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Omicron surge pushes cases to record levels
  • Updated

Wilkes County and North Carolina saw record daily increases in COVID-19 cases due to an omicron strain-based surge the first week of 2022, with little relief expected this week.

The increases actually were larger than official numbers show because of people with COVID-19 not getting tested and results of self-tests at home not being reported, said public health officials. North Carolina doesn’t require reporting at-home test results, nor does it have protocol for this.

For Wilkes Emergency Medical Services, the surge meant a daily case load last week 16% larger than the daily average in 2021. Wilkes EMS Director Tim Pennington said that due to COVID-19 cases, Wilkes EMS ambulances averaged almost 39 calls per day last week. Pennington said four Wilkes EMS paramedics, all vaccinated, had to quarantine last week due to testing positive for COVID-19.

He said COVID-19 patients seen by Wilkes EMS last week weren’t as sick as people with the delta variant, but respiratory problems and other issues were severe enough to transport all to hospitals. Pennington noted that every day last week, there were times when Wilkes EMS had to call for ambulances from Watauga, Alleghany, Iredell or Surry counties to be on standby at the county line due to all Wilkes ambulances being tied up.

On Monday, spokesmen for Atrium Heath Wake Forest Baptist, Cone Health and Novant Health said they’re at a critical stage in how effectively patients can be treated due to large patient loads and staff becoming sick. They asked the public to follow vaccination and testing recommendations to help limit the load.

In the week ending Jan. 7 (first week after Christmas break), the Wilkes schools had 78 active COVID-19 cases and 335 people having to quarantine. Both numbers included adults and students. These are the highest totals since August and September, when the delta variant caused a surge.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported that 20.32% of documented COVID-19 tests of Wilkes residents in the seven days ending Jan. 7 came back positive, up 2.75% from the prior seven-day period.

On Sunday, DHHS reported a COVID-19 case rate of 989 per 100,000 people for Wilkes for the seven days ending Saturday, Jan. 8. That was based on 677 new cases in the seven days.

DHHS reported a case rate of 520.38 per 100,000 people in Wilkes for the seven days ending Jan. 2, based on 356 new cases in that period. This was 140% more than the prior seven-day.

The official number of COVID-19 deaths of Wilkes residents since the pandemic began had been 205 since Dec. 29 until it increased to 206 on Monday and then 207 Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, DHHS reported that 13,104 Wilkes residents had officially tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. On Friday, the total was 12,715.

In Wilkes schools

In a 3-2 vote Monday night, the Wilkes school board defeated a motion to make masks optional in Wilkes schools for the next month. As a result, masks remain mandatory for everyone indoors on school property.

School board members Hardin Kennedy, who made the motion to make mask optional, and Chairman Rudy Holbrook voted for the motion. Voting against it were board members Sharron Huffman, Joan Caudill and Kirk Walker. The board was split the same way in votes on Dec. 6, Nov. 6 and Oct. 4 that kept the mask mandate in place.

Holbrook said he voted for the motion because he believes school officials should let parents decide if their children wear masks in schools.

Kennedy said that none of the school districts in counties adjoining Wilkes that made masks optional earlier this year have had to close schools due to COVID-19 since taking this action.

Caudill said some Iredell County schools had to be closed due to COVID-19 cases while masks were optional there in the first half of the school year. She said making masks mandatory in the Wilkes since Aug. 30 helped prevent closure of any Wilkes schools.

Huffman said she voted against Kennedy’s motion because requiring masks is the best way to keep students in schools. Centers for Disease Control guidance includes various situations that prevent a student from having to be quarantined if he or she is wearing a mask when exposed to someone with COVID-19 in a school setting.

One parent spoke against the mask mandate and a retired Wilkes school nurse who is a parent and grandparent spoke for it during the public concerns portion of the meeting.

