The Wilkes County Health Department has received extra manpower for its COVID-19 vaccine program after being flooded by people wanting vaccination appointments and apparently will get more.
County Manager John Yates said 10,385 calls were made on the appointment phone line (336-990-9950) in five weekdays (Jan. 27-29 and Feb. 1 and 2). These are calls that connected to a recording or one of three to five people manning phones on the appointment line.
County officials said they received reports of people waiting at least four hours for someone to answer calls on the line. They said that when the volume of calls on the line peaked in the five-day period, county government’s entire phone system jammed and no calls could be received or sent.
The appointment phone line has since been separated from the rest of county government’s phone system to prevent this from happening again, said Yates.
Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said Friday that her department needed about 30 additional people, including to man more phones on the vaccination appointment line. Willard later said six more people will be available to answer calls on this line by the end of this week.
The health department started administering first doses by appointment in drive-through clinics at the Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge in Wilkesboro the third week of January. Vaccinations were on a first-come, first-served basis in the drive-through clinics until then.
The health department had vaccinated about 5,000 people with first doses of Moderna by the end of last week, including about 900 last week. Willard said “community gate keepers” were contacted for help securing first dose vaccination appointments for members of “historically marginalized communities.”
The department is giving second doses of Moderna by appointment in separate drive-through clinics at River’s Edge, including about 230 doses on Feb. 5.
This week at River’s Edge, a drive-through clinic for first-dose vaccinations is scheduled Thursday and a drive-through clinic for second doses is Friday. Both require appointments. Willard said she expected to have enough vaccine for about the same number of doses as last week.
She said that after the vaccine on hand or about to arrive each week is committed via appointments, the health department isn’t making appointments for vaccinations using future vaccine shipments because it doesn’t have enough staff to call people on an appointment list.
There are reports of county health departments in North Carolina with people on waiting lists still weeks away from being vaccinated, based on current weekly allocations of vaccine.
County Commissioner David Gambill said during the Feb. 2 commissioners meeting that he knows from being on the Wilkes Board of Health that “the health department is struggling and staff there are at their wit’s end.”
Gambill said that due to lack of staff, the health department is having to react to situations as they arise rather than plan ahead. He said he supports funding additional part-time help in the department “because they are drowning.”
He suggested meeting with Willard to discuss hiring more people part-time “because this is not going away for the next year.”
Yates said in the meeting that the health department recently hired two additional people to input information required by the state about people who are vaccinated.
The sheriff’s office and county recreation, animal control, emergency medical services, information technology and veteran’s services department staff have been helping the health department but Yates said a plan was made earlier on Feb. 2 for adding staff from the county’s social services and elections departments to assist the health department.
He said this will provide time over the next month for hiring and training part-time staff for the health department.
Eddie Settle, chairman of the commissioners, said that even if enough people are hired to answer all of the calls seeking appointments, the amount of vaccine received falls far short of demand.
Settle said the upcoming release of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine will result in many more people seeking vaccinations because it doesn’t have to be refrigerated “so we need to get ahead of this” before that happens.
Commissioner Casey Joe Johnson suggested allowing people to sign up online for first dose appointments, in addition to doing it by phone. The health department website provides forms for making appointments for second doses online. It was stated in the meeting that many older people aren’t comfortable using the internet.
The health department’s vaccination appointment phone number (336-990-9950) is posted on the department’s website with instructions for seeking appointments.
Instructions on the website for seeking a first dose say, “If you are calling during appointment hours (M-F, 8:30a-4:00p) and receive our recorded message, please stay on the line and allow it to ring until an appointment specialist is available to answer your call. If you cannot get through to make your appointment when you call, do not panic…. Please call back in a few hours or on another day when call volume may not be as high. Do not call multiple times in a row, as this will continue to overwhelm the system.”
Willard said that when all of the health department’s latest Moderna vaccine has been committed through appointments, people calling the appointment phone line get a recording stating that the current first dose clinics are full and a date when more appointment slots will be available.
The 75th Wilkes Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting wasn’t held in January as scheduled due to a statewide limit on crowd sizes to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but awards given at these events each year were still presented.
“Wilkes Chamber feels that now is a very important time to recognize individuals and businesses. We have all been challenged, but these challenges have not prohibited Wilkes County citizens and businesses to continue to work together for the good of the community and we’ve worked even harder to support one another,” said Chamber President Linda Cheek.
