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Residents In NC Mountains Fear Coronavirus Spread From Out-Of-Towners


There are growing concerns in the mountains of North Carolina that people are trying to escape large cities like New York with high numbers of coronavirus cases to come to more isolated areas to ride out the outbreak. Lilly Knoepp of Blue Ridge Public Radio has been covering this issue. She says residents fear people are bringing COVID-19 to their remote towns, and could strain their already limited health care resources.

Lilly Knoepp: And so it's not just tourists that people are worried about. Those numbers really do increase in the summers, as well. But it's the second homeowners, as well, who do own property in western North Carolina but aren't there for about half of the year. They're also coming up to kind of get refuge from the larger metropolitan areas like Atlanta or New York City where they live. And then, you know, in this effort to be somewhere that's less populated, they're kind of bringing the virus here. 

Gwendolyn Glenn: Now, are they coming in large numbers? Are people just seeing a handful of people? Any way to determine how large a number of people are coming to get away from the coronavirus? 

Knoepp: It's hard to pin down an exact number. I was talking this morning with one of the Macon County mayors in Highlands. They probably have one of the largest populations of second homeowners. And he really couldn't pin down the exact number. But based on the confirmed coronavirus cases that we have, the large majority of those people are from out of town. 

Glenn: And how many cases do you have?

Knoepp: Across the region that I cover, not including Buncombe County, there's probably around 10. As of this morning, six in Cherokee County, two isolating in Macon and one in Jackson County. 

Glenn: And you say the majority of those are out-of-towners? 

Knoepp: Yes. Those are all people from out of town, except for the newest case that was announced this morning in Cherokee was someone who had just gotten back from a cruise. And a few of the Cherokee County cases are people who are from the region but stem from someone from New York who came to visit.

Glenn: And you talked to one woman who lives there, and she was very upset. Tell us her name and then we will play a clip from what she had to say. 

Knoepp: I spoke with Kelly Marr. She's a Whittier resident and she works in Bryson City in Swain County.

Kellie Marr: Every case that's been around has been from a different state. It's like we're standing at our exit with our arms open like, "Welcome, corona." 

Glenn: So do you know the possibility or are legislators there considering closing the counties off to visitors and tourists? I know a lot of them have closed down hotels and other kinds of accommodations there. Is that being considered now? As say, for instance, Dare County has closed it off to only residents? 

Knoepp: So Graham County, which is probably one of the most isolated counties that I cover, they've closed off their roads in the region to anyone who is not a resident. But for the most part, it doesn't really seem like these counties have the resources to be able to effectively close their borders. I actually spoke with an expert in Dare County and she really outlined, you know, there really are only two bridges into Dare County. And so it's a little bit easier for police officers to, you know, barricade those entry points and talk to people who are coming in about where they're from and do those ID checks. All of these towns and counties are really connected along major highways that run across western North Carolina and go up into other states. And so it would really take a lot more manpower than they potentially have to be able to do this. But it is something that each of the counties is really considering. So we'll see what happens. I know Swain County has a meeting (Thursday night) to talk about this, as does Macon County. 

Glenn: And speaking of resources, if, say, for instance, the number of COVID-19 cases increases, do you have the resources to handle cases? Do you have the emergency units, ICU beds, those kinds of things? 

Knoepp: I mean, I think the short answer is no. That's really the concern for not wanting people from out of town to come in is it's not only for their ability to spread the virus, but it's also for their own safety. You know, the hospitals and the health care providers that we have here had already been understaffed in health care. Access here had already been discussed as, you know, needing improvements before this global pandemic. An increase in population would only exacerbate the health care needs of western North Carolina. 

Glenn: And I read in your story as well that for some hospitals they are as far as 40 or 50 miles away?

Knoepp: Absolutely. Swain County does have a hospital, but for most major issues, the hospital is Mission, which is located in Asheville. And that hospital is just about 70 miles away from Bryson City, right at 65. So, you're really looking at an hour or more for most people to be able to get care at that ICU level. 

Glenn: OK, well, thanks so much for talking with us today.

Knoepp: Great. 

Glenn: That’s Lilly Knoepp, a regional reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. 

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