UPDATE: Employee Face Masks and Eye Protection

UPDATE: Employee Face Masks and Eye Protection

Recommendations have changed. Beginning Monday, December 21st, employees in all departments must wear a level 3 surgical mask instead of a cloth mask while at work.

Level 3 Surgical Mask

Staff in clinical areas have already been wearing surgical masks, but this change will apply to non-clinical areas and office spaces. Because we cannot always guarantee our staff can safely distance themselves at least 6 feet at all times from co-workers, surgical masks will be required while on campus at any ARHS facility, regardless of your role.

A surgical mask protects the user from larger droplets from others and reduces the transfer of respiratory secretions from the user. Based on guidance from the CDC, AppHealthcare and Toe River Health departments, we know that surgical masks have proven to provide better protection for the user and those they encounter.

Employees may continue to wear fabric masks when reporting to work. However, all employees should obtain a hospital-approved surgical mask as soon as they reach their work area/department.


What is a level 3 surgical mask?

A surgical mask is a loose-fitting disposable mask that protects the wearer’s nose and mouth from contact droplets, splashes and sprays that may contain germs. A surgical mask also filters large particles in the air and may protect others by reducing exposure to the saliva and respiratory secretions of the mask wearer.


How to request level 3 surgical masks for your department/staff?

Materials Management currently stocks level 3 masks in all inpatient and outpatient clinical areas and have sent supplies to non-clinical areas. If you need masks in your department, please contact Materials Management at 828-262-4159.


How long can I wear a level 3 surgical mask?

Based on our current supply of masks, we recommend that employees in use their level 3 surgical mask for multiple days as long as it remains clean. Employees should replace masks if they become visibly soiled and/or when the integrity of the mask has been torn, degraded or compromised.


May I purchase level 3 masks online?

ARHS cannot certify that masks purchased online are actually level 3 masks. Employees must utilize surgical masks obtained from Materials Management only.


Do I need to wear eye protection as well?

Anyone involved in direct patient care must wear appropriate PPE, including eye protection.
Staff interacting with patients/visitors from behind a plexiglass barrier are not required to wear eye protection.
Staff interacting with patients/visitors without a plexiglass barrier or through a slide window must wear eye protection.
Fact Sheet: Eye protection for COVID-19



Email Mike Rawls (mrawls@apprhs.org) or Kathy Miller (kmiller@apprhs.org) in Materials Management or call 828-262-4159.

November 22 Employee Update

Situation Update

Cumulative/Active cases:
  • Watauga County Cases: 2197 (125 active)
  • Ashe County Cases: 857 (97 active)
  • Avery County Cases: 923 (137 active)
Statistics Source: NC Department of Health & Human Services, AppHealthCare, Avery County Health Dept.  Last update: 11/22 1:02 pm

Topics covered in today’s update:

  • Visitor Restrictions
  • Mary Street Parking Lot
  • Employee Illness Protocol

Essential WorkersVisitation Restrictions Apply to Employees and the Community

As you are aware, the COVID case count is still trending upward. Our emergency departments are seeing an increase in patients who are positive or exhibiting the symptoms of COVID-19. For this reason, we ask all employees not to travel through the ED unless your visit is work-related. Unlike our COVID units, it is difficult to establish isolation areas within the ED, therefore we consider the whole ED as a potential exposure risk.

Visitation restrictions apply to all ARHS employees, as well as to the public. Employees should not be “visiting” ED staff or congregating in break rooms or other areas during meals. This is to limit not only your risk, but the risk that you might unknowingly expose others to the virus.

Employees are not permitted to use their ID badge at any time to gain access to family or friends who are patients. The one (1) visitor per patient rule is there to protect all patients and staff. If you have questions or concerns, please discuss with your supervisor or contact the House Supervisor.

No ParkingMary Street Parking Lot

Starting December 3rd, the Mary Street Parking Lot will be closed to all vehicles in order to begin the next phase of the WMC construction project.

All three levels of the parking deck at WMC are available for employee parking.

COVID-19 Workflow for ARHS Employee Illness-Exposure

The COVID-19 Workflow for ARHS Employee Illness-Exposure has been updated and is found in Policy Manager in the COVID-19 Resources folder.

The updated workflow states “Employee may return to work in 10 days from date of symptom onset or positive test result if asymptomatic with at least 24 hours fever-free without medication. Employee must be cleared through OH to return to work.”