10 deaths in care facilities

DHHS reports COVID-19 outbreaks in congregate care facilities and COVID-19 clusters in schools online every Tuesday. The Jan. 4 report listed outbreaks in three nursing homes and two residential care facilities in Wilkes, as well as the Wilkes County Jail. It showed clusters in two Wilkes schools.

The report listed seven deaths of residents in the outbreak at Westwood Hills Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Wilkesboro. This was the most deaths for any congregate care facility statewide in the Jan. 4 report.

The seven Westwood Hills residents who died were among 29 residents with COVID-19 in that outbreak. Ten Westwood Hills staff members tested positive for COVID-19 in the same outbreak.

The Jan. 4 report listed three deaths of residents in the outbreak at Accordius Health at Wilkesboro. It said 20 residents and six staff members at Accordius tested positive for COVID-19 in the outbreak.

According to the Jan. 4 report:

• 13 staff members and four residents tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak at Wilkesboro Health and Rehabilitation in North Wilkesboro;

• 12 staff members and seven residents tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak at Wilkesboro Assisted Living Center;

• one staff person and two residents tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak at Rose Glen Manor in Wilkesboro;

• 16 inmates at the Wilkes County Jail tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak there.

The Jan. 4 report also included two clusters: one at North Wilkes Middle School with 15 students testing positive and another at Mountain View Elementary School in Hays with five students testing positive.

An outbreak in a congregate living facility is defined as two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases. A cluster in a school or child care facility is defined as at least five related positive cases within 14 days. An outbreak or cluster is considered over if there is no evidence of continued transmission 28 days after the latest date of onset in a symptomatic person or the first date of specimen collection from the most recent asymptomatic person, whichever is later.

Dr. Christopher Ohl of Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem said in his weekly COVID-19 update on Facebook Live on Jan. 6 that area nursing homes outbreaks are increasing, largely due to infected staff.

Ohl emphasized the importance of nursing home staff not coming to work if they’re sick. He said they should participating in testing programs and get booster shots.

Case numbers are less relevant now because of the many people who think they might have COVID-19 but aren’t getting tested or are self-testing and not reporting results, said Ohl, an infectious disease expert.

The Wilkes County Health Department announced last week that it no longer would report COVID-19 metrics on its website.

Ohl said there will be less emphasis on knowing case totals as COVID moves more into the endemic stage, so next year at this time they likely won’t be counted.

Ohl looks at trends and rates based on available numbers and said he increasingly is gauging conditions by COVID-19 hospitalizations. He said these indicators reflect a surge in cases due to exposure over the holidays, with 80-90% of them resulting from the omicron variant.

He said hospitalizations in the Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist system, which includes Wilkes Medical Center, are similar to the peak of the delta variant surge in late August and early September. The system’s hospitalization totals are about 30% less than in early January 2020.

“That means that omicron is a less severe infection for vaccinated people and people who were previously infected.” He said it tends to infect the upper respiratory areas rather than lungs so in that sense is less severe.

He said people hospitalized with COVID-19 are mostly the unvaccinated, reflected by the fact that 92% of those with COVID hospitalized in the Atrium Heath Wake Forest system the morning of Jan. 6 were not vaccinated. It’s higher in hospital ICUs. He said immunocompromised people and those over age 70 with underlying health conditions account for most of the rest.

January and February are already the busiest months for hospitals, plus staffing is down because many have “COVID colds.” He said this will continue for at least three more weeks.

He said booster shots should be thought of as the third in a three-shot series, similar to three-shot vaccinations for some other viruses because protection from the first two starts to wane after five to six months.

Ohl said people soon likely won’t be considered fully vaccinated for COVID-19 unless they’ve had three shots. He said the extra protection greatly raises the likelihood of a person not becoming infected with COVID-19 and only having cold symptoms if they do contract the virus. It also reduces transmission of the virus.

“If you are unvaccinated, you will get omicron. No ifs, ands or buts; it’s going to happen,” Ohl said. He said vaccinated people, especially those with boosters, won’t experience any more than a cold if they catch the virus. He expects antibodies to help protect immunocompromised people.

