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Delta variant's impact on Wilkes told
  • Updated

Wilkes Medical Center had 28 COVID-19 patients as of Aug. 26, equaling nearly 60% of the hospital’s average daily census of 42 or 43 patients.

All but one of the 28 hadn't been vaccinated. COVID-19 patients occupied all of the hospital’s intensive care unit beds Aug. 26, with over 85% on ventilators. Two were in the emergency department awaiting ICU beds.

Thirteen people died from COVID-19 in August at the North Wilkesboro hospital, which is more deaths there than in some entire years. One was a patient in his/her early 30s with young children.

These are among statistics shared in an Aug. 27 meeting to paint a picture of COVID-19 locally for government, school system and other leaders.

Wilkes Medical Center President Chad Brown said the hospital is seeing the end result of a surge driven by the delta variant of COVID-19.

“We’re seeing the chronic conditions; we’re seeing the worst of the worst,” said Brown, adding that hospital staff and all health care providers in the community have gone above and beyond in response.

Brown also noted that the 28 COVID-19 patients in the hospital Aug. 26 was down 6% from a week earlier.

Wilkes Emergency Medical Services Director Tim Pennington said Wilkes EMS went from no COVID-19 responses and transports in the week ending July 3 to 37 in the week ending Aug. 14 and 43 in the week ending Aug. 21.

There were only 25 by Aug. 26, indicating a possible easing of the severity of the surge.

Susan Bachmeier, chief nursing officer at Wilkes Medical Center, said she didn’t know if data indicating improvement in the seven days ending Aug. 27 meant the surge had peaked.

“We are not out of the woods yet and our resources continue to be strained, particularly our critical care resources,” Bachmeier said.

“It really does seem like we are managing this disease in waves. A wave comes and we deal with it. A second wave comes that’s worse and we deal with it. A third wave comes and it’s even worse and we’re having a very difficult time as a health care system dealing with it.”

She added, “What happens next? Are we going to be looking at a slow rolling pandemic for a long time? Are we going to have to figure out how to deal with peaks and valleys? This is uncharted territory, but we’ll be ready.”

Bachmeier said the hospital is seeing a growing number of younger people with COVID-19. She cited the strain of the latest surge on the emotional well-being of hospital staff.

Wilkes was listed with 130 confirmed COVID-19 deaths as of Monday.

Impact on Wilkes EMS

Pennington said an increase in responses, staff shortages, lack of time off and donning full personal protection equipment during a heat wave while responding to people in need is wearing his staff down.

As of Aug. 27, Wilkes EMS was down 19% in full-time staff due to seven people testing positive for COVID-19, one out due to an injury and vacancies in three full-time positions.

Three additional full-time EMS employees are out on quarantine due to being exposed to COVID-19 and not being vaccinated. Four full-time employees have recovered from COVID-19 and are back at work.

Pennington said one of the full-timers out with COVID-19 had been on a hospital ventilator for a week by Aug. 27 and one of three part-time employees out with COVID-19 also is on a hospital ventilator.

He said having so many people out led to having to deny vacation time for some employees, which means lack of time “to be off and decompress from the rigors of this battle.”

He said Wilkes EMS had 810 responses July 1-25 and 957 responses in the first 25 days of August.

Pennington said 67% of Wilkes EMS staff were half or fully vaccinated last week, up from 35% a week earlier.

He attributed this to having an employee with COVID-19 on a ventilator who for three days could have died at any minute before improving.

Severity of delta variant

The other reason for the increase is “we’re seeing the fear in these patients and how quickly they’re getting sick,” he said. “They’re okay and two hours later they are very sick” with the delta variant of COVID-19.

Pennington said he saw this on some of the calls he made. “This really got the attention of my staff and they’re starting to get vaccinated.”

Bachmeier said a lot is still being learned about the delta variant, by far the predominant strain in the Southeast. She shared information from the Centers from Communicable Disease saying the variant may cause two times as many infections as previous strains of the virus.

She said Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease expert at Atrium-Wake Forest Baptist Health, told her that over 50% of unvaccinated people with household exposure to the delta variant will contract it.

Bachmeier said what is even more concerning is that Ohl said at best 30% of vaccinated people will contract COVID-19 with household exposure.

