Update: Graham County along with Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital have opened up a Coronavirus Community Information line. Beginning Thursday, community members can call 828-835-4258 on Monday through Friday from 9 A.M. to noon and 1P.M. to 4 P.M. to speak with a representative. There is no cost and no insurance needed. This public service provides convenient access to local health care providers who will answer their questions. This is NOT a COVID-19 test screening line.
Graham County only has a population of about 9,000 people. But it’s taking greater precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19 than almost anywhere else in Western North Carolina.
Dale Wiggins is the chair of the Graham County board of commissioners.
“You know, in reality, I hope we are overreacting,” says Wiggins.
Over the weekend, the county announced as part of its state of emergency it will close all hotels and accommodations as well as limiting traffic. Only Graham County residents will be allowed to drive on U.S. Highway 129 and NC 28 starting Friday, March 27. Wiggins says concerns about treating the virus are the leading cause.
“The lack of medical facilities to treat someone with the coronavirus. We don’t have anything here in county to treat people,” says Wiggins. The road closures won't go into affect until Friday and business travel will still be allowed.
The Graham County health department can test patients for coronavirus but the closest hospital is over 40 minutes away in Bryson City or Cherokee. They can also be tested at Tallulah Health Center or Smoky Mountain Urgent Care in Robbinsville.
There is an exception to the traffic shutdown. Those being detoured to get around roadwork on U.S. 19/74 through the Nantahala Gorge will be allowed to go through but not to stop. NC DOT is working on a rockslide near the Nantahala Gorge.
Wiggins explains the closure of roads is also due to the county’s tourism which is predominately motorcycle riders. The Cherohala Skyway and the Tail of the Dragon are famous sections of switchbacks. Wiggins says that right now they cannot spare the county’s two ambulances for a motorcycle wreck.
“We have to respond to a lot of motorcycle wrecks here in this county. We have the highest motorcycle fatality rate in the state of North Carolina,” says Wiggins.
Wiggins adds 4 COVID-19 cases originating at the John C. Campbell Folk School in neighboring Cherokee County also played a factor in the decision to increase restrictions.
“That just makes it a little bit more real when your neighbors are dealing with it,” says Wiggins.
On Tuesday, according to Wiggins, there will be additional closures of hair and nail salons, video gaming centers and all public parks starting at noon.
Nearby Swain County has followed suit by closing local accommodations as well. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have closed though traffic on the Qualla Boundary and local accommodations.
Hotels and accommodations are still open in Buncombe County.