The first meeting of a Wilkes County COVID-19 task force authorized by the Wilkes County commissioners and held Friday focused largely on how to encourage wearing facial masks and support the COVID-19 vaccination process locally.

The commissioners approved establishing the task force during their Feb. 2 meeting after it was suggested by Fran Cantrell of Millers Creek, a retired registered nurse, in a Jan. 29 letter to them.

In her letter, Cantrell emphasized the influence local elected officials have when they speak out. She said there are many questions, concerns and hesitancy about the vaccine and the task force can help address this.

Cantrell was among those appointed to the task force. She has been working as a volunteer with the Wilkes Health Department on contact tracing and at vaccination clinics.

In addition to Settle and Cantrell, task force members are Casey Joe Johnson, county commissioner and fifth grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary; Brenda Dobbins, retired Wilkes County teacher; Susan Bachmeier, chief nursing officer at Wilkes Medical Center; the Rev. Donnie Shumate, pastor Bethel Baptist Church in Hays; the Rev. Jeremy Simpson, pastor of Thanks to Calvary Baptist Church; North Wilkesboro Commissioner Andrew Palmer; Dr. Joe Fesperman; Teana Compeau, retired nurse and member of the Wilkes Board of Health; Ann Absher, retired Wilkes County Health Department and now volunteer supervisor; Shelmer Blackburn, Wilkes Board of Health member, cattle farmer and retired from the pharmaceutical industry; Nellie Archibald, Wilkesboro Town Council and retired advertising director of the Wilkes Journal-Patriot; Sharron Huffman, Wilkes Board of Education member and retired teacher in the Wilkes schools; and Chalma Hunt.

Task force members shared thoughts about objectives of the effort during the initial meeting, held at the Wilkes Agricultural Center in Wilkesboro.

Blackburn emphasized the important of leading by example to help convince people that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe. He said it’s a difficult undertaking because of all the misinformation on social media and from other sources.

Huffman said she was on her ninth week of medication after having COVID-19. She described how hard it was on her respiratory system and in other ways and said she feels blessed to be alive. “This is not something to fool around with,” Huffman added. She also emphasized the importance of getting teachers vaccinated.

Archibald emphasized the importance of local governing bodies having a unified voice on issues related to the pandemic, removing politics from topics such as wearing a mask, improving awareness of how and when to sign up for vaccination and finding ways to help people sign up for vaccinations.

Shumate said the divisiveness of issues such as mask wearing and distancing have made the COVID-19 pandemic one of the most difficult times ever for churches. He said it shouldn’t involve one political party against another.

Simpson said misinformation and lack of faith in what is and isn’t true is one of the biggest problem. “The keys are faith and facts,” he added. He said the task force has a valuable opportunity to inform people while not pushing them.

Dobbins said children and their willingness to wear masks set a good example for others. She said people need to get used to masks because they are here for a long time.

Johnson said recommended using Facebook, among other methods to reach people. He suggested establishing a Facebook page for the task force.

Compeau said the biggest challenge is people not taking COVID-19 seriously and thinking they aren’t vulnerable.

Absher said she remembered how much people supported polio vaccinations when she was a child and added that didn’t understand why it’s different now.

Absher and others emphasized the importance of involving Wilkes County’s 300-plus churches in communication.

Palmer agreed about the task force encouraging wearing masks and getting vaccinated. He said those who are skeptical of this need to be identified but not attacked. Palmer said messages need to be targeted and pastors have opportunities to be effective in reaching people.

At Feb. 2 meetingSettle said during his board’s Feb. 2 meeting that other citizens also told him they’d like to see their elected officials go on the radio or use other media promote people getting vaccinated, providing ways to sign up for vaccine other than by phone.

Settle suggested a campaign urging wearing masks, observing social distancing and staying home if they’re sick

Commissioner Brian Minton said he supported commissioners doing radio promotions, having newspaper articles and promoting it on social media.

Commissioner Casey Joe Johnson suggested making it possible for people to sign up online for COBI-19 vaccinations, which he said would help reduce the volume of phone calls and make it easier for those who prefer to sign up by phone.

Commissioner David Gambill made the motion, which was unanimously approved, to establish a COVID-19 task force. They also gave Settle the authority to appoint the members and convene.

The next task force meeting is at 3 p.m. Monday in the Wilkes Agricultural Center meeting room Task force meetings are open to the public, in person or via WebEx.

To connect via WebEx by computer, go to tohttps://wilkescounty.webex.com. The event access code is 179 863 3483. If prompted, the event password is task110, To connect by phone, call 1-408-418-9388. The access code is 179 863 3483.

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