Wilkes County remained in the forefront of a COVID-19 surge this week after being included early last week on a list of 10 North Carolina counties with “critical community spread” of the virus.
Wilkes and the other nine counties were singled out for having high COVID-19 transmission levels in a new alert system announced by Gov. Roy Cooper and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) officials on Nov. 17.
The state officials urged counties with high transmission levels to enforce the governor’s mask mandate and limits on numbers of people together indoors.
“We may have to do more even on a statewide level or at a local level in some way,” Cooper said that day. “The decision has not yet been made, but we are hoping that this effort can help us slow the spread.”
Among counties listed with “critical community spread” on Nov. 17, Wilkes ranked fourth in new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 in the prior 14 days with 574.5 cases. Alexander was first with 914.7 and Avery was eighth with 427.2.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services will reassess counties each month and release an updated report the second week with a state map showing counties colored red (critical community spread), orange (substantial community spread) or yellow (significant community spread).
In addition to new cases per 100,000 people in the prior two weeks, each county’s rating is based on its percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive and COVID-19’s impact on the county’s primary hospital. This impact is determined by number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, number 0f staffed hospital beds available, critical staff shortages and COVID-19-related visits to emergency departments in the prior 14 days.
In the first alert system report, Wilkes was listed with “low” hospital impact and 10.5% of COVID-19 tests coming back positive the prior 14 days.
On Sunday, Wilkes was still among the top 10 counties in the state in numbers of new cases per 100,000 in the prior two weeks with 612.
The Wilkes County Health Department reported Friday that Wilkes had 276 active cases out of 2,441 Wilkes residents who tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began in March. That was up from 2,198 a week earlier on Friday, Nov. 13.
The health department reported Friday that 29 of the 276 active cases were hospitalized, mostly at Wilkes Medical Center. Wilkes had 47 COVID-19-related deaths by Friday, more than any adjoining county.
“We want to work with these counties to see if we could lower the spread with the recommendations that we have in place now,” said Cooper on Nov. 17. “Right now, those recommendations don’t include travel restrictions.”
In addition to urging enforcement action, state officials asked government leaders in the 10 “critical community spread” counties and 44 counties with “substantial community spread” to consider ending alcohol sales earlier than the current 11 p.m. deadline in place statewide.
Cooper said North Carolina isn’t faring as badly as other states, although new cases per day, hospitalizations and positivity rates are at their highest levels yet. “What we’re trying to do is reenergize the people of our state,” he said.
According to DHHS, individuals in red and orange counties should limit mixing between households and minimize the number of people in a social circle. They should avoid settings where people congregate.
If patronizing restaurants, they should order take out and/or eat outdoors while socially distanced.
DHHS said individuals at high-risk for developing serious illness should stay home as much as possible, reduce public interactions to essential activities like going to work or school, caring for family members, buying food, getting health care or picking up medications.
DHHS said business and community organizations in red and orange counties are strongly encouraged to implement teleworking if feasible and cancel non-essential work travel.
The should also promote the “Find My Testing Place” website to employees and require that all employees participate in “Count on Me NC” training.
Manufacturing, construction and food processing companies and farms can request consultations from DHHS on reducing workplace transmission by calling 919-707-5900.
DHHS said community and religious organizations should avoid having more than 10 people at in-person, indoor meetings or worship services. Churches are exempt from limits on crowd sizes.
Construction of the Wilkes County Landfill’s fifth lined cell off N.C. 268 East in Roaring River is well underway.
Despite periods of excessive rain, Greensboro-based D.H. Griffin Construction Co. is only about three weeks behind and should complete the $2.5 million project in January, said Wilkes County Solid Waste Director Anderia Byrd. The current landfill cell has ample space for garbage to accommodate more delays, she added.
Construction on the 5 ½-acre landfill cell, about the same size as the four prior cells, started in the spring. Like the earlier four, it will have multiple liners and a leachate collection system designed to keep leachate from seeping into groundwater. Leachate is water in garbage and precipitation that is contaminated when it percolates through garbage.
The liner system begins with low-permeable, red clay soil hauled in from on site and spread over the bottom and sides of the cell. Enough red clay is used to make this layer two-feet thick after compaction.
Next, huge sheets of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), 60 millimeters (1/16th of an inch) thick, are unrolled by workers over the red clay to cover the entire base of the cell. These plastic sheets are connected by fusion welding, which uses heat to melt them together where they overlap.
“An electronic leak detection test is performed to find and repair any and all holes even as small as a pin head” in the polyethylene liner, said Byrd.
Above the red clay and HDPE layers, a system of perforated pipes is installed with a layer of gravel around it at the lowest point in the cell. These perforated pipes collect leachate and drain it to a solid pipe leading to a leachate pond below the cell.
Contents of the leachate pond are pumped into tanker trucks and hauled to the Wilkesboro Wastewater Treatment Plant for treatment and release into the Yadkin River with other wastewater treated at the plant. Subtitle D of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates public landfills, requires that public landfills be built with liner and leachate collection systems.
Despite organized opposition in the Roaring River community, the Wilkes County commissioners authorized the purchase of acreage for the landfill in Roaring River and opened the first cell there in 1993.
The prior county landfill, off Germantown Road in Moravian Falls, was built before liner and leachate collection systems were required and wasn’t built with these features.