November 18 Employee Update

Situation Update

Cumulative/Active cases:
  • Watauga County Cases: 2092 (147 active)
  • Ashe County Cases: 757 (74 active)
  • Avery County Cases: 843
Statistics Source: NC Department of Health & Human Services, AppHealthCare. Last update: 11/18 5:33 pm

Topics covered in today’s update:

  • Holiday Gatherings
  • COVID-19 Workflow
  • COVID-19 County Alert System
  • Slow the Spread
  • COVID-19 Vaccines

Holiday Gatherings

As we enter the holiday season, we typically celebrate with co-workers through sharing meals and gathering for parties. However, staying true to 2020, we need to evaluate what has been the norm and look for alternate opportunities.

We are asking departments/facilities across ARHS not to host department luncheons/dinners where groups would gather to eat. While we do not enjoy being a scrooge, COVID cases in the community have increased, along with staff exposures resulting in employee quarantines and/or a positive COVID diagnosis. Although Governor Cooper’s Phase 3 order currently allows social gatherings of 10 or less, we ask that you refrain during this holiday season.

In the spirit of the season, we do encourage creativity in finding alternate ways to celebrate. A few ideas are listed below.

  • Plan a workstation or clinic door decoration contest
  • Sponsor a family through the E2E, Families Helping Families program, as a department/office.
  • Have an office scavenger hunt
  • Ugly sweater day or other holiday theme
  • Secret Santa
  • Thanksgiving or Christmas Trivia Contest
  • Participate in the ARHS Food Drive and donate to the Food Pantry

One of the best ways to celebrate is to ensure you and your co-workers remain safe and healthy. Thank you for helping ensure not only a happy, but healthy holiday season!

COVID-19 Workflow for ARHS Employee Illness-Exposure

The COVID-19 Workflow for ARHS Employee Illness-Exposure has been updated and is found in Policy Manager in the COVID-19 Resources folder. 
The updated workflow states “Employee may return to work in 10 days from date of symptom onset or positive test result if asymptomatic with at least 24 hours fever-free without medication. Employee must be cleared through OH to return to work.”

COVID-19 County Alert System

On November 17th, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) announced a new COVID-19 County Alert System to pinpoint counties with the highest levels of COVID-19 spread and offer recommendations to bring numbers down. The map will be updated every four weeks.

You can help Slow the Spread of COVID-19

Know how COVID-19 can spread

  • COVID-19 spreads easily from person to person, mainly through the following:
    • Between people who are in close contact with one another (within 6 feet).
    • Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, breathes, sings or talks. Respiratory droplets cause infection when they are inhaled or deposited on mucous membranes, such as those that line the inside of the nose and mouth.
  • People who are infected but do not have symptoms can also spread the virus to others.
  • Under certain circumstances (e.g., people gathered in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation), COVID-19 can sometimes be spread by airborne transmission.


Know how to protect yourself from COVID-19

  • Wear a mask at all times when you are within 6 feet of another person (including co-workers)
  • Avoid eating around others (including co-workers)
  • Perform hand hygiene frequently
  • Notify Occupational Health immediately if you have been exposed to COVID-19 or become symptomatic.


Exposure and Testing for COVID-19

If you have been exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms, ARHS Occupational Health will guide you through the testing process. Employees may need to be tested on Day 6 (Laboratory Test) and on Day 14 (Rapid Test, if asymptomatic). Refer to COVID-19 Resources in Policy Manager, “Communicable Disease Exposure: COVID-19 Employee Risk Exposure Assessment” for more information.

COVID-19 Vaccines


If you’re following the news, you’ve heard that Pfizer and Moderna have vaccines almost ready. Six other companies also have vaccines in the pipeline. Our medical staff will be meeting this week to discuss the data and help guide our organization as vaccines are made available.

Whenever a vaccine is available, the rollout will happen in multiple phases with high risk groups given the opportunity to receive the vaccine first. We will provide more updates as they become available.

Thanks to each of you for your continued contribution to this extraordinary team effort.

Amy Crabbe
Chief Operating Officer

COVID Facility/Staff Action Plan

COVID Facility/Staff Action Plan

As COVID cases continue to stretch our staff and resources, we wanted to provide an update regarding our current COVID response plans.

ARHS anticipates the following the next few months.

  • Resurgence of COVID cases in November and December
  • Increasing staff fatigue
  • Increasing demand for Medical/Surgical patients with complex care needs
  • Critical workforce shortages
  • Limited transfer availability to tertiary hospitals due to statewide staffing/bed capacity challenges

We continue to work diligently to alleviate the strain and obstacles you face daily. We recognize that when we reduced our services at the beginning of the pandemic, our patients didn’t have the normal access to care and in some cases experienced higher acuity when they did return. Therefore, we are committed to continue our normal operations and navigate the COVID needs. To try to mitigate some of the strain this commitment puts on our staffing and bed capacity, we plan to segment our COVID operations from normal operations.