Chamber Board Chairman Jody Call presented the 2020 Chairman’s Award to Wake Forest Baptist — Wilkes Medical Center in North Wilkesboro, the 2020 Excellence in Business Award to Chick-fil-A of Wilkesboro and the 2020 Small Business of the Year Award to Cook’s Inc. in North Wilkesboro. Call is chief technology officer at Wilkes Communications/RiverStreet Networks.
The chairman chooses recipients of the Chairman’s Award and the Excellence in Business Award, while chamber members vote to choose the recipient of the Small Business of the Year Award.
The 2020 Duke Energy Citizenship and Service Award was presented to Connie and David McNeill by Jimmy Flythe, director of government and community relations for Duke Energy in western North Carolina.
Chairman’s AwardReceiving the Chairman’s Award from Call on behalf of Wake Forest Baptist — Wilkes Medical Center was Chad J. Brown, hospital president.
Call said Wilkes Medical Center excels in the healthcare industry and has continued to expand its operations and services amid its significant efforts handling COVID-19 and maintaining the health and well-being needs of the communities it serves.
In 2020, Wilkes Medical Center added behavioral health and tele-psych services in its emergency department, officially opened a hematology and oncology clinic and began offering PET services. It added five medical doctors, two physician’s assistants and three family nurse providers.
In early-2020, Wilkes Medical Center received an “A” grade for patient safety from the Leapfrog Group. The hospital again received an “A” hospital safety grade from the Leapfrog Group this past December, despite facing a pandemic.
Brown said that like most organizations and individuals, Wilkes Medical Center has had to learn to do thing differently during the pandemic. He said hospital staff members were already doing a great job, but have been especially amazing during the pandemic.
Brown said the corner is being turned on the pandemic and the future is bright for the health care community in Wilkes and the Wilkes community as a whole. “We’re proud of being part of the Wilkes community. We’re seen a lot of growth (at the hospital) and we are going to continue seeing growth.”
Call said Wilkes Medical Center has treated and released over 110 COVID-19 patients and began administering the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19 to hospital staff in early 2021.
Call said the chamber also wanted to recognize all frontline healthcare workers in Wilkes County, including school and other nurses, certified nursing assistants, private practice physicians, office staff, medical assistants, first responders, EMTs and others who are part of the healthcare workforce.
Excellence in Business AwardReceiving the Excellence in Business Award from Call on behalf of Chick-fil-A of Wilkesboro was Mark Eller, owner-operator of the restaurant.
Call said that as the pandemic shuttered many businesses, Eller found a path to keep the restaurant open and finish 2020 with a year over year sales increase exceeding 2019. He said that even before Cooper’s order closing dining rooms due to the pandemic, Chick-fil-A voluntarily took steps to close its dining room. Curbside mobile ordering was started and two lanes established for drive-thru ordering, changing peak hourly capacity from 135 cars to over 200 cars per hour.
“Mark’s team developed 17 temporary operations protocols to track and manage issues of COVID exposure to keep team members healthy and safe, and to ensure the well-being of the customers,” he said.
“Most notable is how Chick-fil-A team members have been considered. Investments were made in clothing, shelter, heaters, lighting and fans to create a better work environment for the team members working outside. Each employee had a personal stocking filled with gift cards to local businesses and other new gifts each day for 12 days during Christmas in lieu of the annual Christmas party.
Chick-fil-A gave $2,500 Chick-fil-A Leadership Scholarships to 10 Wilkes County students, totally $25,000, in 2020.
Eller said 2020 was a tough year for everybody and Chick-fil-A of Wilkesboro tried to be innovative to continue serving, while maintaining a safe environment for its employees and customers.
He thanked the Wilkes Chamber for supporting local businesses, Chick-fil-A customers for trusting the restaurant to feed them safely and the restaurant’s 97 employees for “doing an amazing job every day…. and doing it with joy.
Cooks, Inc.Call presented the Small Business of the Year Award to Cook’s Inc. owner Mark Cook.
“During the pandemic, Cook’s initially had to shut down operations, which led to layoffs. Cook’s was able to receive PPP funding and has been able to maintain its 48-person workforce. During this time, staff worked to rearrange and improve Cook’s warehouse and print shop,” said Call.
He said that partnering with Wilkes Hardware, Cook’s raised $6,800 for Samaritan’s Kitchen in the Wilco Strong campaign.
