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Surgeon accused in blackmail plot for sex
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A nurse practitioner has filed a federal lawsuit accusing the general surgeon who was her supervisor at Wilkes Medical Center of trying to blackmail her into having sex with him.

The suit accuses Dr. John W. Thompson of telling the nurse practitioner that he made audio and video recordings of her “private and confidential activities” and that he would release them to her husband and other family members if she didn’t engage in sexual activities with him twice a month for a year. The suit said Thompson made the recordings without her knowledge or consent.

Because of the nature of the suit, the Wilkes Journal-Patriot isn’t using the name of the nurse practitioner who filed it. The suit seeks over $300,000 in punitive and compensatory damages from Thompson.

The nurse practitioner and Thompson were employed by Wake Forest Baptist Health and Wilkes Medical Center at all times relevant to the complaint. Wilkes Medical Center is operated by Wake Forest Baptist Health under a long-term lease agreement with the Town of North Wilkesboro, which owns the hospital.

The suit notes that Thompson was the only general surgeon in Wilkes and served as a regional medical director with Wake Forest Baptist Health.

A Wake Forest Baptist Health spokesman released a statement Tuesday saying Thompson’s employment with Wake Forest Baptist ended June 18 and the Winston-Salem-based hospital system has other surgeons meeting needs of its patients in Wilkes.

The statement also said Wake Forest Baptist Health is proud to have the plaintiff in the suit “as one of our dedicated nurse practitioners.”

It continued, “We encourage all our teammates to immediately report unacceptable behavior. We immediately investigate and address such concerns to protect our colleagues…. We will not comment further on the lawsuit, which appropriately does not name Wake Forest Baptist Health as a defendant.”

According to the suit, Thompson told the nurse practitioner on May 17 that “he was having marital problems and alleged that he knew the plaintiff (the nurse practitioner) was having issues in her own marriage.” The suit said Thompson then told her he found her attractive and said he was interested in having a relationship with her outside of work. She answered affirmatively when Thompson asked if his request made her uncomfortable and he apologized, it said.

The suit said the nurse practitioner believed Thompson’s comment was isolated and that she possibly misunderstood or misinterpreted what he said about having a relationship outside of work. The suit noted that Thompson was her physician prior to June 11, removed her gall bladder in March 2020 and performed a breast examination on her in December 2020, with a nurse present.

The suit says that on June 11, Thompson told the nurse practitioner that he had audio and video recordings of her stored on his cell phone and elsewhere “that contained highly personal, confidential and potentially damaging information about her.” It said Thompson tried to play it for her but said he couldn’t due to a technical problem, but that the nurse practitioner believed then and still believes Thompson recorded her private communications.

The suit says that in that same conversation with Thompson, he said he wouldn’t disclose the recordings if she would agree to have “physical alone time” with him for one hour, twice a month, for a year. The nurse practitioner interpreted this to mean a request to have sexual intercourse with him, the suit stated.

The suit says Thompson stated he knew she could “compartmentalize” the sexual relationship he demanded from her and that he wanted to begin a sexual relationship with her that day.

The suit says the nurse practitioner told him she needed to think about it and he said he would give her until June 14. It said he stated that if she didn’t agree to his proposal, it would change her situation at work and she might lose her job. Thompson said he could get a job anywhere as a surgeon, the suit states.

The suit says that when they talked on June 14, Thompson played a clip of an audio recording of a private conversation she had with another party. In that conversation, it says, Thompson said he “might release her from his proposed sexual arrangement if he wanted to after one year.”

The suit says the nurse practitioner met with Wake Forest Baptist Health officials on June 16 and lodged a complaint of workplace sexual harassment against Thompson. It says Thompson’s employment with Wake Forest Baptist Health was terminated after he admitted that the sexual harassment complaint was true.

The suit says Thompson’s actions caused the nurse practitioner great emotional distress and that it resulted in her seeking psychological counseling.

The suit says Thompson violated the Electronics Communication Privacy Act, inflicted emotional distress on the plaintiff, committed sexual assault and battery and invaded her privacy,

The suit was filed July 21 in the Western District of U.S. District Court. No answer has been filed and the Wilkes Journal-Patriot wasn’t able to reach Thompson for comment.

Jones Watson of Elkin steps back into waters of Stone Mountain Creek in Stone Mountain State Park Saturday after a closer look at a cairn, over 5 feet tall, someone else made. Such rock creations are actually discouraged because building them disturbs steam habitat and natural appearance.

Balancing act

New Wilkes librarian led Ashe library 9 years
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Suzanne Moore, serving as Ashe County librarian the last nine years, has been named Wilkes County librarian.

Moore’s first day in her new position was July 19. Aimee James, Wilkes County librarian since late 2018, resigned in April to take a public library position in Southern Pines.

Moore said it’s an honor to be asked to work with the talented and dedicated Wilkes library staff. The Wilkes County Library has 18 employees and one person works at the Traphill Library.