Although vaccinated people can become infected with and spread COVID-19, Bachmeier said they’re much less prone than unvaccinated people to get it and much less likely to have severe symptoms and need hospitalization.

She noted that the CDC and other infectious disease experts recommend a third dose of at least some vaccines. The health department already is offering these booster shots for people with compromised immune systems.

Lindsey Roberts, the health department’s community health services director, said the health department will have booster shots available to the general public once the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services approves it and provides guidelines for this.

By Aug. 27, 36% of the total Wilkes population was fully vaccinated and 41% had received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The health department has vaccinated home-bound people in their homes, churches, schools, various events, at Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge and at the health department.


Roberts said the number or Wilkes cases confirmed Aug. 1-26 tripled July’s total of 348 and was expected to equal the pandemic peak that occurred in January 2021.

Wilkes officially had 447 active COVID-19 cases as of Aug. 26. The county’s COVID-19 positivity rate went from 2% in the first week of July, to 15% Aug 17 and about 20% now.

As of Aug. 27, 8,342 people had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. That was up from 8,006 a week earlier on Aug. 20 and 7,702 two weeks earlier on Aug. 13.

Roberts said free rapid and PCR testing for COVID-19 are available at the health department starting at 10 a.m. on Tuesday and Fridays, but people wanting to be tested are asked to call in advance. She said rapid testing is more accurate for people who are symptomatic and PCR testing is more accurate than rapid testing for those who are or are not symptomatic.

She said that at the health departments it currently takes one or two days PCR testing results and about 15 minutes to rapid testing results. Roberts added that rapid PCR testing is available but not from the health department.

She said that through a contract with the state, OptumServe offers free PCR and rapid testing on a walk-in basis on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturday at West Park, North Wilkesboro.

Roberts said urgent care facilities, private health care providers and some pharmacies in Wilkes also offer testing.

Mask mandates?

Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore said during the meeting that he is more than willing to enact a mask mandate in Wilkesboro, “but at the same time would probably have to have the caveat that we can’t enforce it.” Inscore said trying to enforce it would be a nightmare.

Inscore said he’d like to hear comments on masks from leaders of other local leaders at the meeting. He added that he realizes it’s a difficult subject in Wilkes.

Eddie Settle, chairman of the Wilkes County commissioners, responded, “I feel positive that the county (government) will not require wearing a mask. I can guarantee that.”

Settle said there were more deaths in Wilkes in a 12-month period during the 1918-19 flu pandemic “and people had to keep on living. They moved into World War I and kept on going.” He said his great-grandmother, who also was Wilkes School Board Chairman Rudy Holbrook’s grandmother, died from flu then.

“I just don’t think we can go in a state of fear, but we have to be cautious. You’ve got to love your neighbor and if it’s wearing a mask and you feel like you need to do that, do it.”

Settle made public service announcements encouraging people to wear masks. He said when people called asking him why he did that, he replied, “I’m trying to save your life.”

Inscore said making similar public service announcements is something he and North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson also could do. He said other local leaders should also encourage this.

Settle said he encourages everyone to get vaccinated for COVID-19, even though he tends to be skeptical of vaccines. “This (vaccination) is our fastest way out of this.” If the county had a 100% vaccination rate or even a 70% rate, “I don’t think we would be sitting in here.”

Settle said President Donald Trump, a Republican, on May 15, 2020, announced Operation Warp Speed, a public-private effort for developing and manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines. He said President Joe Biden, a Democrat, continued this.

Settle added that there is much misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.

Mask mandate approved in 3-2 vote
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In a 3-2 vote during an emergency meeting Monday night, the Wilkes Board of Education made masks mandatory for students, staff and visitors in the Wilkes County Schools.

Among 24 people who weighed in on the issue during a public comments portion of the meeting, 15 indicated support for a mask mandate and nine spoke in opposition.

Prior to Monday night, Wilkes was one of only a handful of public school districts in North Carolina without mask mandates.

Several speakers against requiring masks in schools said this would infringe on their freedom and constitutional rights. An emergency medical services professional and others questioned the effectiveness of masks. Some said wearing them for long periods can cause health problems.

One mother said having to wear a mask discouraged her child from wanting to go to school and another said it made her child have headaches.

