Wilkes County’s first confirmed COVID-19 was announced about 9 a.m. Monday and the second confirmed case was announced about four hours later.

By Tuesday evening, North Carolina had eight deaths from the virus and 1,498 confirmed cases.

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said the first Wilkes case was a person who was a patient at Wilkes Medical Center in North Wilkesboro when tested for COVID-19 and still at the hospital when results came back positive two days later.

Health department and hospital officials are working to identify who the person had contact with since he/she first exhibited symptoms (fever or cough). She said people who had contact with the person in that period will be told to self-quarantine for 14 days and be tested for the virus if they become symptomatic.

Willard said the person hadn’t traveled out of the country recently, but otherwise it wasn’t known if he/she contracted the disease from travel outside Wilkes or if it was from “community spread.”

The person is in isolation at the hospital, said Wilkes Medical Center President Chad Brown. The hospital informed the health department about the person testing positive about 8:30 a.m. Monday.

Willard said the second person with a positive COVID-19 test was identified as a “community transmission” case, which means the method of contracting the disease isn’t known and that the disease is too widely spread for it to be traceable. She said a nasal sample was taken by swab from the person at a private medical practice. The person is at home in Wilkes self-isolating, she said.

Meanwhile, state and local health officials are imploring residents to follow Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide stay at home order in place since Monday. A primary objective is “flattening the curve” of rising case numbers to prevent hospitals and other medical systems from being overrun.

Dr. Mandy K. Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Service, on Monday pointed out that no vaccine or treatment for the highly contagious coronavirus exists, so the only way to slow its spread is for people to not catch it in the first place.

Cohen said that because the incubation period is as long as a week on average and sometimes two weeks, it has spread in North Carolina in ways that are impossible to track. “We are seeing now that there is community spread. Folks don’t know where they picked it up from,” Cohen said.

Dr. Zack Moore, state epidemiologist, said Monday that case information suggested infections in North Carolina are still trending upward. “We have to acknowledge that we’re just at the beginning,” said Moore. “Every indication is that this is just ramping up now and we are in what we would call the acceleration phase of the pandemic here in North Carolina, so we are still on our way up.”

Fewer tests being done

The health department had completed 28 COVID-19 tests by Monday, with 24 test results negative and four still pending. This didn’t include tests at Wilkes Medical Center and private practices.

Willard said the number of tests being done are dropping and will continue to decline because community transmission is occurring in North Carolina.

“We are going to be moving into a surveillance system similar to what we have for seasonal flu,” instead of basing the status of the virus’ spread on testing. “We are encouraging those who are sick with mild like symptoms to stay at home and not even come to the doctor’s office, unless symptoms worsen,” said Cohen.

Willard said the health department hasn’t turned anyone away from testing due to lack of kits. “On Friday, we had roughly 20 test kits available. We have reduced the number of tests being conducted due to the change in clinical guidance…. This guidance applies to all providers in North Carolina.”

She said the Health Department is now seeing well patients in the mornings and sick patients in the afternoons. “This allows for deep cleanings several times a day to protect those who are coming into the building. We are requiring patients or community members who have fever, cough and respiratory symptoms to call ahead of time.”

She said people who need to be seen at the health department are being given specific directions about what to do when they arrive. Upon arrival, they’re directed to a communicable disease nurse who instructs them to drive around to the rear of the health department building.

“This allows time for our staff to put on the appropriate PPE. The nurses then go outside, triage and complete an assessment of the patient. If the person meets the new criteria for COVID-19 testing, then we will test them in their car.

“If not, and they need further assessment, we are taking them inside through a back door to limit exposure and completing the assessment in the clinical room. All other patients are still accessing the building from the main door.”

PPE, test kits, beds

Willard said the health department has been able to maintain the level of personal protective equipment (PPE) it had at the start of its response to the coronavirus.

“In the past, it has been recommended that organizations have roughly two weeks of supplies on hand. We had been able to secure more PPE, so we are still averaging about two weeks of supplies.

“Of course, this could change as our patient load increases or decreases. We continue to work with Wilkes Emergency Management to ensure we have the supplies we need to meet the demands of our response to the community.”

She said it’s important to remind the community that health officials like the U.S. Centers for Communicable Diseases and Prevention (CDC) aren’t recommending masks for those who aren’t sick to help maintain the supply of PPE for front line or essential staff.

Brown said Wilkes Medical Center has an adequate number of testing kits. “At this time, the Wake Forest Baptist Health system, which includes Wilkes Medical Center, has been following state and national guidelines and only testing patients with symptoms and who require admission to the hospital,” he said.

Brown said Wilkes Medical Center also has sufficient PPE for daily operations and is continuing to receive shipments. “We are incredibly grateful to those in our community—both corporations and groups—who have donated PPE and other supplies to our staff.”

He said those who want to learn more about how they can help can visit www.wakehealth.edu/COVID19support.

Wilkes Medical Center also has sufficient critical care and general medicine bed availability at this time, said Brown. “The decision to postpone elective surgeries and procedures has contributed to our census capacity. Our hospital is fortunate to be part of Wake Forest Baptist Health—an academic health system with 1,535 licensed beds system-wide.”

He said that across the Wake Forest Baptist Health system, teams are working hard to expand the number of critical beds if needed. “We will continue to do everything we can to keep our patients and staff safe and to meet the health care needs of those here in Wilkes County and throughout our region.”

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