Positioned to be 'force for good'

Judge David V. Byrd of North Wilkesboro said he was fulfilling “naive plans of a young man” when he was first elected a District Court judge in 1994.

Byrd was 33 then, ranking him among the state’s youngest judges. Twenty-seven years later, he is one of the state’s longest serving District Court judges and Chief District Court judge for the 23rd Judicial District (Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany and Yadkin counties).

Local attorneys say Byrd is known for thoroughness and for maintaining a level playing field for all parties in court.

While he plans to preside over courts across the state part-time as an “emergency” District Court judge, Byrd soon will end a frequent presence at the Wilkes County Courthouse spanning three decades. He announced recently that he won’t seek his eighth four-year term in this year’s election.

Byrd looked back on his judicial career in a Jan. 7 interview, starting soon after he earned an undergraduate degree and graduated with honors from Appalachian State University in May 1983.

Byrd had a temporary Wilkes County tax revaluation job when Superior Court Judge Julius A. Rousseau Jr. appointed him a Wilkes magistrate in August 1983. At 22, Byrd was one of the state’s youngest magistrates.

This rekindled the interest he had in attending law school while he was an Elkin High School student. One evening at the old county courthouse in the third of his three years as a magistrate, Byrd mapped out a plan for the future in his head.

It began with applying for admission to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law. This was followed by returning to Wilkes to work as an assistant district attorney and then running for District Court judge in 1994, when he expected Judge Sam Osborne to not seek re-election.

Byrd said having been a magistrate likely helped him get into the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law and certainly served him academically. He didn’t apply anywhere else.

Byrd was in law school when he had ongoing communication with Michael Ashburn, district attorney then for the prosecutorial district with Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany and Yadkin counties, about possibly being hired as an assistant district attorney.

Near the end of Byrd’s three years of law school, Ashburn told him an assistant DA position was open “and it’s yours if you pass the bar.” Ashburn hired Byrd in 1989, the same year he graduated from law school and passed the bar. He said he always appreciated Ashburn for holding the position for him.

Assistant DAs Beirne Harding and Randy Lyon prosecuted Superior Court cases, while Byrd and Jeanie Reavis (now Houston) handled District Court. Houston was a District Court judge from 1997 until she didn’t seek re-election in 2020.

Byrd filed as a candidate for District Court judge when Osborne didn’t seek reelection in 1994. Byrd defeated Brad Cameron, a former assistant district attorney, and Houston in the Republican primary for the seat Osborne held. No Democrats ran so he was unopposed in the general election.

The state had partisan judicial elections then, but soon switched to non-partisan. They’re now partisan again with party primaries and political affiliation of candidates shown on ballots in general elections. Byrd said partisan judicial elections help voters know which candidates better represent their views.

Byrd joined Edgar Gregory and Michael Helms as a District Court judge for the 23rd Judicial District.

He said he was comfortable with presiding over criminal cases due to his work as a magistrate and assistant DA, but less so with civil cases because he had less experience with them. “I picked it up quickly,” partly with help of fellow judges and others.

He said the N.C. School of Government, which provides education and training for judges and other judicial officials, was a great resource then and now.

Much of this training is done in partnership with the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, including at annual judges’ conferences. Byrd said informal but informative conversations that occur when judges from Manteo to Murphy meet were lost when the conferences were held remotely in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Continuing education is extremely important” for judges, said Byrd. “Society is always changing and laws change to reflect this. Judges need to keep up with changes.”

For example, people are becoming more aware of their rights and increasingly are representing themselves instead of having an attorney. Byrd said this can create challenges for judges by raising new issues and situations or if people don’t know how to effectively present their cases while representing themselves.

He said one of the most positive changes in the judicial system occurred early in his career as a judge when structured sentencing was implemented.

