Wilkes County’s confirmed COVID-19 case total rose from 528 Friday to 548 on Tuesday, largely due to a recent increase in cases at the Wilkes Correctional Center in North Wilkesboro.

After only gradually increasing since late May, Wilkes County’s confirmed COVID-19 case total surged to 542 on Saturday. Tuesday was the 10th day in a row with no Wilkes resident hospitalized with COVID-19. The number of deaths of Wilkes residents related to COVID-19 has been six since May 29.

Twenty-five people (three staff members and 22 inmates) at the Wilkes Correctional Center had tested positive by early this week. Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said 12 were reported to her department Friday and were included with Saturday’s case total for Wilkes.

Positive COVID-19 test results in the majority of the 25 cases were learned within the last 10 days or so, said John Bull, communications officer for the N.C. Department of Public Safety. The first three cases at the minimum custody prison on Statesville Road—two inmates and one staff person—were announced May 28.

Bull said that in most North Carolina prisons, inmates who test positive remain at their current prison but are moved into a single cell with its own door for the isolation period recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

He said that because the Wilkes Correctional Center has dormitory-style housing, inmates there with COVID-19 are transported to the minimum custody Foothills Correctional Center in Morganton.

Inmates housed near those who tested positive at the Wilkes Correctional Center are placed in quarantine in accordance with CDC guidance. They are tested and monitored for COVID-19 symptoms.

Bull said 50-60 people at the Wilkes Correctional Center have been tested since the first three cases were announced. He said the three staff members there who tested positive spent their time in isolation at home and are now considered “recovered.”

The Wilkes Correctional Center can house up to 262 adult males. When the first three COVID-19 cases were reported, the health department said prison officials took steps that included temperature and symptom checks twice a day and monitoring other medical information beyond what is normal.

A no visitation policy was implemented and work release was restricted starting in April, which meant Wilkes Correctional Center inmates stopped working at the Tyson Foods Inc. chicken processing complex in Wilkesboro and at other manufacturing facilities.

Bull said about 65 inmates at 12 prison facilities across the state who tested positive haven’t yet met requirements for being “recovered.”

The New York Times reported that the nation’s five largest COVID-19 clusters (five or more cases at a single facility) are in prisons. Cases reported by prisons have doubled over the past month to more than 65,000 and COVID-19 deaths have risen by 73% since mid-May nationwide.

Willard said she hoped to officially close out a COVID-19 cluster at the Tyson Foods processing complex in Wilkesboro this week by having no new cases there in 14 days.

A Tyson spokesman announced on May 20 that out of 2,244 people who work at the Tyson complex tested in early May, 570 (about 25%) tested positive. This was based on testing of samples taken by nasal swab May 4-9. Willard said 599 people at the Tyson complex had tested positive as of June 10.

The number of Wilkes residents working at the Tyson complex who tested positive wasn’t told, but about half of the roughly 3,000 people who work there live in Wilkes and the surge in the county’s COVID-19 case total in May indicated at least half of the 570 who tested positive live in Wilkes.

Willard said Tyson officials have worked hard to stop the spread of COVID-19 at the processing complex.

She said preventive measures and monitoring steps implemented in April and May at the Tyson complex are still being utilized. Willard said that if employees indicate they have any of the conditions shown on COVID-19 symptom cards they receive from the company, they’re sent to Matrix Medical for screening.

A COVID-19 cluster at the Rose Glen Village independent living facility on Main Street, Wilkesboro, was closed out by the health department on June 11. The health department tested all Rose Glen staff and residents after one staff person and one resident there tested positive for COVID-19 in May.

As of June 12, 547 people had been tested at the health department for COVID-19. Wilkes residents are also tested at Wilkes Medical Center and elsewhere.

At the drive-through community testing site in the Walmart parking lot in Wilkesboro, 391 people had been tested as of June 12. None of the 266 results returned were positive.

Free drive-through COVID-19 testing of eligible people is continuing from 7-9 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday until further notice in the Walmart parking lot.

Among the 545 Wilkes residents who had tested positive for COVID-19 by Monday:

• 62% were men;

• 46% were ages 26-50 and 34% were 51 and older;

• 43% had a North Wilkesboro zip code, 26% a Wilkesboro zip code and the remainder fairly evenly split among Wilkes zip codes.

Fifteen percent of the 542 cases resulted from community transmission (unknown sources) and 85% from close contact.

Confirmed case totals of counties adjoining Wilkes as of noon Tuesday were Alexander, 49 and no deaths; Alleghany, 30 and no deaths; Ashe, 43 and no deaths; Caldwell, 252 and four deaths; Iredell, 454 and five deaths; Surry, 342 and two deaths; Watauga, 43 and no deaths; Yadkin, 251 and four deaths.

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