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As staggering benchmarks are reached — 200,000 U.S. deaths and 200,000 N.C. cases — the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact nearly every aspect of life. In Chatham County, cases now exceed 1,600. For an update on the latest about COVID-19 here at home, we speak this week with Zachary Horner, a communications specialist for the Chatham County Health Department. A former journalist and News + Record reporter (and the son of CN+R Publisher and Editor Bill Horner III), Zach Horner now works with the CCPHD on health promotion efforts and serves as the department’s public information officer and spokesman. A 2014 graduate of Elon University, he lives in Sanford with his wife, Sarah, who teaches in the Lee County Schools system.
We’re six months into the pandemic and six months down the road from Chatham County’s first case. Let’s start here: what’s the good news? And the bad news?
The good news is that generally our case numbers per day are declining. Since September 3, our rolling seven-day average of new confirmed cases has been in decline. Additionally, some of the outbreaks at nursing homes and long-term care facilities that we saw at the beginning of the pandemic are no longer ongoing. But that doesn’t mean we need to let up.
The pandemic is not over — and likely will not be over for several months still. Additionally, 57 people in Chatham County have died from COVID-19. Every life in Chatham County is valuable to us, and we mourn these losses. Additionally, people are continuing to contract the virus and become sick. While our numbers are on a general downslope right now, they’ve gone down and come back up before. Again, this is no time to let up.
While early in the pandemic, many of the cases in Chatham and around the state and country were associated with workplaces such as meat processing plants where close contact is difficult to avoid and when PPE (personal protective equipment) was in very short supply. COVID-19 has been present across the county for quite some time and transmission is most likely to occur in gatherings where the “3 W’s” are not properly followed. Therefore, it is important that we are all taking these actions to slow the spread of the virus.
We’re also continuing to see the pandemic disproportionately affect members of the Hispanic/Latinx community in Chatham County. The most recent census data showed that around 12% of our county’s residents belong to that population. The most recent COVID-19 data from the state shows that 55% of our confirmed positive cases are in that community. It’s just one example among a litany of examples of the negative health outcomes that disproportionately affect historically marginalized communities in Chatham County, and something we continue to monitor.
Good news is that we have a strong team dedicated to outreach in the Latinx community. This team has been able to provide zoom meetings with churches and other agencies to discuss COVID19, provide resources, including providing more than 10,000 masks to the Latinx community.
We also continue to work closely with higher-risk settings, such as nursing homes, to protect those who are more likely to become severely ill if they are infected.
One of the more frustrating aspects of following the pandemic is the varying accounts of data trends and trying to interpret those trends. From your department’s perspective, how would you assess the state of the numbers of cases and where we’re heading? The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in Chatham (3.9%) is lower than the state average (5%). What can we glean from that?
While it is difficult to know exactly where the pandemic is going, the decline in figures such as the percent of tests that come back positive is good news. If you look at the state dashboard data for Chatham County — which you can find at chathamnc.org/coronavirusdata — the last six-plus months have been somewhat inconsistent in the number of cases reported by day, which is why looking at trends can be more telling. Thankfully, we are also seeing the number of tests returning positive in the county dropping.
That said, we’re still seeing nearly 4% of tests return positive, which is just one sign that we’re not out of this yet. It’s still important that everyone follows the 3 W’s – wait six feet apart from others, wear a face covering at all times in public and when in close proximity to others and wash your hands for 20 seconds or more with warm water and soap or hand sanitizer. These actions have been critical to slowing the spread of the virus, and will remain important to continue to move in this positive direction. Until we consistently see no cases for a long period of time, we’re still in a pandemic. That means these safety measures are still necessary.
What do people need to know about how the county, local agencies and the health department are continuing to address COVID-19 in and around Chatham?
As a health department, we have put into place measures to keep residents and staff safe while working to operate as normally as possible. Many of our staff who are able to are working remotely at least part-time, but they’re continuing to serve the community well. Environmental Health personnel are continuing to perform restaurant inspections, septic system inspections, and well water testing, along with providing COVID-19 guidance to businesses, long-term care facilities and child care facilities. Our clinic staff is continuing to see clients and provide services ranging from immunizations to maternity care to well child checks. And our Health Promotion & Policy team continues to lead many community-focused services: we’re getting ready to kick-off virtual QuitSmart tobacco cessation classes again next month and our Focus on Fathers program staff members are continuing to meet in a socially distanced or virtual way with participants.
We’ve also partnered with Emergency Management to distribute more than 100,000 face coverings for community members.
We actually just finished highlighting some of our staff members through our Facebook page — facebook.com/ChathamHealth — with our #BeforeDuringAfter campaign. The posts highlighted what 12 staff members from various divisions and with various responsibilities have been doing since the pandemic began and comparing it to their jobs prior to March. We’re so proud of all of our employees, all county employees, and our community partners for all the work they’ve put in over the last six months, and it’s an honor for us at the Public Health Department to work alongside of them.
Testing has become more available, and we continue to work with our partners to expand access. More information can be found at chathamnc.org/coronavirustesting.