This provided judges with specific sentencing standards and resulted in sentences within mandated ranges depending on the offense and a defendant’s prior record. It also meant defendants no longer serving only small portions of their prison sentences before being paroled.

In 2014, Chief Justice Mark Martin appointed Byrd as Chief District Court judge for the 23rd District. He succeeded Judge Michael Duncan of Wilkesboro after Duncan was elected a Superior Court judge. The chief District Court judge is administrator for criminal and civil District Court and supervises magistrates in the district. He or she sets schedules for District Court sessions and District Court judges in the district.

Byrd said most people in court are respectful, but a growing number are not. He said this reflects lack of self-respect and coarseness of society.

“When I was first elected, there was much more respect in a courtroom. People would stand up when the judge entered and more often said ‘your honor,’ ‘sir,’ and ma’am,’ ” he said. Now, people more often won’t stand when the bailiff says “all rise.” Byrd instructs bailiffs to repeat themselves and sometime do so more than once before people slowly rise.

Byrd has found people in contempt of court for absolutely refusing to follow rules of decorum.

“Most concerning is that the disrespect shows up at increasingly younger ages.” He believes this results from what is learned from some parents and negative influences of social media and popular culture role models.

Opioid and/or methamphetamine addiction are key factors in many of his court cases, from child abuse to larceny.

Byrd said probation with treatment and supervised probation is often a more appropriate sentence for defendants with substance addiction, but incarceration with treatment in prison may be a better option in other cases. There has to be accountability, he added.

Byrd often tells defendants, “It’s never going to get better until you (with strong emphasis on “you”) make a decision to change. When you decide that you’ve had enough of it, after it’s taken you away from your kids and ruined relationships and ruined your health, that’s when it will happen.”

“Sometimes it feels like you’re treading in molasses, not in water” because of the difficulty of seeing positive change. “I wonder, am I or any of us really doing any good?”

He added, “Then, I’ll be out somewhere and someone will come up to me and say something like, ‘Judge Byrd, you gave me two years in prison.’ I’m expecting to get hit when the person adds, “That was the best thing you could have done for me. After that, I straightened my life out.’ ”

He added, “People come up to me with a child and say, ‘do you remember the custody case you ruled on’ or ‘do you remember the child you made it possible for me to adopt?’ They’re happy to show me what a wonderful young lady or young man the child has become.”

Byrd said comments like these uplift him and remind him that judges can make a positive impact for good. “Always keep looking for what works.”

Byrd was ordained a Baptist minister well before he became a judge, but hasn’t felt led to pastor a church since serving in that role nine years ago. He said he never forced his faith on others, but believes being a judge puts him in a position of being a force for good in an environment with great need.

“There’s only so much you can do with law and the change has to start here,” motioning to his heart. He said his experience and knowledge as a minister helped him connect with some defendants in positive ways.

Byrd also noted the importance of prayer for him, including when seeking wisdom while faced with difficult decisions.

Byrd has three children: Laura Byrd Luffman, Sarah Byrd Sugg and Will Byrd. His two daughters are both attorneys and Laura Luffman filed as a candidate for the District Court judge’s seat Byrd now holds.

Byrd is the son of the late Rev. and Mrs. W. Von Byrd of Elkin.

2nd auto death of '22 occurs; again in Roaring River
  • Updated

Wilkes County’s second motor vehicle fatality of 2022 occurred around noon Jan. 5 when a 2018 Ford Escape and a 2016 Volvo tractor-trailer collided head-on on Red White and Blue Road in the Roaring River community.

Donald Richard Fawlkes, 59, of Kernersville, who was driving the Ford, died at the scene, said Master Sgt. Jeffrey Swagger of the N.C. Highway Patrol.

Swagger said the Ford was southbound on Red, White and Blue Road when it crossed the centerline and collided head-on with the northbound tractor-trailer, driven by Michael Joseph Caughman, 32, of Willow Springs.

