As COVID-19 continues to surge in Western North Carolina and across the nation, Henderson's top public health official weighed in on the speed of the omicron variant and the efficiency of ongoing measures to keep people from severe symptoms.
"Recent data continues to show an ongoing rapid rate of increase with cases," Henderson Health Director Steve Smith said Jan. 19.
Case rates per 100,000 show that, for the county's seven-day rolling average, Henderson was at 102.7 per 100,000 per week on Jan. 10, 170.8 per 100,000 per week on Jan. 17, and 185,9 per 100,000 per week on Jan. 19.
"There are counties today in North Carolina that have rates at or above 400 and our future trends are likely to mirror those," Smith said, noting metrics and trends are readily available on a broad range of websites today including Global Epidemics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
The rise in cases is having an effect on local hospitals, where leadership recently put out statements urging the public to get vaccinated as beds filled up with COVID-positive patients.
As of Jan. 19, AdventHealth Hendersonville was caring for 22 COVID patients with nine in the ICU, according to spokesperson Victoria Dunkle.
Pardee continues to see an increased number of patients as a result of this latest COVID surge, said spokesperson Erica Allison also on Jan. 19. Pardee then had 33 patients hospitalized for COVID, 10 of who were in the ICU.
These numbers are similar to those from Jan. 11 when Pardee reported having 36 hospitalized with COVID and AdventHealth reported 21.
Smith spoke on important strategies to keep the virus from spreading and addressed news from Jan. 18 and Jan. 19 that federal agencies would work to get tests and masks to households that wanted them.
A website to order tests through the U.S. Postal Service for free already went live on Jan. 18.
The White House announced plans to sent 400 million masks to households on Jan. 19.
"Public health is appreciative of the additional resources for the community," Smith said.
"With regard to masks, we continue to message that surgical masks and KN95 masks -- both broadly available from commercial sources -- are highly effective at minimizing transmission risks with other layered protection strategies."
However, he added, "We don’t believe N95’s are necessary for the general public."
N95’s, Smith said, are actually respirators, not masks and do not necessarily provide a higher level of protection, if not fit tested.
"It also can be very difficult to breathe through an N95 for any length of time," he said. "We continue to believe that these are primarily needed for healthcare and other extreme exposure environments. Any mask or face covering however, is better than none, so we continue to encourage their use particularly in public indoor settings or when around high risk individuals."
Testing is another important strategy, Smith said. But the omicron variant -- which CDC data show now accounts for 99.5% of the COVID-19 cases in the U.S. -- is fast, putting its incubation period at about 3 days.
"The tests can provide useful confirmation of a case, but we urge people to be mindful of any symptoms and regardless of the availability of a test or the timing of results," Smith said, adding "Please isolate yourself when symptomatic."
According to smith, the top five omicron symptoms include:
"If you have these symptoms, make the wise choice and self-isolate until they resolve," Smith advised. "Do not go to work or have other public interactions while symptomatic and consult with your physician if symptoms become severe or you develop concerns. Testing results can inform your decision making because if positive for COVID-19, you should isolate for at least five days and until your symptoms are improving."
Many people were isolating over Jan. 16 weekend, but not for COVID.
Winter Storm Izzy brought 10-12 inches of snow to Hendersonville, causing delays, backups, closures and cancellations.
Smith said the weather didn't have a major effect on the area's health care system, however.
"It is not a major influence on current cases or other COVID-19 circumstances today although colder weather certainly increases time indoors and transmission opportunities within households and other group settings," he said.
Smith noted urgent care center closures during the storm were more related to staff availability than weather, but added snow and ice can "compromise access for the public.
"If an individual was having a health emergency, difficult weather would certainly make the transport more hazardous, but we haven’t heard of any major delays," he said.
Smith wrote in a release on Jan. 13 that vaccinations are still highly effective at reducing hospitalizations and deaths.
Vaccine information specific to Henderson County is available at its website.
Residents also can find more information on vaccine availability at NCDHHS' vaccine site locator tool.
Andrew Jones is Buncombe County government and health care reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Follow or reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Hendersonville Times-News: Henderson health director discusses COVID rate, masks, tests, symptoms