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After only gradually increasing since late May, Wilkes County’s confirmed COVID-19 case total surged from 528 Friday to 542 on Saturday.

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said the sudden increase was due mostly to additional cases at the Wilkes Correctional Center in North Wilkesboro, where three confirmed COVID-19 cases (two inmates and one staff person) were reported on May 28.

Willard said 19 people at the minimum-security state prison on Statesville Road had tested positive as of Friday. She said these included 12 cases the health department learned about Friday. They were part of the Wilkes total Saturday.

The Wilkes Correctional Center can house up to 262 adult males. When the first three cases there were reported, the health department said prison officials had taken steps to protect inmates and employees to decrease likelihood of person to person transmission. This included temperature and symptom checks twice a day and monitoring other medical information beyond what is normal.

Willard said prison officials tried to closely follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mitigation guidelines. The health department’s communicable disease team also worked with them.

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.

Willard said Wilkes County’s confirmed case total Sunday was 542 again. Sunday also was the seventh 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.

Willard provided an update on COVID-19 cases at the Tyson Foods processing complex, saying she hoped to officially close out the COVID-19 “cluster” at the Tyson complex this coming week due to 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.

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

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

She said the preventive measures and monitoring steps implemented in April and May at the Tyson complex are still being utilized. Willard said Tyson officials also are giving employees COVID-19 symptom cards. If employees indicate they have any of the symptoms shown, 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, 545 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, 360 people had been tested as of June 12. None tested 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 542 Wilkes residents who tested positive for COVID-19:

• 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 Sunday were Alexander, 49 and no deaths; Alleghany, 30 and no deaths; Ashe, 43 and no deaths; Caldwell, 248 and three deaths; Iredell, 441 and five deaths; Surry, 333 and three deaths; Watauga, 43 and no deaths; Yadkin, 239 and four deaths.

Hyde County, with three, had the fewest COVID-19 cases among the 100 counties. Madison and Tyrrell counties had five apiece and Avery, Graham and Camden counties, had six cases each.

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