ARHS Action / Staffing Plan:

To ensure adequate staffing and bed availability for all our patients, we are striving to establish dedicated hospital space and contract staffing to serve the COVID needs. These moves will provide some relief for from COVID demands and allow our clinical staff to resume normal operations.


If you are unable to see the timeline image below, scroll down for a text only version.

Image: COVID Staffing Plan Timeline

We will also continue to optimize Cannon’s bed capacity to meet all patient medical needs within the High Country. If ARHS surges beyond 21 COVID patients, alternative plans may include engaging Samaritan’s Purse to establish and staff an additional COVID unit on our campus.


COVID Vaccines

Our ARHS Pharmacy team has submitted a request for COVID vaccines for all staff, but we have not been notified regarding the quantity we will receive. Priority will be given to those involved in direct patient care and we anticipate employees will be able to make an informed decision about whether to take the vaccine.

We ask that you assist in helping us monitor and conserve PPE when possible. Please continue to be vigilant in not touching your mask or face, practicing good hand hygiene, and social distancing during breaks and meals.

Thanks to each of you for your continued contribution to this extraordinary team effort.

Amy Crabbe
Chief Operating Officer


Timeline: Text Only

Now: Cohort COVID Patients to SSU

Oct. 23: Move Pain Center

Week of Nov. 2: Move Sleep Center

Nov. 2: Dedicated COVID Contract Labor Team arrives

Week of Nov. 2: Convert 3 East to COVID Unit

Nov. 9: Re-open 3 South for Ortho and Med/Surg Overflow

Nov. 9: Expand COVID patients to 3 East, if needed

Nov. 9: Return OB Overflow/Cal I rooms for Nov/Dec baby boom

Early Nov: Implement tele-IPG and tele-ICU provider services

COVID Cases and Volumes Increasing

All ARHS Employees and Medical Staff,

It has been a very busy week in our health system.  As COVID cases have increased in our communities, our health system has also experienced higher volumes in our ambulatory and ED locations.  As a result we are almost at capacity in our second COVID unit (3 East) at WMC and are making preparations on 3 South to open a 3rd unit if needed.  Not only are we seeing a surge in COVID, we are seeing a surge in medical patients that need more intensive care than we have experienced in previous months.

We are working diligently to alleviate the strain from the surges, as well as any and all obstacles for you to care for our patients safely and effectively.  We have daily calls to stay on top of COVID rates in our community and manage:

  1. Bed Capacity
  2. Available Staffing
  3. Testing & PPE Utilization

This is what we do best as a health system- take care of our patients when needs are the greatest! We recognize success in caring for patients during this surge cannot be achieved by merely a few.  It will take commitment from the entire team to meet these needs.

We certainly understand the apprehension with regards to caring for or entering designated COVID areas.  However, we have made your safety our priority in providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to care for these patients.  We expect all staff to commit to using their PPE and taking care of our COVID patients when your department is involved in their care.  When entering a COVID area, staff must wear a mask and eye protection.  Unless you are directly entering a COVID patient’s room, no additional steps should be taken regarding PPE.

Be vigilant in not touching your mask or face, hand hygiene, and social distancing during breaks and meals.

To ensure constant readiness, ARHS has accepted state resources to establish a mobile unit outside the ED ambulance area at WMC.   This unit is a preventive step that will allow us to cohort COVID patients within the ED if our volumes continue to rise and ensure we can continue to provide ED services to non-COVID patients in a safe environment.  If you see this unit at WMC, please know it is in anticipation of this need and will not be utilized unless we need the additional space.

Thanks to each of you for your continued contribution to this extraordinary team effort.

Amy Crabbe, Chief Operating Officer

Second COVID Unit Opened – Do Not Enter

Watauga Medical Center has experienced a sustained increase in COVID inpatients during the last week. Leading indicators of COVID positive cases in our community tell us we should expect to see more positive patients requiring hospitalization in the coming weeks. To prepare for this patient surge, we will be opening a second COVID unit should our bed needs exceed SSU capacity.

We have opened a COVID unit on 3 East to provide an additional 6 bed COVID unit, bringing our overall isolation/negative pressure bed capacity to at least 12 beds. This unit is located in the previous Wound Care space on the 3rd floor (the hallway between Pain Clinic and OB).

This will be a closed unit with no pass through permitted. Since we now have patients in this COVID space, for employee safety all access to that hallway is strictly prohibited.

No staff should attempt to enter 3 East COVID unit or the OB overflow area unless they providing direct patient care in that area. If your department needs to provide nourishments, supplies or equipment to this CLOSED hallway, please do not enter this space and contact nursing personnel assigned to 3 East at extension #62405 to coordinate your services to these patients.

If you have questions or concerns about your route around this new unit, please speak with your supervisor.