Dr. Chi Huang of Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist said he wants people to understand the worsening threat posed by COVID-19, especially in counties like Wilkes with low vaccination rates, inconsistent masking and rapidly rising hospital admissions of patients with the virus.
Huang is section chief of hospital medicine at Winston-Salem-based Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and associate professor of internal medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine.
“We should focus on what really matters — the well-being of our loved ones, our families, friends and communities,” added Huang, who assists at times at Wilkes Medical Center in North Wilkesboro. He has received awards for community service, teaching and leadership, such as the Harvard Medical School Golden Stethoscope Award in 2003.
Huang said the surge of the delta variant of COVID-19 is reaching the point where availability of inpatient and intensive care unit beds at Wilkes Medical Center and other hospitals statewide could become a concern.
He cited the impact on hospital staff as another concern and said they have worked courageously since the pandemic began.
Huang said he expects the current COVID-19 surge to worsen over the next several weeks at the very least.
Wilkes County’s COVID-19 metrics have continuously worsened this month, including the week ending this past Sunday.
Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said seven COVID-19-related deaths of Wilkes residents were reported that week, the most in a single week in Wilkes. The county’s official COVID death total now is 128, which included one reported Monday.
Willard said most of the recent deaths were people in their 60s and 70s and none were residents of long-term care facilities.
At least 20 Wilkes residents were hospitalized with COVID-19 Monday, the most since early 2021.
The New York Times said the number of Wilkes residents hospitalized with COVID-19 increased 113% in the two weeks ending Saturday.
COVID-19 hospitalizations have been rising statewide since July 9, when there were 409. There were 3,197 hospitalized statewide as of Monday.
The health department reported Saturday that 20% of the county’s active COVID-19 cases were people ages 5-17. That was about 83 of about 415 active cases. Willard said 19 more school age Wilkes residents tested positive for the virus Monday.
An average of 13% of Wilkes residents tested in the two weeks ending Saturday tested positive. The state’s goal is 5% or less to slow spread of the virus. The Times said Wilkes County’s high test positivity rate suggests cases here are significantly undercounted.
“I think we’re seeing that COVID is spreading through households more than in the past,” said Willard. “What I mean is that early on we saw maybe one or two people on average in a house get it. We’re now seeing it impact almost entire households, especially if they aren’t vaccinated.”
Those with close contact with people testing positive for COVID-19 are themselves showing symptoms and testing positive sooner, she added.
By Friday, 8,006 Wilkes residents had tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began in March 2020. The total Monday was 8,130.
The Times reported an average of 43 new cases per day in Wilkes in the two weeks ending Saturday, up 56% from the prior two-week period.
“So far, August has been the month with the highest average cases since January 2021 in Wilkes County,” the Times said. “Right now, Wilkes County is at an extremely high risk for unvaccinated people.”
It said that because of high spread, the CDC recommends that even vaccinated people wear masks in Wilkes.
Health professionals say delta is by far the most infectious variant to emerge so far and accounts for virtually all current active cases of the virus in the U.S.
The overwhelming majority of active cases are the unvaccinated, including a larger number of young people. On Aug. 17, state health officials reported that 438 cases in children were tied to 50 outbreaks in schools and childcare centers, compared to 255 cases connected to 34 outbreaks the prior week.
Dr. Kacy Ramirez, M.D., pediatric infectious disease expert at Atrium Wake Baptist Health, spoke about the delta variant’s impact on children while on Dr. Christopher Ohl’s weekly COVID-19 update on Facebook on Aug. 19. Ohl is an infectious disease expert at Atrium Wake Baptist Health.
Ramirez said the delta variant is infecting a larger number of children with obesity, asthma and certain other underlying conditions and making them sicker. She said children in African-American, Latino and certain other ethnic groups and immunocompromised children are also at increased risk.
Ohl praised Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines (a Wilkes native) for issuing an order last week requiring that people wear masks in all indoor locations in the city. Ohl said this makes it easier for businesses wanting to require masks.
Due to increased patient loads and wait times in hospital emergency departments, Ohl recommended that people go to urgent care facilities or their primary care physicians for minor illnesses, injuries or COVID-19 testing.
Ohl said Wilkes is among area counties with considerably higher COVID rates and lower vaccination rates.
Wilkes also is among counties with school districts that started the 2021-22 academic year without mask mandates. Ohl and Ramirez advocate requiring that masks be worn indoors at schools.
With at least 28 school districts reversing course on mask requirements in the past 2 1/2 weeks to help curb the spread, at least 81 of the state’s 115 districts are requiring face coverings indoors.
Officials at North Wilkes and Wilkes Central high schools confirmed Monday the postponement of the schools’ next two varsity football games due to team members having COVID-19.
Tornadoes left damage in at least two locations in Wilkes County on Aug. 17, announced the National Weather Service office in Blacksburg, Va.
Meteorologists Phil Hysell and Nick Fillo from the NWS in Blacksburg visited sites in Wilkes the day after damage occurred and determined that tornadoes touched down near the intersection of Clingman Road and Old 60 in the Clingman community and near the intersection of Mahaffey and Old Benbow roads on the Wilkes-Yadkin county line near the Somers community.
