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WEST JEFFERSON — A public health Q&A session was hosted on Zoom Video Communications by the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce on May 18. The meeting took place at 3 p.m. and the special guest was Jennifer Greene, MPH, Health Director/CEO at AppHealthCare.

Kitty Honeycutt, Executive Director at Ashe County Chamber of Commerce hosted the event in which chamber staff as well as AppHealthCare employees Kelly Welsh, Director of Clinical Services, Andrew Blethen, Environmental Health Supervisor and Monica McKinney, Environmental Health Specialist were present.

There were over 50 participants in the conference which included local restaurant and small business owners.

At the opening of the meeting, Welsh spoke about who the health department plans to test in the county.

Welsh presented information received from state health partners on the afternoon of Friday, May 15 which was intended to help them identify those who are priorities for COVID-19 testing.

According to Welsh, they want to test anyone in whom the virus is suspected and those exhibiting symptoms. Welsh said symptoms include a cough, fever, chills, loss of taste or smell or a sore throat. Some of the symptoms can mimic allergic reactions people experience during this time of year.

“We do want to test close contacts, that’s one of the new things that just came out,” Welsh said. “Anyone who is in fact, a connection to a positive case, that is someone that we want to test.

Welsh defined a close contact as anyone who has been in contact with a positive case for at least ten minutes or more at a distance of six feet or less.

According to Welsh, they also want to test those who are in high risk of exposure or high risk of disease. Individuals would include those with chronic illnesses, over 65 years of age or those with underlying health conditions.

Other high risk categories include residents and employees of long-term care facilities, those working or residing in homeless shelters or correctional facilities or migrant farm-worker camps. Healthcare workers and first responders are also included as those prioritized for testing.

Welsh said another new category for prioritized testing is frontline and essential workers which includes grocery store workers and gas station attendants. These are settings where social distancing can be difficult to maintain.

“I’ll just add that one of the things we are sort of thinking through, of course, she mentioned a pretty broad group of people. A test is one point in time,” Greene said. “So we have to remember that, some of the individuals that are priority for testing are likely to have risk of exposure over and over and over again. So we’ve got to think about how we manage that testing strategy so that we maintain a healthy workforce but we also think through the fact that just because you’re negative today does not mean that you will always be negative.”

Greene said that Ashe Memorial Hospital and Mountain Family Care Center have been offering testing and have been great partners. According to Greene, they are currently working on updating testing site locations.

There is a AppHealthCare COVID-19 Call Center available for those with questions and concerns or would like to be scheduled for testing for those who fit any of the categories for testing.

The Call Center can be reached at 1+ (828) 795-1970.

McKinney provided an overview of the Count On Me NC which is a mutual pledge and public health initiative that empowers guests and businesses to help keep everyone safe and protected.

According to McKinney it is a collaboration between the state, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association to help train both managers and employees on how to operate safely during the pandemic.

Once the training program is completed, participants will receive a certificate to place on the windows of their businesses.

“Customers are going to be able to search a database to be able to see which businesses have participated,” McKinney said. “So that’s gonna help give them that reassurance that where they are patronizing is a safer place to patronize. And also it’s good for your employees, you know, there’s just so much uncertainty with this disease. Anything and everything you can do to both help train your employees and to protect them is definitely a step in the right direction.”

Additional information about the program, which is actively being developed, can be accessed at www.countonmenc.org.

Blethen added that the program is geared toward the questions and concerns raised by COVID-19.

“This is just building on what we already have in place, that our inspectors and food service facilities are already working together with respect to limiting the spread of communicable diseases and the safety of your patrons,” Blethen said.

Greene added that the program may not include the exact guidelines per Governor Roy Cooper concerning Phase 2. However, the information will be provided to restaurants as it is received.

Honeycutt asked whether or not business owners can require patrons to wear face coverings prior to entering their business.

Greene said she did not see why those who operate their own establishment could not set policies for their employees and patrons to follow.

In regard to face coverings, Greene said wearing one when out and about can be described as an “act of kindness.” Greene said face coverings can vary from cloth masks to bandanas and are effective as long as they are worn properly, which is covering the nose and chin.

Welsh added that requiring all individuals to wear a mask is not always feasible. Some people who experience health conditions including obstructive pulmonary diseases and anxiety and claustrophobia can be worsened by having to wear facial coverings.

“Although we recommend it for the general population, please know there are instances in which not everyone can and hopefully by the rest of us who can, wearing a mask we are going to help protect those who cannot,” Welsh said.

Greene said wearing a mask shows that you care about others.

“It’s more about you keeping your germs to yourself. We know that this is spread through respiratory droplets, so that means when you are talking, when you’re coughing, when you sneeze all of that puts out particles in the air that we don’t see,” Greene said. “And if we’re around other people, that’s spreading potentially our droplets and/or virus to others unknowingly.”

As businesses reopen and the community plans to return to a "new" normal, Greene encourages the 3 W's which she defines as wearing a face covering, regular hand washing and waiting six feet apart at checkout counters.

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