Two former Wilkes County school nurses and other health professionals spoke in favor of requiring masks in the schools. One of the two said it would keep students in their schools rather than having to return to the remote learning used last year. She also said about 20% of students in the Wilkes schools are seriously threatened by COVID-19 due to pre-existing health conditions.

A proponent of school mask mandates noted that Wilkes Health Director Rachel Willard, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and other health authorities endorse them. “You say that health of our students is your first priority. Actions speak louder than words,” she added.

Some speakers tied their opposition to a school mask mandate to their religious views while for others this was a reason for supporting the mandate.

Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said in response to questions from the audience of about 50 people after the board voted that masks would be provided for those without them and that the mask mandate starting date hadn’t been determined.

Byrd said the Wilkes schools had 59 active COVID-19 cases and 349 people with close contacts with active cases at the end of the first week of classes on Aug. 27. These were all students and staff, but not all active cases were school-related. He said 33 of the close contacts didn’t have to quarantine due to being vaccinated. About 41% of quarantine cases were sports-related.

School board member Kirk Walker made the motion to have the Wilkes school system “follow all mitigation and strategies as outlined in the Strong Schools N.C. Public Health Toolkit to the best of our ability and make wearing a mask or facial covering required for everyone in the school system.”

A man in the clearly divided audience then spoke up, “I will pull my kids out tomorrow.” A woman added, “So will I.”

Board Chairman Rudy Holbrook restored order and asked if there was a second to Walker’s motion.

Board member Sharron Huffman seconded the motion and board member Joan Caudill joined Huffman and Walker in voting for it. Holbrook and board member Hardin Kennedy voted against the motion.

Walker made the motion after no board members spoke when Holbrook asked if there was any discussion on the matter. This was immediately after the public comment period.

Speaking to the audience after the vote, Holbrook stated, “I’ve got something I want to say before everybody gets all tore up. You know this has passed and I want everybody, even all of you who feel like I do or don’t, to get behind this” and support masks in schools. “We’ve got to work together to get through this.”

Holbrook attempted to respond when several people in the audience made comments or asked questions simultaneously. He then stated and was applauded when he said he’s not going to fall out with any fellow board members over not getting what he wanted. Holbrook asked opponents of masks in the schools in the audience to respond similarly.

When a woman in the audience asked if masks will be required for the rest of the school year, Holbrook said the school board will revisit the mask mandate in 30 days.

Huffman added that the state legislature approved a bill requiring that school systems review their policies on masks every 30 days. The bill, signed into law Monday by Gov. Roy Cooper, requires that public school boards adopt a policy this school year on the use of face coverings by students and workers and vote at least monthly on whether to modify it.

Huffman said the review will include discussing the status of COVID-19 in the schools with the health department. “Maybe we’ll see a drastic decrease” in COVID-19 cases in the schools in October as a result of the current spike ending, said Huffman.

“Maybe those of you who talked about prayer (during the public comments), can pray for this,” said Huffman.

A woman in the audience responded, “And in the meantime, we’ll lose our freedom” by having masks mandated.

Huffman responded to the woman by saying people also are required to wear seatbelts.

Kennedy then told the audience that he voiced his opinion concerning the mask issue in a Facebook post earlier Monday.

Kennedy said he wasn’t questioning anybody’s religious faith when he posted, “When you put your faith in a mask instead of the good Lord Himself, we’ve got problems, Amen.”

He said his vote against the motion to make masks mandatory was based on his belief that wearing masks in schools should remain a matter of personal preference.

“I ask you to please tell your children that if they believe in something strongly, don’t back down,” Kennedy added.

Near the start of the meeting, Byrd spoke about the need to work together and also addressed the issue of misinformation.

“My fear is that if we have to spend so much time responding to misinformation, we won’t be able to focus on what really needs our attention.” He said incorrect information saying the meeting Monday night was already held on Sunday somehow was spread.

“Please remember that if the Wilkes County Schools has information you need to know, you’re going to hear it from us. If you’re a social media fan, you should follow the Wilkes County School page. We will keep you informed.”

He added, “Please remember that if you didn’t hear it from the Wilkes County Schools, it may not be accurate. Please help us focus by not sharing things that aren’t true. We can help one another keep our focus where it needs to be.”

On Aug. 2, the Wilkes school board voted unanimously to make masks “optional for everyone in the school as long as the county threshold of positive cases for school age students stays below recommended levels.” This is what Byrd recommended.

