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Jackson County ER Doctor Opens Up About Life With COVID-19

Courtesy of Ben Guiney
Dr. Ben Guiney, 52, spoke with BPR via phone from quaratine after testing positive for COVID-19.

Jackson County is one of six jurisdictions in Western North Carolina now considered to have ‘critical’ community spread of coronavirus, the highest such classification from the state.  BPR talked to a doctor who was recently in quarantine with COVID-19:

Dr. Ben Guiney tested positive for COVID-19 on November 28th.  He’s not sure if he got COVID working at Harris Regional Hospital or not. During his isolation, Guiney was separated from his family by his bedroom door.

“There's a little knock on the door and I hear, 'your food's out here,' and that's it, comes three times a day,” said Guiney while in isolation by phone.

Guiney says that he has been lucky that his symptoms have been mild and he was excited to leave quarantine on Tuesday. He has been a doctor in Jackson County for 6 years. He says working in the Emergency Room at Harris Regional during the pandemic has been hard.

“This is one of the risks of being taking care of others. Being in the frontline in the ER, we are putting ourselves at a higher risk and what's even worse is we're putting our families at higher risk,” said Guiney, who is 52-years-old. 

Medical frontline workers exposed to the virus do not need to quarantine, instead they aren’t sent home until they experience symptoms, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Guiney says that every day since the spring after work he has put his clothes directly into the washing machine and taken a shower in hopes that he won’t get his wife and daughter sick. They have both been in quarantine during his case. Here's the difference between isolation and quarantine.

“I just worry about some of the folks I work with who maybe have some underlying health conditions and they're at increased risk,” said Guiney.

Guiney says that he’s one of four ER doctors at the hospital. His shift has had to be covered during quarantine. He worries about staffing for specialized jobs at the hospital such as respiration specialists and ICU nurses as the COVID-19 case numbers surge in the region. 

Last week Haywood Regional Hospital – which is part of the Duke Lifepoint System along with Harris and Swain Community Hospital – announced that it was no longer allowing visitors due to COVID-19 rates in Haywood County. 

Credit Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services
Jackson, Haywood and Swain Counties were all marked red to indicate 'critical' community spread on December 8, 2020 by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Beyond, his work as a healthcare provider, Guiney is also a member of the Sylva Town Board. As a commissioner, he was part of a group that proposed a mask mandate for the town in October. It didn’t pass. Now Guiney says he wants to encourage personal responsibility.

“You know, with great freedoms comes great responsibility and personal responsibility,” said Guiney.

With the vaccine on the horizon, Guiney says he can see the dawn but he’s concerned about the time between now and when the vaccine will be available to the general public. Right now, that estimation is spring 2021.

“It's up to everybody between now and then how much darker it gets before that dawn - and who makes it to the dawn,” said Guiney.

Frontline health care workers like Dr. Guiney will be among the first to receive the vaccine when it is ready under the distribution plan, announced this week by North Carolina health officials.

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.
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