“I plan to be a hands-on librarian and work closely with my staff on their yearly individual work and development plans. Together, we will meet the challenge of making the Wilkes Library the gateway and centerpiece of our community,” she said.

Moore added, “I have had a regional connection to the Wilkes library while serving as Ashe County librarian for the last nine years, and already know what a wonderful place this library is.” Public libraries in Wilkes, Ashe and Watauga counties are in the Appalachian Regional Library system.

When asked about challenges she perceives as the new Wilkes librarian, Moore said likely foremost is finding time and resources to accomplish goals and objectives. She said being in a regional library system helps address this by sharing costs and resources, which benefits Wilkes citizens.

Jane Blackburn, director of libraries for the Appalachian Regional Library, said Moore’s experience as Ashe County librarian is a big plus. “Needless to say, she knows how the region works and the requirements and responsibilities of a county librarian. Suzanne has successfully managed library programming, library staff, budgets and relationship building in the community.”

She said Moore has demonstrated abilities to produce programs that engage the community, forge good relationships with peers and peer organizations and work as part of a team. She has an extensive professional network, outgoing personality, boundless energy, is creative and communicates well verbally and with the written word, added Blackburn.

A Wilkes librarian search committee consisting of Blackburn, three Wilkes Library Advisory Board members, a Wilkes library staff member and a library patron agreed to advertise locally in the Wilkes Journal-Patriot and on the library website for job applications. It also was advertised through the State Library of North Carolina job site and through state library associations in Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia.

Among 17 people who applied, the committee decided to interview three who seemed most qualified. Blackburn said that after each was asked the same questions via Zoom, the committee met and decided to forego in-person interviews since Moore was clearly the top candidate.

In addition to her tenure as Ashe librarian, Moore has ties to this area through her father, Robert Busic, born and raised in Alleghany County. She often visited her grandparents, Leonard and Lois Busic, in Sparta while growing up. “I love the old-time music of these mountains and, as an amateur plucker, have an informal group called Molasses Jam. I am hoping to assemble a library jam band in the future, and am excited to meet local musicians in Wilkesboro.”

Moore grew up in Gloucester County, Va., (Chesapeake Bay area), married after high school and moved to Nashville, Tenn.

“My journey to become a professional librarian wasn’t realized until much later. Along the way I raised four children, while working a variety of jobs and going to college.

After graduating from Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tenn., with degrees in interdisciplinary studies and early childhood education in 2000, she worked as a middle school language arts teacher in Robertson County, Tenn., for several years. She taught for three more years at a junior high in Van, Texas, after moving to Grand Saline, Texas (where her husband was from) in 2004.

“I left teaching to join the library world when I took a job managing a small rural library in Mineola, Texas, and began graduate studies at the University of North Texas. In 2010, I completed requirements for a Masters of information and library science degree, and moved to North Carolina to work as Ashe County librarian in 2012.”

A public library is like a “University for the People,” said Moore. “Growing up, I guess you could say the love of libraries was in my blood. My mother took us to get books from the library every week, and my grandma was a children’s librarian in Maryland.”

Moore said she expects to emphasize library programming and community engagement in Wilkes. “Previously, I have worked with library staff to develop local and regional programming that raises awareness and highlights issues on various topics. She said these include financial literacy, healthy eating, compassion and the power of giving, understanding war and crossing cultural boundaries, mental health, substance misuse and social justice.

Moore said she likes to find ways for readers to become involved and experience literature. “With theme-related featured selections, guest authors, and involving activities, I truly believe the power of books can connect and change lives. I want to emphasize whole-person wellness in a variety of programs that will provide something for everyone…. Learning together is one way of sharing and building community.

As Ashe County Librarian, she worked with community groups and students to document stories of local veterans. This became an annual project and inspired a monthly veterans’ reading group, “The Talking Service Book Club.” Moore said she plans to expand this across the Appalachian Library region.

“I also have a great love for reading and writing and will be sharing my reading adventures with a monthly, published book review. I would like to extend the invitation to all readers, and anyone who may be curious, to join me in my personal goal of reading the most recommended books: ‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.’ ”

Moore said her immediate goals as new Wilkes librarian are focused on getting to know the community and its library partners. She enrolled in the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Wilkes to learn more about the county.

The Wilkes Journal-Patriot asked Moore what makes a good county librarian.

She responded, “I think a good county librarian is someone who knows what their communities and county citizens are interested in (local history and current trends). A good librarian can also help make connections to their collections with what is happening in the world both near and far. This helps to encourage users to make discoveries and realize there are many possibilities and opportunities to take advantage of. Lifelong learning is a service priority.

“It is also important to reach people who might not use or understand the value of the library. Sometimes libraries might seem to be an intimidating place. A good county librarian serves people not only in the library but outside the library too. Sharing your talents and experiences is one way of being approachable. Librarians need to be welcoming and arrange opportunities for fellowship and enrichment.