We hear about the 3 W’s a lot. One of them is “wear a cloth mask over your nose and mouth.” We can all probably cite why (or why not) that’s a good idea, based on how we’ve developed our beliefs and opinions about the coronavirus, but even in public spaces where masks are “required,” you see people without them. Even businesses which have signs requesting patrons wear them have people walking in and refusing to. What’s the department’s stance on that?
Overall, our community has responded very well to the 3 W’s, and it’s been so encouraging to see so many Chatham County residents overwhelmingly wearing face coverings in public spaces. We conducted a survey in May and June with members of our Chatham County Community Assessment Cohort — the same representative group of Chatham residents who gave us insight for our community assessment — and more than 90 percent of respondents said they were following all of the 3 W’s. We believe that the strong compliance with the 3 W’s in Chatham County is one reason that the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 has decreased in the last few months.
The fact remains that face coverings are the best way to slow the spread of the coronavirus, especially when social distancing cannot be maintained. Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, tweeted last Wednesday that “the best defense we currently have against this virus” are the 3 W’s. It’s the most practical way right now we have to slow the spread. That’s worth repeating a couple times. For more on the efficacy of face coverings, visit chathamnc.org/facecoverings.
We encourage all Chatham County residents to take Dr. Redfield’s advice and wear a face covering whenever they are out in public and around others. If anyone has a question or concern about enforcement or how businesses are operating, they may call our Environmental Health division at 919-542-8220 for clarification.
What can we find on the county’s coronavirus website that’s good to know about?
So much! By visiting chathamnc.org/coronavirus, you can find everything you need to know about Chatham County’s response to the pandemic. We’ll point out three spaces in particular. Our “Coronavirus & Face Coverings” page, which was already mentioned in these responses, provides insight on why face coverings work and what all Gov. Cooper’s executive order means for Chatham County residents. You can find that at chathamnc.org/facecoverings. “Coronavirus Testing & Contact Tracing” speaks to who should get tested, where to be tested and what contact tracing looks like. That can be found at chathamnc.org/coronavirustesting. Finally, the most recent COVID-19 numbers for Chatham County can be found at chathamnc.org/coronavirusdata. You can also visit us on social media at Facebook.com/ChathamHealth for the latest updates and important information.
And … flu shots — what’s the word on those?
Get your flu shot! There are many options across the Chatham community, and this year is as important as any to get the vaccine. Our clinic in Siler City began to offer flu shots by appointment on Monday — you can learn more about that at chathamnc.org/flu. That webpage also has answers to several pressing questions about flu season in general and how the flu relates to COVID-19.
As our Interim Public Health Director Mike Zelek said in a news release last week, “It is more important than ever to get the flu vaccine this year because COVID-19 remains present in our community. As we continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, getting a flu shot will not only help you and your family to stay healthy, but will also reduce the burden on the healthcare system and help our frontline medical workers maintain capacity.”
The word on flu shots is this: get them. The flu shot has proven to be one of the most effective ways to limit what is a deadly disease. During the 2019-2020 flu season, according to CDC estimates, somewhere between 39-56 million people in the United States got the flu, around 410,000-740,000 were hospitalized and between 24,000-62,000 people died from the flu.
If someone begins to get symptoms of the flu, stay home and practice good hygiene and immediately contact your medical provider. Be sure to get tested for COVID-19 as well, as many of the symptoms are the same as the flu. Common symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, chills and fatigue. And as always, during the pandemic, wear your face covering, wash your hands consistently and wait six feet apart from other people. These actions can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the flu, which are both respiratory viruses.
The pandemic has changed things for many of us in drastic ways, but what are a few “good news” stories that you’ve seen that are worth talking about?
I was at the Moncure location of Piedmont Health Services for a Chatham Health Alliance event last week and was so encouraged to see Chatham County residents wearing their face coverings and serving one another. Sara Martin with Insight Human Services and Elizabeth Fridley with the Health Department were speaking to residents there for appointments and providing free face coverings, medication lock boxes and information on the health department and COVID-19 testing sites. It’s that on-the-ground work that symbolizes county residents’ dedication to serving one another.
We’re also very proud of the work community members have been doing to inform and assist the Chatham community, including members of the Hispanic/Latinx community, during the pandemic. I want to give a big shout-out to Nellie Benitez and Vicky Guetgemann, who have other jobs but have thrown themselves fully into this public health work.
Lastly, we’re excited about Chatham Hospital restarting its maternity care unit this month. The new five-bed unit was created in partnership with Piedmont Health Services and fills a significant gap in our county. Prior to the unit’s construction, Chatham ranked in the bottom quarter of North Carolina counties for average distance between home and a hospital offering childbirth services. That list hasn’t been updated yet, but we feel good about where we’ll stand next time that list is compiled. Chatham Hospital recently delivered its first baby in the new center, which we know is the start of something beautiful and will be a tremendous community asset.
For more on the good things going on across the county, visit chathamnc.org/ChathamTogether for stories and photos!
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