Lindsey Roberts, the health department’s community health services director, said during an Aug. 27 meeting on the status of COVID-19 in Wilkes that 425 school-age children in Wilkes had been quarantined since Aug. 16 due to being exposed to the virus.

Roberts said another 29 Wilkes school-age children exposed didn’t have to be quarantined due to being fully vaccinated. COVID-19 vaccinations are available for everyone 12 and older.

Roberts shared a graphic in the meeting stating that that five sports teams in the Wilkes schools were quarantined last week.

She said only players who test positive for COVID-19 and players who had close contact with them, as determined by the health department, are quarantined and miss classes. This also applies to coaches. The quarantine time from athletics is two weeks.

Roberts said the health department determines who had close contact by talking to players, watching game films and by other means. She said schools decide if games can’t be played.

Board learns about lack of emergency river access
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Lack of access for reaching paddlers and tubers in emergency situations on the Yadkin River was addressed during the Aug. 17 Wilkes County commissioners meeting.

Wilkes Rescue Squad Chief Cole Wyatt said the squad responds to 10 to 25 rescue calls a year on the Yadkin, with 90% between Ronda and Roaring River.

He said the squad usually uses the Ronda Park river access site, but added that vehicle congestion there due to the Yadkin’s increased popularity often makes it hard for emergency personnel to reach the park’s paved access ramp.

Wyatt said popularity of paddling and tubing on the Yadkin from Ronda to Elkin has exploded in the last two years, “so it takes us a good eight to 10 minutes to move enough cars out of the way to be able to get the boat down the ramp into the water, if we can get them moved at all.”

The problem is compounded by trying to park large emergency vehicles amid all the congestion, he added. “It’s just not a feasible access point during the day.”

He said the Ronda Fire Department has been great to work with and immediately starts trying to get vehicles moved out of the way when a 911 call for help is received from that section of the Yadkin.

Wyatt said it would be wonderful to have a second access point with a concrete ramp at Ronda Town Park or nearby for emergency use only. He said he talked to Ronda Fire Department and Town of Ronda officials about this.

Settle said Ronda officials offered to provide funds for an emergency river access site and asked county government for help with grading. “Now I think they’re having an issue with the property” where the emergency access site was being considered. He said no action would be taken in the meeting due to uncertainty about availability of the site.

Ronda Commissioner Kevin Reece has also been trying to secure an emergency river access site in Ronda and said in an interview that that a potential location appeared to no longer be available.

Commissioner Keith Elmore said during the meeting that expanding the paved parking area on more of the Ronda Park property would address the problem. Wyatt agreed.

Wyatt said it’s hard to launch the squad’s airboat and other boats at a Yadkin access point on county-owned land off N.C. 268 East because it lacks a paved ramp and often abruptly drops offs three to four feet to the river. This access site, maintained by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, is opposite the Wilkes County Landfill entrance.

Wyatt said the squad’s airboat, powered by a large fan, typically can reach the Roaring River area of the Yadkin faster by using the Ronda Town Park access site because of the difficulty of using the county-owned site. He said that once in the river at the Ronda Park site, the airboat can reach the Roaring River area in three to four minutes.

County Manager John Yates said a spokesman for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission told him the access ramp at the county-owned site would soon be paved. Eddie Settle, chairman of the commissioners, asked Wyatt if this will make a difference.

Wyatt said it will help, but it won’t address the issue of the Ronda Park parking lot being packed with vehicles of river users and making it hard for emergency personnel to launch boats there.

He said the river often is too shallow for inflatable boats upstream from the county-owned site, but not for the airboat.

Wyatt said the squad also has river access points near Lowe’s Motel in Wilkesboro and at Smoot Park in North Wilkesboro. On Aug. 15, the squad rescued several people from the the river near Lowe’s Motel who were floating the river in inner tubes.

When Commissioner David Gambill asked about adding sites elsewhere, Wyatt said he is contacting landowners between Smoot Park and Roaring River because the squad currently has no access site on that long stretch of the river. He said launching a boat at Smoot Park or Ronda Park could mean taking more than 30 minutes to reach someone needing help there.

Gambill said a problem arose with a landowner who wouldn’t allow emergency personnel on his property to rescue someone from the river upstream of Roaring River. The Wilkes Sheriff’s Office was called to assist.