Wilkes Emergency Medical Services transported Caughman to Wilkes Medical Center in North Wilkesboro. Swagger said his injuries were non-life-threatening. JHJ Trucking LLC was written on sides of the cab of the tractor-trailer.

The impact knocked the Ford partly off the north side of the road and left it facing north. The tractor-trailer remained in the northbound lane, facing north. Both vehicles were heavily damaged.

Swagger said the initial investigation didn’t indicate alcohol impairment as a contributing factor. He said Fawlkes was restrained by a seatbelt. There were no other people in either vehicle. The Highway Patrol responded to the wreck about 12:05 p.m.

The wreck occurred about midway on four-mile-long Red, White and Blue Road, which runs between N.C. 268 East on the north and U.S. 421 East on the south. It was about a half mile south of the Ruth Linney Road intersection.

Traffic was blocked on Red, White and Blue Road for several hours, with the Knotville Fire Department blocking vehicles at the four-way intersection of Old 60 and Red, White and Blue Road and the Broadway Fire Department handling the south end at the Ranse Staley Road intersection.

The Roaring River Fire Department assisted at the wreck scene, including by spreading absorbent material on the roadway to help clean up spilled fuel. The Wilkes Rescue Squad responded to remove Fawlkes from his wrecked vehicle.

Red, White and Blue Road has heavy tractor-trailer traffic related to industries off N.C. 268 East in Roaring River and numerous wrecks involving these rigs have occurred on the narrow secondary road.

The county’s first traffic fatality of the year occurred about 4:15 a.m. Jan. 1, also in the Roaring River Fire District. Jasmine Bae Shores, 25, of Millers Creek, died at the scene from injuries received when her 2019 Toyota RAV4 ran off N.C. 268 East, struck a ditch and overturned several times, said Swagger.

Bonuses okayed to help retain school employees
  • Updated

The Wilkes Board of Education on Monday night unanimously approved a bonus salary plan focused on retaining Wilkes County School employees.

Each employee working at least 30 hours per week (considered fulltime) will receive a $1,500 bonus, paid in two installments of $750 apiece. Each employee working less than 30 hours a week will receive a $750 bonus, paid in two $375 installments.

Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said bonus payments to employees who work day to day will be prorated.

People employed by the Wilkes schools when the first semester of the 2021-22 school year ends Jan. 13 will be eligible for the first installment. Those employed when the second semester ends May 22 will be eligible for the second installment. “To qualify, employees must remain employed with Wilkes County Schools through the final student day as indicated above,” the plan says.

The plan said actual payment dates will be Feb. 28 and June 23 and won’t be subject to the Teachers & State Employees Retirement Program (TSERS), indicating that money won’t be taken out for retirement.

The bonus payments will be funded with the money from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which is tied to COVID-19 relief. Combined cost of the bonuses wasn’t stated.

According to a “data points” section of the plan, employee turnover in the Wilkes schools increased by 104% from before the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020 to now.

The number of certified employee vacancies on the first day of the 2021-22 school year was 140% higher than on the first day of the 2018-19 school year. For day 40, the number of certified vacancies increased by 80%.

According to the data points section, nine school systems in the region already have announced that they will pay fulltime employees bonuses this year ranging from $1,000 to $2,000. The average of $1,267.

Conclusions based on 44 responses during discussions of Wilkes school administrators in a focus group sessions were:

“• There is a perceived need for staff to feel appreciated and valued for performance during the pandemic;

“•There is a perception that workload has increased;

“•While there is a perception of emotional and financial hardship, it appears that it is not the motivating factor for justifying need of incentive/retention bonus.”

The plan included this quote: “We continue to struggle to fill all positions. If we lose employees, it compounds the problem. It is a better use of funds to keep employees than hire new ones and have to train them, lose efficiency/productivity.”

It was stated during the board meeting that the retention bonuses are in addition state and local salary supplements. State supplements for Wilkes school teachers and other certified employees under a plan in the new state budget.