are seeing the trends going in the wrong direction. At one recent free COVID-19 testing site, 42 out of 432 people who were tested came up positive for the virus, and none of them were showing symptoms of the virus, Hoke County Health Department Director Helene Edwards said.
It’s numbers like that which are putting Hoke County in the critical zone for coronavirus infections.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen this week unveiled a COVID-19 county alert system, mapping out where the highest levels of viral spread are located across the state. Hoke was among the worst for viral spread, according to the alert system.
Health officials urged residents in red zone counties to work to lower the spread.
“It’s going to take all of us working together to avoid tightening restrictions like so many states are now doing,” Cohen said in a statement Tuesday. “The COVID-19 County Alert System gives North Carolinians an easy way to see how their county is doing and know what they can do protect their family and neighbors and slow the spread of this virus.”
The alert system uses a system of three metrics, including the percent of positive tests, the case rate and hospital impact within a county.
People who live in critical counties are encouraged to take extra precautions, such as limit mixing between households and minimizing the number of people in your social circle, avoid settings where people congregate, order takeout instead of dining in at restaurants and reducing public interactions to essential activities. Individuals who are at high risk for developing serious illness should consider staying at home as much as possible, according to the NCDHHS.
Hoke was up to 1,783 total cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, as of Tuesday, with 28 deaths related to the contagious illness. At least 1,400 of those cases are considered recovered.
The Hoke County Board of Commissioners spoke with Edwards during the board meeting Monday to ask if there’s anything the county can do to further help address the pandemic.
“Are there any other things that Hoke County needs to put in place, you and your department can you come out with different things you’re recommending, and do we need to sit down with you and your board and find out whatever it is…that we need to put in place?” Chairman James Leach asked.
Encouraging people to wear a mask is the biggest issue, Edwards said.
“The one thing that we really need to do is the mask wearing. People in Hoke County really need to wear a mask. Our cases are going up,” Edwards said.
Reminding people to stay home if they do have any symptoms is another major issue, she said.
“If you have sinus problems, sniffling, cough, stay home. Headache, stay home. Some people, back pain. Some of those symptoms are COVID,” Edwards said.
People are going to work and sitting near their coworkers, who may have a disease like diabetes, hypertension or an autoimmune disorder that could put them at high risk.
“Those are some areas that we find it’s really scary and sad and that’s where you have the unexpected hospitalizations of different people,” Edwards said.
The county has been working on stockpiling cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) in anticipation of a possible “second wave” of COVID-19; although, Edwards pointed out, North Carolina is still in the first wave.
The Health Department also has a good supply of COVID-19 tests supplied by the federal government, which are free to anyone. The department is also waiting to receive a new machine to conduct on-site testing. Unlike the free test, this COVID-19 test takes about 15 minutes and costs $53, and negative results must be confirmed by a second follow-up test.
The Hoke County Health Department is also preparing for a rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as one is ready and available.
“We are preparing for the COVID vaccine. Last week we did have conference calls on the guidelines to be able to do mass vaccination,” she said.
State health officials don’t yet know which vaccine will be ready first, but the state is preparing health departments to be ready to deploy the vaccine to first responders and nursing home residents as soon as December. Most of the vaccines now in development require two doses, Edwards said.
One of the versions of the COVID-19 vaccine in development has to be kept at 80 degrees below zero, and several representatives of different companies have approached the Hoke Health Department about purchasing a specialty freezer to store the vaccine if that one is released for distribution, officials said.
Additionally, the Health Department requested the county board’s permission to use $10,000 of funds already in the budget for a scheduling app to help with the eventual rollout of mass vaccinations against COVID-19. The board approved the request.
Health officials continue encouraging people to wear a mask, wait six feet away from others in public and wash hands frequently.