By Nathan Ham
When Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier spoke to members of the Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk last Tuesday, the message was simple when it came to the number of Avery County residents that have held off on getting the vaccine.
“It’s a trust issue.”
Barrier spoke at the club’s monthly meeting held at Holston Presbytery Camp, both to people in person and a lot of others attending the meeting via Zoom.
“It’s an individual choice to get the vaccine,” Barrier said. “It’s the same with masks, you can’t send anyone to jail for not wearing a mask.”
Barrier is rightfully proud of his county’s efforts in getting COVID-19 vaccines out to several thousands of county residents. He also is rightfully saddened by the illness and death the virus is causing, and the bitter feelings breaking friends, families and even churches apart because of misinformation about both the virus and the vaccine.
“Together we are Avery County,” he said. “Together we are strong!”
Doug Owen, the President of the Banner Elk Kiwanis, was pleased that Barrier took some time out of his schedule to come and speak to the club.
“His desire to explain the program and where we are in the path of getting our entire county vaccinated, was so very much appreciated. It is assuring to know we have people in charge that take the virus serious and are working to save lives in Avery County and help our community make it to the other side of this pandemic,” said Owen. “We look forward to having Phillip back in April to share with us the journey ahead from the business side of the pandemic.”
Barrier described the county’s success in getting more vaccines than it was originally allotted and said he planned to make a similar appeal again soon. He also informed the group about the number of cars lined up at the Agriculture Extension Center waiting for the vaccine, as well as the many volunteers that have stepped up to help out the vaccination process. In total, 2,418 doses have been delivered as of January 27. Everyone that has received the first dose is guaranteed to receive their second dose.
The Avery County Health Department started the vaccination efforts with front line workers, and began administering vaccines to residents 75 and older on January 12, Barrier said. Some 710 shots were given that week. A total of 1,275 vaccines were given on January 20, 21 and 22 to those 65 and older.
Many of the people in attendance at the meeting were glad to hear even some tidbits of positive news from the county manager.
“I wish to thank Mr. Barrier for his comments about the efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic in Avery County. I was unaware of the highly coordinated efforts and utilization of county employees plus a strong team of volunteers,” said Jim Swinkola, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk. “The data present on AveryCountyNC.gov I found to be useful and comprehensive. I eagerly await my second dose and seeing infection numbers dropping. I embrace Mr. Barrier’s motto: Together we are Avery County; together we are strong!”
Tammy Woodie is a Kiwanian and also serves the Avery County School System as the Child Nutrition Director. She has been impressed with the challenges that the county has had to overcome to get the vaccination process started.
“I would like to commend Phillip Barrier for his tireless efforts in taking care of the Avery County community during this pandemic. He has faced numerous hurdles during the COVID-19 crisis. He had to find enough space to provide the vaccines to be given out safely, then work to get enough vaccines for citizens and visitors. He overcame each challenge with grace, hard work and a wonderful team of county workers,” said Woodie. “I was so impressed with his insight requesting more vaccines to accommodate our out-of-town visitors. This made a difference in getting more vaccines to our local folks in our small county. I am so appreciative as are so many of our county citizens at the amazing work he has coordinated in our county.”
Woodie added that Avery County citizens are blessed to have “such a strong sense of community” with people that want to step up and take care of each other.
“I look forward to the day when we will all have the choice to receive the vaccine and we will be able to go back to a more normal world again,” she said.
Edward Roberts, the Vice President for Advancement at Lees-McRae College, is another Kiwanian that sees the positive direction the county is headed in to continue fighting the COVID-19 virus.
“It was good to hear about all the good work the county is doing during a tough time and a set of circumstances beyond all our control that is the current pandemic. Lees-McRae College is glad to count itself, along with local Kiwanians, among the many partners working alongside the leadership of Philip Barrier and the good folks who live, work, and serve in Avery County, North Carolina,” said Roberts.
Several other individuals in attendance representing other community groups had a similarly positive takeaway from the meeting. Margaret Earley-Thiele is the Executive Director of the Mayland Community College Foundation. She is also a member of the Rotary Club of Avery County and a board member with the Avery County Chamber of Commerce. She has been encouraged by the county’s overall response to COVID-19.
“The immense team effort between all county agencies and its leadership has created an organized, transparent response since the beginning of the pandemic and continues to be effective. I sat in the large meeting in March 2020 during which Phillip Barrier and the Avery County Health Department announced the efforts to start addressing COVID and it was clear from that meeting that everyone was ready to tackle the problem together. The county leadership has wisely sought input and asked for help from all corners of the county and everyone has risen to the occasion,” Earley-Thiele said. “We are all privileged to live in a county that works together for the betterment of the public good. My wish is that all citizens of Avery County continue to recognize and respect the hard work of the county leadership through continued patience and vigilance in wearing masks, social distancing and getting vaccinated when it is their turn.”
The tourism industry in the High Country is one of the many areas where following proper COVID-19 protocols has been the most important. Nancy Owen is the Director of Tourism for the Town of Banner Elk and she felt like things are being handled the right way in the county.
“I applaud Manager Barrier for his tremendous effort in getting the vaccine clinic up and running in Avery County. This is and was not an easy feat and with his leadership and determination to get everyone vaccinated, he is leading the way to a safer Avery County. Many kudos and thanks to Philip,” Owen said.
Grandfather Mountain is one of the most popular tourist stops in all of the High Country. Jesse Pope, the President and Executive Director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, attended the meeting as a member of the Rotary Club of Avery County and feels like the vaccination plan has been very smooth so far in the county.
“I wish to thank Phillip Barrier and the entire team of people who are doing such a remarkable job on the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout in Avery County. Mr. Barrier has been a great leader through this entire pandemic for our community. I was pleased to learn during Phillip’s presentation about so many people across our community and county government who have stepped up to ensure things are going smoothly here with regards to testing and the vaccine clinics,” Pope said. “Mr. Barrier gave credit to our Emergency Management team, led by Paul Buchanan, for initiating a county emergency meeting early on in the pandemic that lead to weekly coordination meetings across the entire community. Those meetings, Mr. Barrier said in his presentation, are the reason the coordination in Avery County has gone so smoothly. I’m very grateful to everyone in our county, especially our healthcare workers and leadership team, who are doing their best to keep the citizens of Avery County as safe as possible.”
Retired community members DC and Bonita Smith, who are farmers and very active with the Avery County Farmers’ Market, were happy to see the Agriculture Extension Service building put to use for such an important cause. The investment made by the county for that building ended up being a real game-changer for the county, giving them a convenient and safe location to distribute the vaccine.
“Mr. Barrier was very professional and the information he shared was excellent! The work that he has done with the State of North Carolina to get our county more doses of the vaccine is incredibly helpful – and as older citizens, we were especially thankful that our health was not forgotten in this process. As lifelong citizens of Avery County, it is really reassuring to have a County Manager doing such a great job for its taxpayers,” the Smiths said.
Due to the increase in those wanting the vaccination, Barrier noted that the county has gone to requiring appointments as a way to better manage the line of folks waiting to get their vaccination. Barrier urged everyone to watch the Avery County website, AveryCountyNC.gov, for updates on vaccination availabilities and schedules. Volunteers that would like to help are also appreciated and Barrier said, “cookies are always welcome!”