Six Wilkes County government employees in various departments were reassigned to the Wilkes County Health Department on Nov. 16 to help with COVID-19 contact tracing.

County Manager John Yates said the six people — one apiece from the county recreation, animal control, administration, finance, veteran services and emergency medical services departments — volunteered to make contact tracing phone calls.

Yates said Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard requested the assistance because of the increased number of COVID-19 cases in Wilkes. He said the temporary contact tracers will work at the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office half the day on Mondays and half the day on Wednesdays.

The health department reported that 2,354 Wilkes residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began as of Wednesday, up by 57 from Tuesday. That was Wilkes County’s largest one-day increase. Wilkes had 276 active cases then, including 29 hospitalized.

Willard said the six employees of other county departments will call people who just tested positive for COVID-19 and tell them to self-isolate for 10 days. They’ll help them recount who they had close contact with in the 48 hours since their symptoms started until present, asking them where they went, if they wore a mask, when they were at work and other questions.

Next, they’ll call the close contacts, and ask how they’re feeling and if they have COVID-19 symptoms. They’ll give them recommendations on self-quarantine and guide them through the process of testing, but they don’t have to be tested.” Close contact is being less than six feet away from a person with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes.

County officials emphasized the importance of reaching close contacts as soon as possible so they know to self-isolate and thus help slow community spread of the virus.

Wilkes was listed as one of the state’s 10 counties with “critical” community spread” (most severe) when Gov. Roy Cooper announced a new online system for publicizing counties with high coronavirus transmission on Nov. 17. Wilkes was fourth in the state in numbers of new confirmed cases per 100,000 in the last 14 days then.

Cooper urged leaders in over half of the state’s counties, including Wilkes, to authorize levying fines against people and businesses for not complying with his order requiring masks in public when social distancing isn’t possible, limits on the number of people at indoor and outdoor gatherings and other COVID-19-related directives. He warned of further restrictions if county officials don’t heed the state’s advice.

“We may have to do more even on a statewide level or at a local level in some way,” Cooper said. “That decision has not yet been made, but we are hoping that this effort can help us slow the spread.”

Eddie Settle, chairman of the county commissioners, said Thursday that the commissioners aren’t considering levying fines for failure to comply with the mask or other COVID-19-related measures.

Settle said county government encourages people to stay home as much as possible to help break the chain of transmission. He said they should protect themselves by wearing a cloth mask or other face covering when out in public, avoid in-door gatherings of more than 10 people, stay six or more feet apart from others, frequently wash hands, stay home if sick, avoid touching their face and follow other public health guidelines.

Settle noted that COVID-19 testing with results the same day is available starting at 2 p.m. each weekday at the health department. He said people wanting to be tested there should call the health department first at 336-651-7450 to schedule an appointment. Settle said testing is also available at many private doctor’s offices, urgent care facilities and Wilkes Medical Center.

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