Also in 2020, Cook’s opened Cook’s Outfitters in downtown Wilkesboro and in December partnered with Cohn Enterprises, Dooley’s and other downtown Wilkesboro merchants to host “Winterland” in the downtown.
Call said Cook’s continued its focus on education and philanthropy by awarding James Cook Memorial Scholarships for the second year and set up a fund to grow the scholarship for years to come.
Cook thanked the employees of Cook’s for all they do every day and said the business received the award because of them. “So many of them give heart and soul every day and so many of them care about the company just as much as I do. That is so rare and I’m grateful.” He also thanked his family and the community for their support.
Cook noted that the 75th anniversary of Cook’s Inc. is March 1 and will be observed all year.
Connie and David McNeillFlythe said the Duke Energy Citizenship and Service Award recognizes civic-minded individuals and organizations who make a difference in their communities by using their time, talents and compassion to positively impact the lives of others.
He said Connie and David McNeill personify citizenship and service, including by serving on many local boards over the years. “David serves on the Wilkes Education Foundation board and Connie serves on the Wilkes Community College Foundation board. They support many area charitable organizations, including the Yadkin River Greenway, Wilkes Community College, Wilkes Recovery Revolution, Wilkes County Schools and Crisis Assistance at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.”
Flythe they gave the Wilkes County Schools’ Teacher of the Year a car to drive for the year in 2020 and plan to do it again this year.
Their business, McNeill Chevrolet Buick Nissan in Wilkesboro, hosted and supported the Hometown Hero’s Event in 2020 and 2021. In this event, outstanding representatives of police departments, fire departments, the Wilkes Sheriff Office, Wilkes Rescue Squad, Wilkes Emergency Medical Services and Wilkes Medical Center are honored.
David McNeill owns and operates Carolina Automotive Group, which consists of McNeill Nissan of Wilkesboro, McNeill Chevrolet & Buick of Wilkesboro, Carolina Kia of High Point, Carolina Hyundai of High Point and Genesis of High Point. Their sons, Scott and Matt McNeill, are involved in the businesses.
McNeill also serves on the Skyline National Bank Board of Directors, N.C. Automobile Dealers Association Board and as the Hyundai’s Dealer Council representative for this area. He said, “Over the years, we have tried to give back to this community…. Hundreds of people out there give back to this community. None of us to it to get this type of award, although it is nice to get recognized. We do it because we know it makes Wilkes County a better place to live.”
Connie McNeill noted a common thread running through the awards presentation: community and challenges. She added, “The greatest part about this award is that we can bring awareness to the plight of our neighbors in need in Wilkes County…. I challenge everyone to find someone and ask, ‘How can I help, what can I do?’ ”
A “virtual academy” learning option is being considered for students in all grade levels of the Wilkes County Schools starting with the 2021-22 school year.
Dr. Donna Cotton, chief academic officer for the Wilkes schools, explained the concept at the Feb. 1 Wilkes Board of Education meeting.
Cotton said parents of students in the Wilkes schools can indicate their level of interest in a virtual academy option via survey forms on the Wilkes County School District website.
The survey forms were posted Feb. 4. The link for the survey form is https://www.wilkescountyschools.org/apps/news/article/1381125. The forms were also posted on Facebook and Twitter and schools were provided the survey link to post on their websites.
Cotton emphasized that a final decision hasn’t been made and parents aren’t being asked if they would have their children in a virtual academy. “It’s whether you have interest in it,” she said.
No remote learning is planned in the Wilkes schools in 2021-22 except for the virtual academy under consideration or unless the governor requires otherwise, said Cotton.
She said a virtual academy would have more structure than the current full-time remote learning option in place as required in the Wilkes schools due to the pandemic, with a greater emphasis on following rules, doing the work and being engaged in class.
Forty-three students, parents, teachers and administrators in the Wilkes schools on a virtual academy exploratory committee were surveyed to help determine interest in this option and what it should look like. Results were shared with the committee and Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd.
The application process would include asking how students who applied for acceptance into the virtual academy performed during remote learning.
“It’s my personal opinion that it needs to be students who tried really hard to keep up with virtual lessons” during remote learning, said Cotton, adding that remote learning is difficult.
School board member Joan Caudill agreed and said, “I think it needs to be fairly selective because we don’t want students falling behind.”
Caudill asked how much time, if any, students in a virtual academy would spend in a brick and mortar school.
