Montreat COVID-19 cases linked to P.O. boxes are 'suppressed,' state says

Ty Roush
Black Mountain News
Montreat Town Hall

MONTREAT - Cases listed for the Montreat ZIP code are suppressed because of their link to post office boxes, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Rep. John Ager previously reached out to Matt Gross, the department’s assistant secretary for government affairs, regarding how cases in the 28757 ZIP code were counted on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard. 

The NCDHHS lists zero COVID-19 cases for the town as of Nov. 23. Montreat College is listed with three current student cases and 46 total cases since August.

According to the department’s data team, Gross said, the 28757 ZIP code is “part of a unique batch of ZIP codes which are only assigned to post office boxes and no residential street address.” Because of this designation, owning a post office box in the ZIP code “doesn’t necessarily link to your geographic home.”

Gross added that there was an error where cases linked to those boxes were not previously suppressed and that it has since been fixed. Despite the error, Gross said that “all of the cases for those (boxes) are included in the county dataset since it’s likely the people who use that post office do live in the county.”

After an Oct. 5 count of two active cases at Montreat College, NCDHHS listed eight cases for the ZIP code. By Nov. 1, the town’s total rose to 21.

As for how student cases would be counted by the state, Madison County Health Director Tammy Cody told The News-Record & Sentinel that cases would be counted where the student is currently living, not the county the student is from.

“For communicable disease purposes, state guidance is that wherever they are sleeping is the county they belong to,” Cody said.

Black Mountain is listed with 297 total cases and 20 deaths. Buncombe County, with 302 cases per 100,000 residents in the last 14 days, is listed with 5,479 total cases and 130 deaths.

The U.S. Census Bureau counted 454 total residents for Montreat in its 2018 dataset, including 166 residents per square mile. Just over 76% of residents were between 10 and 29 years old, accounting for a rate more than double the average in the state, and 30% of residents were between 60 and over 80 years old.

Ager’s initial inquiry to Gross included his concern of the nearby college and its surrounding retirement community.

“It is a community that really needs special attention because there are many older residents living close to Montreat College, with the potential for asymptomatic students with COVID,” Ager said. “There is the likelihood of interaction by the close-knit nature of the community.”

Montreat College provides on-campus testing each Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and requests faculty and students to record symptoms daily. To complement the state’s dashboard, the college lists current cases, including student and faculty cases, on its website.

Any school cases are placed in a two-week quarantine with testing on the fifth, sixth and seventh days.