Hysell said they were EF-0 tornadoes, which is the weakest on a scale of 0-5. He said both had peak winds of 80 mph, which is the upper end of an EF-0 tornado and is severe enough to threaten lives and cause serious injuries.
The two meteorologists reported finding uprooted trees at both locations on their visit Wednesday, but more in Clingman.
They reported that portions of a chicken house and two homes were blown off by wind and an outbuilding was flattened in Clingman within a swath of damage .68 of a mile long and about 75 yards wide.
In the Somers community, siding and roof on a home were blown office in a path of damage .75 of a mile long and about 40 yards wide.
The tornado touched down near Somers about 1:45 p.m. and in Clingman about 1:50 p.m. Aug. 17. They were from the same storm. A wall of dark clouds with swirling wind funnels created ominous scenes in eastern Wilkes.
Hysell said the two meteorologists visited an area with downed trees on Cane Creek Church Road near McGrady in northern Wilkes and determined it wasn’t caused by a tornado.
The enhanced EF Scale considers 28 damage indicators, such as building types, other structures and trees.
The first tornado warning in the area was announced around noon Aug. 17 for northeastern Alexander and and northwestern Iredell counties, with the storm moving north about 35 mph.
According to the Taylorsville Times, the NWS office in Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., confirmed that a tornado touched down about seven miles east of Taylorsville near Stony Point There were downed trees in the Vashti community of northern Alexander and in the Brushy Mountains as it moved into Wilkes.
Hysell said Wilkes Emergency Management Director Suzanne Hamby advised them on where to visit in Wilkes.
Before the two tornadoes on Aug. 17, the NWS has a record of eight confirmed tornadoes in Wilkes since 1950. They were:
• 10 p.m. May 27, 1973, F-1 tornado 9.1 miles long and 33 yards wide from Shepherds X Road in Roaring River in a northeasterly path to Mining Ridge School Road and across U.S. 21 into edge of Surry County. About $250,000 in damage;
• 10:30 p.m. June 1, 1974 F-1 tornado about a mile long on and near Mount Sinai Road in the Little Brushies. Mostly tree damage but some damage to outbuildings. About $25,000 in damage;
• 5 p.m. May 31, 1975, F-1 tornado touched down briefly in woods near end of Barlow Hill, off N.C. 18 North in Mulberry community. About $2,500 in damage;
• 7:30 p.m. April 4, 1977, F-1 tornado went from near Billings Church Road in Traphill in northeasterly direction for 6.4 miles and crossed U.S. 21 in Thurmond before ending just north of Blackburn Road in Surry County. Caused about $60,000 in damage to mobile homes, chicken houses and outbuildings;
• 7:15 p.m. Aug. 16, 1994, F-0 tornado touched down for about a tenth of a mile and 10 yards wide in Shepherds Crossroads community and caused about $50,000 in damage. Destroyed an old store, flattening several chicken houses, breaking windows in houses and damaging outbuildings;
• 4:20 p.m., Sept. 5, 2011, EF-1 tornado touched down just south of intersection of Longbottom and Greenstreet Mountain Resort roads and tracked north into Stone Mountain State Park, destroying 14 outbuildings, damaging three homes and uprooting a large oak tree. Caused about $850,000 inn damage. Associated with remnants of Tropical Storm Lee;
• beginning 5:45 p.m. Oct. 8, 2017, EF-1 tornado touched down just south of U.S. 421 a base of Blue Ridge Mountain escarpment, went north across U.S. 421 and just west of Fall Creek Road, crossed Pattons Ridge Road, Summit Road, Blue Ridge Parkway and lifted near Pine Swamp Road in Ashe County. About 4.37 miles long and about 300 yards wide. Damaged a few outbuildings on Summit Road but mostly timber;
• beginning 4:11 p.m. Oct. 23, 2017, EF-1 tornado touched down near intersection of Oakwoods Road and East Main Street in Wilkesboro. Continued slightly northeasterly, crossed the Old Wilkes YMCA, Yadkin River, Wilkesboro Boulevard, went west of Memorial Park, through downtown North Wilkesboro, crossed Second Street near Boston Avenue intersection, crossed Flint Hill Road, N.C. 268, Temple Street, Fairplains Road, stayed east of N.C. 18 North, crossed Cartpath Road, followed Mountain View Road a short distance and ended near Harrold Mountain Road extension. Went 8.6 miles and caused about $1 million in damage to buildings. Left about 23,000 Wilkes residents without electricity.
Two people died in Wilkes County wrecks this weekend, one in the McGrady community Sunday and the other Saturday in Ronda.
A Yadkin County man died Sunday as a result of a motorcycle wreck about 3:30 p.m. on N.C. 18 North about halfway up the Blue Ridge Mountain escarpment.
Master Trooper Jeffrey Swagger of the N.C. Highway Patrol said a northbound 1982 Yamaha motorcycle operated by James John Anderton III, 52, of Boonville went left of center in a sharp curve and collided with a southbound 2016 Toyota Rav4 driven by Louise Miller McGlamery, 72, of Wilkesboro.