As required under Subtitle D rules, the landfill off Germantown Road is capped with plastic sheeting similar to what is now required at the base of landfills. Byrd said preparations are being made for similarly closing the first four cells at Roaring River.
She said the plastic landfill cover and liner are fusion welded together to “essentially create a huge garbage bag.” Federal regulations also require installation of pipes in closed public landfills to release methane gas that builds up when garbage decomposes.
Local governments are required under federal law to set money aside money over time for landfill closure costs.
Byrd noted that about the time each landfill cell opened at Roaring River, county government began the process of building a new cell to replace it.
There is space for more cells, each about 5 ½ acres, on the 180 acres owned by the county in Roaring River. This includes 41 acres the county bought about seven years ago to provide enough cover dirt at the landfill for 46 more years. Regulations require that cells be covered with a layer of dirt or approved tarps at the end of each day of use.
The county commissioners have discussed buying more adjoining property.
Wilkes Community College officials are working on ways to address an anticipated $1 million-plus reduction in revenue next fall due to decreased enrollment this semester, said Dr. Jeff Cox, WCC president.
The funding loss will likely make WCC staff cuts necessary, said Cox during a Nov. 14 Wilkes Economic Development Corp. board meeting.
WCC’s enrollment is down about 9% from the same time last year, he said.
“We will look under every stone to find places to meet the budget shortfall before we start thinking about any cuts to faculty or staff positions,” said Cox in an interview later.
“But when 80-90% of your budget is in personnel, that is where we end up having to make some of the cuts,” he explained.
“In terms of the budget, we are really working hard to retain all of the students we currently have enrolled. The better a job we do with that, the less the budget cuts will be.
“There are a few obvious places where we are reducing costs this year, such as travel and professional development. No one is traveling much to go to state level meetings or attending professional conferences,” said Cox.
The addition of about 80 eight-week minimester courses at WCC was recently announced. These are designed to provide students greater flexibility and allow them to focus on fewer courses at a time so they can more easily pursue educational goals while meeting other responsibilities.
In addition to the traditional 16-week semester, two eight-week minimester sessions will be offered this spring at WCC.
“I think a lot of our students may prefer to take two or three eight-week classes at a time instead of taking five or six courses for the whole semester,” said Cox. “Even though the actual hourly requirements for the courses are the same, it is just less overwhelming to take two courses at a time instead of five.”
Cox said in an interview later that community college enrollment is down an average of 5% statewide and nationwide. He said it’s down 20% or more at some community colleges in North Carolina, but up a little at a few.
A decline in enrollment at a community college means a loss in state funding based on fulltime equivalents (FTEs), which allows combining course credits of part-time students to come up with a total number of fulltime students.
Cox attributed the lower enrollment to COVID-19.
“Many students have told us directly that when COVID-19 passes they will get back in school. Some students like that most classes are online but the majority prefer being face-to-face.”
He said a 14% cut in funding this year from Wilkes County government will make it even harder to balance next year’s budget. “I sure hope the 14% cut in the local budget was a one-time deal, as we will really need that local money back in the budget next year to make ends meet.”
Cox said WCC hasn’t had more than a handful of active COVID-19 cases among staff and students at a time.
Editor’s Note: A complete obituary for Dr. Essie Hayes is in the journalpatriot.com obituary section.
Dr. Essie Norris Hayes, a longtime educator and education leader in Wilkes County, died Saturday night at Rose Glen Manor in Wilkesboro after a period of declining health. She had turned 93 less than a month earlier.
Hayes taught in the Wilkes County Schools and at Wilkes Community College, both for many years. She served on the Wilkes County Board of Education from 1996-2000.
Hayes was school board chairman when Wilkes voters rejected issuing $28 million in bonds to help fund a plan that included merging East and North Wilkes high schools and building a new facility for the new school in 1998.
Hayes led the board as it responded to the bond referendum results by presenting a plan for building the four current middle schools. The board approved building the schools in 1999, and they were completed in 2002.
Opinions were often mixed on Wilkes County school plans and tensions sometimes ran high during this period.
Peggy Martin Halsch of Wilkesboro, a longtime Wilkes educator and school administrator who was on the school board later, said Hayes was strong and stood by what she thought was right while also being kind. “She was just a wonderful human being… never mean to anyone.”
Marsh Lyall of North Wilkesboro, Wilkes school superintendent from 1983-1995, added, “She had a very gentle spirit and looked for the best in all people.” Lyall said Hayes loved her church, Wilkesboro Baptist, and her Sunday school class.
He said Hayes was dedicated to Wilkes Community College, where she taught for many years. She was a leader in Communities In Schools (CIS) and active in a local writer’s club.
Hayes helped establish the Communities In Schools’ New Century Scholars Program, which provided scholarships to Wilkes Community College for thousands of Wilkes youths. She served as a lunch buddy and Friend of Youth volunteer. She received a Great State Hero Award from Wilkes United Way in 2017, largely for her work with CIS.
Hayes was one of eight children born to Jonathan and Edith Norris in Watauga County. Her parents and six of her siblings also were public school teachers. Gov. Luther Hodges recognized the Norris family as the “North Carolina Education Family of the Year” in 1957.
She had an undergraduate degree in education from Appalachian State Teacher’s College in Boone. She received a master’s degree in education from the school after it had become Appalachian State University.