Wyatt said the squad has a good relationship with Mathis Farms, which farms much of the Yadkin River bottomland between Smoot Park and Roaring River. “I can go to the river, but if I’ve got an eight to 10-foot bank to go off it doesn’t help me,” he added.

“So we’ve got three or four access sites on 56 miles of river” from W. Kerr Scott Dam to Ronda.

He said many people don’t realize how dangerous the Yadkin can be, especially the current in deep portions of the river. The squad spends time removing fallen trees from river. Going down the river while consuming alcohol also creates dangerous situations, said Wyatt.

Synergy Recovery lease

Also at the Aug. 17 meeting, the commissioners unanimously approved a revised agreement for leasing a county-owned building on Peace Street, North Wilkesboro, to Synergy Recovery, a privately-owned 16-bed facility that provides detoxification and crisis stabilization for people with mental health and substance abuse problems.

The facility recently was expanded and renovated and reopened as the Shirley B. Randleman Center, named for the Wilkes woman who helped secure $1.4 million from the legislature for expanding and renovating the facility for its reopening as a facility-based crisis center.

Synergy provides services through a contract with Vaya Health, which manages Medicaid and other public funds for behavioral health and intellectual/developmental disability services in 22 western North Carolina counties

The new agreement calls for an initial two-year lease, followed by a maximum of four automatic renewal terms of two years each unless either party notifies the other that it doesn’t wish to renew with a 90-day notice. Synergy is to pay the county $3,000 per month.

The county is responsible for all structural maintenance and repairs with the building and parking lot.

Librarian introduced

Gwen Minton, chairman of the Wilkes County Library Board, introduced Suzanne Moore, new Wilkes County librarian.

Moore, Ashe County librarian for several years before coming to Wilkes, said she is especially interested in partnerships and reaching out into the community. She said she’ll soon will return with the library’s updated five-year plan.

Moore said books have always been a passion for her. She also picks the banjo.

Commissioner Casey Joe Johnson served on the search committee for a new county librarian and said the committee members unanimously chose Moore.

Later in the meeting, Johnson was approved by the other commissioners to represent Wilkes on the Northwest Regional Library Board.

Reappointment tabled

The commissioners unanimously approved Gambill motion to table action on reappointment of Jerrell Suddreth as the extra-territorial jurisdiction representative on the North Wilkesboro Planning Board.

Gambill said he wanted to delay action until the county board’s Sept. 7 meeting to provide him more time to look into the matter. The North Wilkesboro commissioners voted to unanimously recommend that Suddreth be reappointed.

Elmore got no response when he asked if any of the other commissioners know Suddreth or if anyone in the audience represented him or was there on behalf of the Town of North Wilkesboro.

Ferguson substation

Commissioner David Gambill said he heard from citizens with concerns about lack of maintenance of the Ferguson Fire Department substation property on Elk Creek-Darby Road. Gambill said photos he saw of the substation show tall weeds and other maintenance issues.

County Attorney Tony Triplett and Settle said this wasn’t the first instance of concerns being raised about the condition of the substation.

Nothing was said in the meeting about how to respond to the concerns.

County fair continues through Saturday
  • Updated

The annual Wilkes County Agricultural Fair began Tuesday, Aug. 31, and runs through Saturday, Sept. 4.

The North Wilkesboro Rotary Club sponsor the event, which is held at the Rotary Fairgrounds (Tomlinson Park), just off U.S. 421 Business adjacent to West Park Medical Park in North Wilkesboro.

The club uses proceeds from the fair to fund scholarships and other charitable causes.

This year’s fair feature more than 25 rides provided by Inner Rides, a children’s scavenger hunt, Skip’s Petting Zoo and Mechanical Bull, 4-H exhibits, games and food on the midway.

New this year, the fair will feature Ed Bounds’ Dakota and Friends Interactive Dinosaur Show and Captain Jim’s Magic Show. There will be 4-H and agricultural exhibits on display, coordinated by the Wilkes Cooperative Extension Service, in the Exhibit Hall.

This year, the fair will again feature a hay bale decorating contest.

Gates open on weekdays at 5 p.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday. Ride bands are available every day. Gate admission is $8, with children 5 and under admitted free. Students will be admitted free Tuesday through Friday.

For more information, call Mike Staley at 336-902-7052.