Swagger said Anderton died at the scene from his injuries, but McGlamery wasn’t injured. The initial investigation indicated excessive speed or impairing substances were not contributing factors, the trooper added. Wilkes Emergency Medical Services and McGrady Fire & Rescue responded, in addition to the Highway Patrol.
It was the second recent motorcycle fatality on N.C. 18 Mountain in Wilkes. On July 4, Jeffrey Eugene Helton, 53, of Hamptonville died after he wrecked a 2002 Harley-Davidson motorcycle in a curve on N.C. 18 just south of the Wilkes-Alleghany county line.
A man died when the 2008 Ford Escape he was operating wrecked on N.C. 268 East just west of East Wilkes High School in Ronda a few minutes before noon Saturday. Pronounced dead at the scene was David Brian Haynes, 45.
Amanda Phillips, 37, the only passenger in the Ford, was injured and transported by Wilkes EMS to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem. Phillips was listed in stable condition with multiple broken bones Sunday morning at Wake Forest Baptist, said Trooper Zach Jennings of the N.C. Highway Patrol.
Haynes and Phillips were engaged to be married and lived only about 1,500 feet from where the wreck occurred, said Jennings. They had been to Walmart in Elkin and were on their way home, he added.
Jennings said the small SUV was westbound on N.C. 268 East when it crossed over the eastbound lane, went off the left side of the road, struck two trees while going down an embankment and caught fire.
He said Phillips was able to exit the vehicle with assistance, but Haynes was pinned in and was removed by emergency personnel after the fire was extinguished.
Jennings said the cause of the Ford running off the road wasn’t clear but added that there was no evidence of an impairing substance or excessive speed being involved. The vehicle went about 26 feet down the embankment. There is no guardrail along that portion of N.C. 268 East.
The Ford was a total lost, with the front end receiving the heaviest damage. Both lanes of N.C. 268 East were blocked to traffic for about two hours. Ronda Fire & Rescue, Pleasant Hill Fire & Rescue and the Wilkes Rescue Squad responded, in addition to the Highway Patrol and Wilkes EMS.
After the scene was cleared, fire department and rescue squad members met in the East Wilkes High parking lot for a debriefing concerning the incident.
Proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test for the virus must be provided to attend this year’s MerleFest, announced festival organizers in an Aug. 12 press release.
This is being required in the interest of safety for all participants and at the recommendation of performing artists and high ranking public health officials, the release stated.
If proof of a negative test is used, the test must have been taken within 72 hours of attending the festival.
The music event is Sept. 16-19 on the Wilkes Community College campus n Wilkesboro.
“MerleFest prides itself on being a safe environment for music fans to experience the joy of collectively celebrating the very best Americana, bluegrass, folk and roots in in a family friendly environment, the release stated.
Festival organizers are working with local and state officials, and in accordance with Centers for Disease Control guidelines to develop implementation of the safety measures.
The uptick in COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant of the virus is the driving factor in MerleFest’s decision to require proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours of arriving, said Ted Hagaman, festival director. “Safety first,” he added.
“After many conversations with public health officials, it’s clear that the smartest and safest change we can make is to require vaccinations or proof of a negative test.”
Other precautions announced include:
• cancellation of “school day,” when students in certain grade levels receive free admission to the festival, and school outreach, when MerleFest artists perform at local schools;
• earlier gate openings each day to minimize congestion in the box office area;
• creation of a new pedestrian exit to create safer passage for a large number of people;
• changes in the food tent to allow more spacing for people ordering food;
• serving all backstage meals in to-go boxes to allow for fans and artists to take food to less crowded areas;
• creating online pre-sale of all MerleFest apparel to meet customer demands and eliminate long lines during the festival;
There will be no program entertainment in WCC’s Pit auditorium due to the size of the room, which limits the ability to increase fresh airflow.
Over 75 hand sanitizers and hand wash stations will be provided across festival grounds, and continuous sanitizing will occur all 4 days.
The complete lineup and the most up-to-date safety protocols can be found at www.merlefest.org.
The press release said festival organizers announced the new admission requirements on Aug. 12 to give those who wish to be vaccinated time to be fully vaccinated before the festival begins on Sept. 16.
“With the festival being less than 5 weeks away, we wanted to give music fans an early heads-up on the protocol changes,” said Hagaman.
“I’d like to express gratitude in advance to all festival participants for their patience as we iron out our safety protocol in an ever-changing environment.”
MerleFest was started in 1988 in memory of the son of the late American music legend Doc Watson, renowned guitarist Eddy Merle Watson.
MerleFest is a celebration of “traditional plus” music, a unique mix of traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including old-time, classic country, bluegrass, folk and gospel, and blues, and expanded to include Americana, classic rock, and many other styles.
The festival hosts a diverse mix of artists on its 13 stages during the course of the multi-day event. MerleFest is the primary fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, funding scholarships, capital projects, and other educational needs.
Window World is the presenting sponsor for MerleFest.
Go to https://merlefest.org/purchase/ for details on tickets.