“Much of the work a good county librarian is involved in happens outside the office. Partnering with organizations and businesses in multiple ways will promote diversity, inclusion, and equality for everyone. Libraries are for everyone. You may have heard before that ‘libraries are the heart of the community.’ I think that should be flipped to say ‘the community is the heart of the library.’ A good librarian keeps the heart beating.”

Hospital employees must be vaccinated
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Employees of Wake Forest Baptist Health, which includes Wilkes Medical Center in North Wilkesboro, and other major hospital systems in North Carolina must get vaccinated for COVID-19 to continue working at those facilities.

The N.C. Healthcare Association announced that in addition to Wake Forest Baptist Health, hospital systems that will compel staff to get vaccinated are Novant Health, Duke University Health network, UNC Health, Atrium Health and Cone Health.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and parent company Atrium Health set an Oct. 31 deadline for all employees to be vaccinated. Employees received word of this in emails sent on Thursday.

“Hospital and health system employee vaccination against COVID-19 is vital to safely care for patients by protecting them from infection, and to mitigate the spread of the virus within healthcare facilities and among clinicians, patients and their families and friends,” the association wrote in a message to its 130 members.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported that As of Thursday, 57% of adult North Carolinians and 33% of all Wilkes County residents were fully vaccinated.

Health officials say the delta variant of COVID-19 makes up 83% of COVID-19 cases in the United States. It accounts for between 50% and 60% of cases in North Carolina.

DHHS told the Associated Press Thursday that 94% of cases and deaths reported between May 6 and July 11 have been among people not fully vaccinated.

North Carolinians 12 years of age or older are eligible for a COVID-19 shot, which are widely available and free of charge.

At participating vaccination sites, unvaccinated people 18 and older who come in for their first dose can get $25. Drivers who bring someone in for their initial shot also qualify for the prepaid Mastercard. These will be offered Aug. 5-30 in Wilkes County.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, DHHS director, praised the association for encouraging hospitals to compel their workers to get vaccinated.

“Thank you to the North Carolina Healthcare Association, and the health systems that are leading the way requiring vaccination for employees, for taking action to protect the health care workforce, their patients, our communities and the state,” Cohen said in a news release. “Vaccinations are our way out of the pandemic. Don’t wait to vaccinate.”

More spikes and declines of COVID-19 expected
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Wilkes County Health Department Director Rachel Willard said Friday that she expects alternating periods of new COVID-19 case totals spiking and falling in the county in the next 12-18 months, barring a substantial increase in Wilkes residents vaccinated for the virus.

“We’ll see an ebb and flow in cases, along with new variants (of COVID-19) showing up,” said Willard.

Wilkes County’s COVID-19 vaccination rate rose from 15% in early April to 22% by the end of April and to 29% by the end of May. On Friday, it was 33% for the fifth day in a row.

New COVID-19 cases are spiking in Wilkes and across the state and nation and Willard said she expects them to increase again in Wilkes after elementary and high school classes start Aug. 23 for the 2021-22 academic year.

In the two weeks ending Friday, 124 Wilkes residents per 100,000 tested positive for COVID-19. On July 9 (two weeks ago), the Wilkes rate for the prior two weeks was 34 people per 100,000.

Willard also cited the start of flu season over the next six weeks after a July marked by rising flu cases in Wilkes, partly due to more people getting tested for COVID-19. “I think we’ll see a lot of respiratory issues this fall and it could be hard to determine if it’s flu or COVID.”

She noted the impact of fewer people wearing masks statewide after Gov. Roy Cooper lifted a mask mandate for most indoor settings in mid-May. The mask mandate wasn’t lifted for child care facilities, schools, camps, public transportation, hospitals, doctor’s offices, long-term care settings like nursing homes and certain congregate settings like prisons and homeless shelters. Cooper also ended social distancing requirements and mass gathering limits.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report citing the possibility of a bad flu season ahead due to social distancing and masks reducing the prevalence of flu viruses in the prior year and therefore lowering population immunity. Because of this, the CDC said, flu shots are especially important this year.

The highly-contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 accounts for most new cases recently in North Carolina and the U.S. and is driving the current surge, say public health officials. Willard said she believes Wilkes only has a small number of cases of the Delta variant, but added that she hasn’t seen data confirming this.

As of Friday, 7,046 Wilkes residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March 2020. There have been 117 confirmed COVID-19-related deaths of Wilkes residents since June 24. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported that Wilkes had 118 such deaths for a few days in late June before dropping it back to 117.

Willard said at least eight Wilkes residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 and the county had 79 active COVID-19 cases as of Thursday afternoon, compared to two hospitalized and 37 active cases June 28. (“Active” refers to people in isolation due to COVID-19. It’s usually for 10 days starting with onset, but sometimes is longer.)

“About 50% of our cases in the last two weeks were people ages 19 to 64,” said Willard. About half of those people ages 19-64 were 19-44 and about half were 45-64, she added. “We are starting to see a rise in people under 18 (with COVID-19), but it’s not so much that it is alarming.”