“Technically none (is required) except for during state testing,” answered Cotton, adding that there are different possible formats. She explained that it could be set up to allow virtual academy students to be in a school classrooms for some courses and take other courses remotely at home.
Caudill asked if virtual academy students must follow a schedule with courses at certain times of each day. She also asked if many other school districts have virtual academies.
Cotton said some virtual academies require following set course schedules, while others allow students to access instructional information put online by teachers anytime they wish.
She said many school districts in the state are working toward establishing virtual academies, a few put them together hurriedly when the pandemic hit and some already had them.
“We want to make sure we do it right. I’ve been in touch with a lot of people” in other area school districts to hear what others have learned.
Full-time remote learning remains an option for all students in the Wilkes schools for the 2020-21 school year. Otherwise, all elementary schools are using full-time in-person learning in classrooms and all middle schools and high schools are alternating between in-person learning one day and remote learning the next.
More Wilkes County high school students than normal are needing to retake fall semester courses for credit or credit recovery due to failing grades, said Donna Cotton, chief academic officer for the Wilkes schools.
This and other information Cotton shared during the Wilkes Board of Education meeting on Feb. 1 reflect continuing challenges students face trying to learn during the pandemic. Media reports indicate similar situations nationwide for students using remote learning full-time or part-time.
A student retaking a course for course credit is seeking credit toward a grade point average and for meeting a graduation requirement. Credit recovery refers to retaking the course only for credit toward graduation.
“We are working with our high school students to make sure they aren’t missing anything they need for graduation and that we get them the credit they need,” said Cotton.
She also said average scores on three of the four high school end of course (EOC) tests given in December in the Wilkes schools were lower than a year earlier.
Cotton said average scores were lower on ninth-grade Math I, 11th-grade biology and 10th-grade English 2 EOCs this past January than on the same EOCs in January 2020. She said average score on Math 3 EOCs in January 2021 increased.
She said that at the end of the second nine weeks on Jan. 14, Wilkes elementary and middle schools sent home “at risk” letters to make parents aware of students at risk of being retained in the same grade next year due to failure to make adequate academic progress.
Cotton said this can refer to not completing assignments, not participating, not doing well on tests or not even taking tests.
“Middle and elementary school students who don’t show progress, as evidenced by completion of assignments and by assessments, will need to be retained” in the same grade level next year.
“If they’re not giving us any evidence that they can make progress, they will be retained next school year.
“That’s a hard thing, but If they’re not doing anything, we have nothing to show that they should go on to the next grade.’
Cotton added, “There’s still time. We still have many weeks and months left for students to get back on board and show us that they can make progress. This is something we’re looking at very carefully.”
She also said dropping out was a bigger problem than normal last spring and again this fall in the Wilkes schools and nationwide due to the pandemic.
At the end of the first four months of 2020-21 school year in Wilkes, 47 students had dropped out. That compares to 36 dropouts by that time in 2019-20 and 35 by that point in 2018-19.
“We attribute a lot of that to the situation we’re in with COVID-19” said Cotton, adding that many students are maintaining fulltime jobs while engaged in the full-time remote learning option in school.
Students in all Wilkes public schools still have the option of using full-time remote learning;
At the Jan. 1 meeting, school board member Hardin Kennedy asked if the percentage of students in the Wilkes schools who opted for full-time remote learning is still around 31%. School Superintendent Mark Byrd said that percentage had dropped since mid-year
The majority of students in Wilkes County public high schools and middle schools on are the “A/B schedule,” which means about half of students in a school are using in-person learning in their classrooms and half are at home for remote learning each day. This is alternated each day.
All Wilkes elementary schools are still engaged in full-time in-person learning in classrooms.
Kennedy also asked if student participation during remote learning in the middle schools had improved since earlier in the year.
Cotton said principals of the four Wilkes middle schools stated in a meeting the last week of January that student engagement in remote learning was improving. She said having in-person meetings with parents made a difference, but lack of student engagement in the middle schools was still a concern.
In early November, Cotton gave a report showing 21% (1,842) of students in the Wilkes schools were failing more than one class at the end of the first nine-week grading period and 1,210 of them weren’t considered engaged.
She said 538 (20%) of the 1,842 failing more than one class were in high school and 734 (35%) in middle school, with 173 of the high school students and 664 of the middle school students considered not engaged.