A recent spike in COVID-19 cases in rural North Carolina has raised concern about the possibility of small town hospitals becoming overwhelmed this winter.

Wilkes County added 582 confirmed COVID-19 cases in October, exceeding the number of Wilkes residents who were among 600-plus people working at the Tyson Foods Inc. complex who contracted the virus early during the pandemic. The October total for Wilkes included 181 cases in the last week of the month alone.

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said most of the new COVID-19 cases in Wilkes in recent weeks resulted from community spread. The increase in rural counties statewide is hitting people 50 and older the hardest.

A spike in COVID-19 is typically followed by more people seeking hospital treatment a week or two later, followed by a rise in virus-related deaths. The deaths of seven Wilkes residents in October, including three announced Monday, were officially linked to COVID-19.

Accompanying the recent surge are the arrival of flu season, people spending more time indoors and more family and other gatherings during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.

Concerns resulting from these factors were addressed on Facebook last week by a health care professional affiliated with Wilkes Medical Center in North Wilkesboro.

“My colleagues and I fear that this winter we are headed for a desperate situation… in which we may have to decide who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t — in other words, who dies and who doesn’t,” the person stated.

The post cited current signs of strain on the medical system serving Wilkes.

These include a full intensive care unit and overrun emergency department at Wilkes Medical Center and lack of beds at the nearest tertiary hospitals for critically ill patients transferred from Wilkes.

The health care worker stressed that COVID-19 isn’t a hoax and that we’re far from rounding the corner toward its disappearance. “COVID is an evil disease, and I’ve seen its wrath firsthand. I have watched helplessly as COVID crushes my patients before my eyes.”

The person also urged people to wear masks, observe social distancing and avoid gatherings. “Stay home and FaceTime your mother for Thanksgiving. Take care of yourself and the people you love.”

In a jointly-released Oct. 23 statement urging alternative Halloween activities, North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper and Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland said, “Holiday-related transmission would harm at-risk populations, and contribute to a spike in cases that could tax capacity of healthcare and public service providers in the area.”

Public health officials say many of the recent cases locally and statewide resulted from family and other social gatherings, often with few attendees wearing masks and observing social distancing.

Willard recently said there is “COVID fatigue” in Wilkes and because of that people aren’t wearing their masks in public and aren’t observing social distancing.

It shouldn’t be so, but politicians have made masks a divisive issue.

Wearing a mask in public is essential to avoiding a return to greater COVID-19-related restrictions, as some European countries are having to do. Above all, it’s a small price for Wilkes County residents to pay to help protect their loved ones and neighbors.

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