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Many COVID-19 Cases In WNC Can Be Traced To A Folk School Dance

Lilly Knoepp
Lake Hiawassee is located in Cherokee County.

I’m Matt Bush with BPR News and I’m joined by our own Lilly Knoepp who has been reporting on COVID-19 cases in the westernmost counties in North Carolina. She joins us from her office in Sylva. And she has joined us today to talk about one particular event that has caused a lot of the cases in the westernmost counties. 


So the two westernmost counties are Cherokee and Clay counties. A lot of the cases COVID-19 that have been reported and confirmed in those counties are tied to an event at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown. So take us through how this all weaves together with all of these COVID-19 cases that have been confirmed. 


At the John C. Campbell Folk school held a contra and square dance on March 10th. And someone from New York came to Cherokee County for that event. And after they had been in the county for awhile and attended dance they started exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and tested positive for COVID-19. The Cherokee County health department says that they did not attend any other public events. So that test came back on March 18th, so there were 8 days between the dance and when this positive test came back. Since then we now have a total of about 9 cases in Cherokee and Clay County that are related directly to this contra dance. After the March 18th announcement on March 21st, 4 more people were announced to have COVID-19 from this positive case in New York. Two of them were staying in a house with the person from New York and 3 of them were Cherokee County residents. So it’s been really interesting to watch as Cherokee and Clay County have been working with the folk school to try and find all of the people who attended the dance, track their movements and try and figure out how best to help them and how best to stop the spread of COVID-19. 


Now you did say that some of the people who have tested positive were staying with the person from New York. But some of the people who have no tie to the person beyond this dance have tested positive too, correct? 


Two of those cases in Clay County specifically are just associated with that folk school dance. 


This is just 9 cases, so that is a number that may seem small for other counties that we are hearing about but this is a very large number for these counties. It is very rural out there.  These are the two most western counties of the state. 


That’s right. In the surrounding counties of Macon and Jackson, we have only seen one or two cases and these are also only from part-time residents. In addition to the cases at the folk school, Cherokee County has also had a few other cases from people who have come from other places. One of them recently came back from a church in Georgia where there were confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the other had recently returned from a cruise. So it’s really a lot of these cases coming from outside of the state and now they are spreading here in Western North Carolina. 


You did say that the folk school and the county health departments have been trying to determine how many people were at this and get in touch with them. What efforts have been made there? 


The Cherokee County Health Department and the Clay County Health Department have both requested that any attendees this dance reach out to them directly. They say that they are testing them and trying to identify them but as recently as this week we have gotten new cases in Clay County that are associated with the folk school. So we are still waiting for test results on a lot of this. As I’m sure we’ve talked about on other programs, the lag between finding people who might have been impacted and waiting for the test results is really something that we are seeing a lot of in this story. 


There are two cases of COVID-19 that have resulted in deaths. One in Buncombe County and one in Cherokee County. Was that case related at all to the folk school? 


There has not been any confirmation on who the person was who passed away from COVID-19 in Cherokee County. There are a number of other cases, like we said there are 9 that are related to the folk school in Western North Carolina and there are a total of about 12 cases - and that’s Cherokee and Clay county - so it could have been someone who was not related to the folk school dance. 


That was Lilly Knoepp. Joining us from her office in Sylva. Thank you Lilly, for being on with us today. 


Thanks Matt!


Here's the official statement from the John C. Campbell Folk School website:

"The Folk School has received many questions from our community and media regarding possible exposure to COVID-19 at the school, specifically relating to a contra and square dance on March 10. All public health questions should be directed to Cherokee County Department of Public Health at 828-837-7486.

Approximately 90 students and community members attended an introductory contra and square dance on Tuesday, March 10, from 7-8 p.m. As of March 10, there were no federal, state, or health department recommendations or bans for limiting the number of attendees for public events. (On March 13, the state of N.C. recommended that event size be limited to 100 attendees or less. On March 14, the state of N.C. banned event sizes of 100 or more.)

On March 13, the Folk School suspended all activities including events, dances, and classes through April 18. As of today, March 21, we have suspended all activities until further notice." 


Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.