Avery County has ramped up coronavirus testing in the last week, but still hasn’t found its first confirmed coronavirus case.
These days, it’s difficult to find a corner of the Earth that the coronavirus hasn’t touched. In the continental United States, Avery County, North Carolina is just about as close as you’ll find.
The state of North Carolina has had 15,045 laboratory confirmed cases of coronavirus and 550 deaths in 99 counties, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
But Avery, population about 17,500, which sits on the Tennessee border in the North Carolina High Country and to this day is the most recent county to be chartered in the state, has zero. None. Null.
That doesn’t mean that the county hasn’t had a case, only that a test hasn’t been confirmed. There was an initial lack of testing all over the country when the pandemic began, and those problems were exacerbated in rural counties with fewer resources.
As of Tuesday, the county had completed a total of 421 tests, about 2.4% of the population. But it’s hard to know how that compares to other counties. DHHS has reported 195,865 tests statewide, but does not publish the number of tests completed by county.
Toe River Health District spokesperson Mason Gardner, whose agency serves Mitchell and Yancey counties as well as Avery, told Cardinal & Pine on Monday that while the county was “in the same boat” as a lot of other areas with regards to a lack of access to testing, demand from residents has increased as tests have become more readily available.
“We had a large outcry from the public who wanted to be tested, and we wanted to do the best for them,” Gardner said. “I guess there’s no way of knowing if we missed [positive cases] or not. We’d like to do antibody testing to answer those questions.”
So last Thursday, May 7, the county held a drive-thru testing clinic for anyone who wanted a test.
Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier told Cardinal & Pine in a phone interview Monday that the county performed 270 tests that day, the results of which are all expected to come back by the middle of this week.
The county did a total of 320 tests last week, meaning it could only be a matter of time before Avery joins the rest of the state.
But Gardner said later Monday afternoon that, of the 200 tests that had come back so far, none were positive.
“We’re trying to get those test numbers up, but we’ve been fortunate not to have any positive tests,” Barrier said.
While Avery County might be an anomaly in that it’s the only county in the state with zero coronavirus cases, Gardner pointed out that much of the western part of the state has “fared very well” through the crisis.
As of Monday, just three of the 10 counties on the Tennessee border had cases in the double-digits, according to the NCDHHS. (The rural coastal areas of the state have also seen fewer cases. Hyde County, on the Outer Banks, has seen just one case, although the county population of about 5,500 is one of the lowest in the state.)
Barrier believes part of the reason Avery County has dodged an outbreak, if not the virus entirely, is due to the county’s rural location. The county Board of Commissioners also temporarily shut down lodging facilities and short-term rentals last month, a tough decision in an area whose economy is heavily reliant on mountain-based tourism (as well as Christmas trees).
“We want to start reopening like Gov. Cooper has so we can relax some of our short-term rental restrictions in place,” Gardner said. “Our economy is vacation-based.”
Barrier also credits the people of the county. “We believe that people have done the right thing and have listened to the governor’s order and taken this seriously.” Barrier said. “They’ve stayed at home, washed hands, practiced social distancing, wore masks [in public]…They’ve done all of that.”
“Avery County being Avery County,” Barrier added. “Just everyone pulling together.”