Early Testing At Folk School May Have Stopped COVID-19 Spread In WNC

Apr 7, 2020


  At the western end of North Carolina, Cherokee County saw one of the state’s first confirmed cases of COVID-19. Here’s how local officials responded to the case: 

When the first diagnosis of COVID-19 in Cherokee County was announced only a few facts were shared. It was a woman visiting from New York. She didn’t have any symptoms until after she came to North Carolina. And she had been to a contra dance at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown.  

 “I mean I think that has been the biggest challenge to this - it's the unknown.”

That’s Jerry Jackson, the folk school’s director. It’s the oldest folk school in the country and has almost 6,000 visitors per year. He explains that the contra dances are important events that are held once a month. 

“It’s one of the largest ways that we engage with the community and the community comes into the folk school,” says Johnson.   

Jackson says within hours of the confirmation that the woman at the dance had COVID-19, his staff was on the phone with attendees of the dance and people they had been in contact with - about 90 total. Jackson helped make up a list to share with the health department. That’s when a local doctor stepped in. 

 “From my perspective we have not yet seen the surge in cases,” says Mitchell, explaing how the virus is moving through Western North Carolina.  

 Dr. Brian Mitchell has worked in Murphy and lived in Brasstown for about 45 years. He practices at Erlanger Primary Care Peachtree, as well as, at the local hospital and nursing home. He’s also on a committee for the Dogwood Health Trust, the foundation created when Mission Health was sold to for-profit HCA Healthcare. 

“That’s when Dogwood Health Trust saw the opportunity to slow the spread of the virus,” says Mitchell. 

Dogwood worked with the Cherokee and Clay County Health Departments to order private tests from an accredited company in Atlanta.  They won’t confirm which company. Mitchell says the ability to do widespread testing was a game changer: 

“In particular, they thought, and I agreed with them, that asymptomatic patients should also be tested - because we knew that many patients who had the virus would be asymptomatic,” says Mitchell, explaining that even people without symptoms can spread the virus.

Soon after, Jackson says about 75 people were tested at the Folk School’s festival barn.

“The festival barn is usually a place for celebration, music and dance - things that are certainly on the opposite end of the spectrum of having a medical test,” says Johnson. 

Test results came back about a week later. Stephanie Johnson is the director of Clay County Health Department.  She says Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties are all linked by people who live and work across county lines. However, Cherokee, which is more than double the size of the other two counties, has also seen this influx in cases because of additional attractions, she says. Two examples are the Harrah’s Cherokee Valley Casino and the folk school -  both bring in visitors from near and far. 

"When you have more present opportunities the likelihood of disease spread happens more often. That’s why the stay at home order is key in flattening the curve,” says Johnson. 

So far there have been two cases linked to Harrah’s Cherokee Valley Casino. 

On Friday, Dogwood Health Trust sent out a press release confirming their involvement in the process for the first time. It explains that about 9 local counties including the Qualla Boundary have gotten test kits from Dogwood for contact tracing.

“This effort to support testing and contact tracing here in WNC still doesn’t replace the need for everyone to stay home,” says Antony Chiang, Dogwood Health Trust CEO in a press release.

Johnson says that health departments do contact tracing year-round for communicable diseases like Hepatitis. 

“So we look at the disease and then we ask questions that are appropriate to figure out who would qualify as someone we would need to follow up with and who we would not,” says Johnson. 

 Dr. Mitchell says that the ability to secure these testing supplies quickly and test people who were in contact at the dance and afterward stopped the spread of the virus.  

“Time will tell but my early impressions are that we might very well have been successful,” says Mitchell. 

The local health department announced that last week 6 people in Cherokee County have recovered from COVID-19 and been released from isolation.