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Murphy Hospital Has Hired New Doctors, Furloughed Other Employees During COVID-19

Courtesy of Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital
Erlanger Western Carolina Hopsital is the last not-for-profit hosptial west of Asheville. The hospital is also less than 30 minutes from neighboring Georgia.

Cherokee County has been one of the rural hotspots for COVID-19 in North Carolina.  The lone hospital there – Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital in Murphy - cut back employee’s hours because of the crisis. Blue Ridge Public Radio spoke with two doctors to see how the hospital is holding up in the face of the pandemic.

Dr. Stephen Rubendall started working in Murphy just last week.  He moved from Mitchell County, Georgia, where Rubendall says the COVID-19 spread is much different. 

“Where I was practicing is just south of Dougherty County in Georgia and they have had a remarkable number of cases per percentage of the population,” says Rubendall. “I think it’s just behind New York and some of the worst places in the world unfortunately.” 

Right now, in Mitchell and Dougherty Counties, there are almost 2,000 COVID cases and over 100 deaths. Those counties are about six hours away from Cherokee County, North Carolina where he is now.  There are about 20 cases and one death in there as reported by the Cherokee County health department.

“I think the first day I saw six people. And most of them were just people in need of a primary, who needed some meds refilled and they didn’t have anywhere to go to,” says Rubendall, who has been working at Erlanger Primary Care Peachtree. 

Even before the pandemic, Cherokee County hadn’t had enough primary care physicians for years, says Dr. Brian Mitchell, whose practice Rubendall has joined. He’s worked in the county for over 40 years and is excited to see new doctors coming to the region: 

 “After many, many years of trying to recruit, myself and the leadership of the hospital have finally been successful,” says Mitchell. 

Rubendall is the fourth new doctor recently hired by Erlanger. Two other physicians are now based in Andrews and another is in neighboring Clay County.  

These hires were made long before COVID and since then the pandemic has caused cutbacks at the hospital. Many administrative positions have been furloughed and staff hours were cut at the end of March. Mitchell says all medical staff volunteered to have their salaries cut by 5 percent during the crisis. 

“We think that every effort should be made to help weather this storm,” says Mitchell. 

Chattanooga-based Erlanger Health System purchased Murphy Medical Center in 2018 - that’s when the hospital became Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital. At the end of last year, the hospital closed its labor and delivery unit as well as all OBGYN services.  Mitchell says its important that the hospital remain financially stable.

“We are the only hospital in Clay and Cherokee County that provides primary care and we are determined to maintain it with the highest quality care possible,” says Mitchell. 

Systemwide Erlanger has stated that revenues dropped as much as 40 percent within days of barring elective procedures because of COVID in March. Mitchell says while the hospital halls are quiet, they’re still able to deal with the health crisis. 

“I think the community should be assured that the staff of the hospital right now is adequate to meet the healthcare needs of the community,” says Mitchell. 

While Murphy might be far from Dr. Rubendall’s former home in Georgia, the stateline is less than 30 minutes away. Governor Brian Kemp’s announcement that some businesses will reopen in Georgia on Friday worries Rubendall who has seen the impact of COVID in the state. 

“Like why are we rushing this. We started things late and now we are rushing back in. You know from a medical standpoint I don’t agree with it,” says Rubendall. “But I’m not having constituents knocking on my door heavily everyday.” 

Cherokee County’s economic development director says that about 40 percent of the county’s workforce lives outside of North Carolina,  primarily in North Georgia.


Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who 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.