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Covid-19 NC: Meet The Climate Scientist Behind Buncombe County's New Self-Checker

Buncombe County

Buncombe county residents who think they may have symptoms of COVID-19 can get answers and connect to resources with a new online  Self -Checker .  The  digital tool was created by a COVID-19 think tank started by Emergency Preparedness Director Fletcher Tove with support from the Mountain Area Health Education Center.   The idea for the online resource came from a local climate scientist who also worked to develop and program the self-checker.  BPR’S Helen Chickering reports.

“Good afternoon”

At a recent Buncombe County Commissioners meeting  Emergency preparedness Director Fletcher Tove unveiled the county’s new online symptom checker.

“I'm going to share our new COVID-19 self-checker we've developed in partnership with a local  epidemiologist.   I do want to talk about her real quick, she’s done a fantastic job with us lately, working to develop this tool,”  Tove told commissioners.

That local epidemiologist is Jennifer Runkle PhD, but she doesn’t work for the health department.

“I am an epidemiologist at the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies. And our Institute is actually at North Carolina State University, says Runkle, “but we are here located in Asheville.”

That’s the group that helped created the state climate science report. Runkle studies the impact of the 

Credit BPR
Jennifer Runkle, PhD is an environmental epidemiologist with the North Carolina Institute for Climate Studies

environment on health. Her gears switched from climate to coronavirus when she got an invite from Fletcher Tove to join a  COVID-19 think tank.

“We share emails and offline conversations, says Runkle. “All of us are reading different literature and we kind of serve it up to the group and talk about it.”

Runkle pitched the idea for a self-checker. The CDC and others have created similar symptom checking tools and the think tank worked to create a program that would do more. 

“So, we thought, you know, could we develop a way to allow concerned residents to opt in and allow us to check in on them daily, the public health department to see, you know, how are they feeling? Have they experienced any change in symptoms and kind of provide, a technological solution to direct them to the care that they need”?

Personalized follow-up that also provides important demographic information  that will help health officials get a better grasp on coronavirus in the community.  And because it is local -  Runkle says the tool can be modified to fit the changing coronavirus climate. 

And speaking of climate,  she's keeping her eye on that too. 

“Is there an association with  the transmission of the virus? You know, concerning weather, temperature, humidity, and if so how can we use that information in conjunction with what's happening on the public health side to kind of get better at predicting  the situation in which outbreaks will be most likely  - and get ahead of the curve."

Jennifer Runkle joined a climate think tank to figure that one out - we'll keep you posted. 

How Self-Checker* works:

·Head to buncombecounty.org/covid-19, and click on the Buncombe Ready COVID-19 Self-Checker banner.

  • Share information about your health, any symptoms you are having, and your health history.
  • If your results indicate you need testing, we will connect you with testing and other support to keep you as safe as possible. If you are symptomatic, we will continue to follow up with you every day for 7-10 days after completing the Self-Checker.

·         You can also use Self-Checker by calling the Ready Team at (828) 419-0095, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. 

“The goal of the Self-Checker is to connect those in need to COVID-19 testing, offer additional support, follow up to ensure people are healthy and safe, and gather information about the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” notes Buncombe County Public Health Director Dr. Jennifer Mullendore. Public Health urges anyone with questions about whether they have COVID-19 to use Self-Checker. “This also allows us to conserve healthcare resources, protective equipment, and supplies while keeping people at home and away from others if they potentially have COVID-19,” says Dr. Mullendore.

The Self-Checker is available online in Spanish and Russian and can be taken over the phone in multiple languages via 211.

*Buncombe County COVID-19 Self-Checker is not a comprehensive medical assessment. If you are experiencing severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pains or pressure, blue lips, or confusion, call 911. You must be 18 or older to use the Self-Checker.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.