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A year of unprecedented loss and change

The COVID-19 pandemic, which forever changed how Americans work, learn and interact with others, officially began a year ago this month.

By Monday, 6,154 Wilkes County residents had tested positive for COVID-19.

Wilkes had 104 confirmed COVID-19-related deaths by Monday, with 72 reported in 2020 and 32 reported so far this year. The last such death was reported March 3. About 43% of the county’s COVID-19-related deaths occurred in long-term care facilities.

There were 594 deaths in Wilkes from all causes in 2019 and 759 in 2020, a 28% increase.

On Monday, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services website listed Wilkes with 12,317 people having at least the first dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or the one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine needed. Those eligible for vaccination was expanded today to include Group 4.

The health department plans to give 1,370 first doses of Moderna vaccine in clinics at the four Wilkes middle schools Saturday, marking the first time the department has gone out to rural areas to vaccinate for COVID-19. There are no vaccination clinics this week at Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge.

The first known death from COVID-19 was reported in Wuhan, China, in January 2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the new coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern” on Jan. 30, 2020, when it caused thousands of people to became sick in China.

On Feb. 11, 2020, WHO proposed COVID-19 (for coronavirus disease 2019) as the name for the disease caused by the new virus to avoid creating a stigma by naming it for any associated people, place or animal.

COVID-19 spread across Europe and other parts of the world in February the first confirmed COVID-19 death in the U.S., a person living in Seattle, was reported Feb. 29, 2020.

The Wilkes Journal-Patriot’s first front page article about COVID-19 appeared on March 10, 2020, when Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard listed ways to help prevent its spread. That same day, Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in North Carolina to help coordinate COVID-19 efforts.

The WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11 and 15 cases were confirmed in North Carolina by March 12. There was a series of unprecedented actions statewide and locally in March to help prevent the spread of the virus.

On March 13, and all gatherings of 100 or more people in Wilkes County were prohibited under a state of emergency declared by Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore, North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson, Ronda Mayor Victor Varela and Eddie Settle, chairman of the county commissioners. MerleFest 2020 was canceled the same day.

Other local events cancelled in 2020 included Carolina in the Fall, the Brushy Mountain Apple Festival and the Peach Festival.

On March 14, Cooper ordered that all public schools statewide close for two weeks at least through March 30. He also banned gatherings with over 100 people.

Classes at Wilkes Community College were cancelled March 16-22 and later mostly went virtual. College enrollment dropped substantially.

Town, county, state and federal parks and recreational facilities were closed, government services were limited and other action was taken to help slow the spread of the virus. Public libraries in Wilkes, Ashe and Watauga counties, part of the Appalachian Regional Library system, were closed.

Also in March 2020

• interscholastic athletics (games, practices and workouts) statewide were cancelled through at least April 6;

• Wilkes school field trips were cancelled through early April;

• Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament was cancelled;

• all University of North Carolina system classes were changed from in-person to online indefinitely, starting March 23.

• visitor restrictions were expanded at Wilkes Medical Center. Some local long term care living facilities imposed visitor restrictions;

• all District and Superior court cases statewide were postponed for 30 days;

• the Wilkes Family YMCA and other YMCAs were closed;

• Cooper ordered that restaurants limit service to take-out and delivery and that all bars close at least through March 31. He also made jobless benefits more widely available;

• Cooper ordered all public schools closed to in-person learning through May 15, changed the ban on gatherings to 50 instead of 100 and ordered additional types of businesses closed.

• Cooper ordered that people remain at home after 5 p.m., except to visit essential businesses or for certain other reasons. Some “essential” jobs were exempted. The order caused the temporary closure of some businesses and cut profits of many. In Wilkes, people were cited for violating this order a few times when they were also charged with criminal offenses after 5 p.m.

State and local limits on the size of gatherings were revised to exempt churches. Many local churches canceled in-person worship services in March. Some began having services in church parking lots. Some went to remote services and are still doing so, some later returned to in-person and some offer services remotely and in-person.

Cooper issued other COVID-19-related orders in 2020 and still more in 2023, some with greater and some easing restrictions. On June 24, 2020, he issued an order making face masks mandatory in most public places in the state.

Wilkes County’s first two confirmed COVID-19 cases were announced March 30, and the county had 56 by the end of April. The first confirmed COVID-19 case in Wilkes became the county’s first death from the virus on March 31. The official death total in Wilkes was 70 by Tuesday of this week.

On April 7, 2020, the Wilkes Health Department recommended following new CDC guidance calling for wearing cloth face masks or other facial coverings in public to help control COVID-19. Previously, the CDC recommended not wearing face masks unless needed while caring for someone sick who couldn’t wear one. The earlier guidance was partly the result of a shortage of face masks. Shortages of other personal protection equipment were a major concern early in the pandemic.

Tyson Foods Inc. began requiring that employees at its meat processing plants and other facilities, including in Wilkes, wear masks in April. Tyson also started using a temperature scanner at the processing complex in Wilkesboro to help catch COVID-19 cases due to rising case totals there.

Face masks became a political issue, partly because President Trump expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of them.

The governor’s stay-at home order became an issue in his bid for re-election. In April, Settle sent a letter to Cooper asking that county commissioners have authority to reopen businesses closed under Cooper’s orders.

On April 14, amendments to local state of emergency orders in Wilkes were approved. These prohibited hotels, bed and breakfasts and other short-term lodging providers in Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro from renting to people from out of town, with certain exceptions. They also impacted retailers including by letting only one person per family shop in a business at a time and by required social distancing while shopping.

In early May 2020, a state of emergency declaration signed by the Wilkesboro, North Wilkesboro and Ronda mayors was amended to align with Cooper’s order that eased COVID-19 restrictions in three phases. Settle signed an amendment keeping the county’s state of emergency order in place as long as Cooper’s order remained. Settle said this allowed the county to keep getting state assistance.

Tyson announced in May that of 2,244 employees and contractors tested for COVID-19 that month at the company’s complex in Wilkesboro, 570 (25.4%) tested positive for COVID-19. Tyson plants in Wilkesboro were closed for several days in May for extensive cleaning due to COVID-19 cases there.

Three COVID-19 deaths in Wilkes the third week of May brought the county’s virus death total to four. That same week, free drive-by COVID-19 testing for two hours each day, three days a week, began in the Walmart parking lot in Wilkesboro through a joint effort of Walmart, the health department and state.

Wilkes passed the 500 mark in COVID-19 cases June 1, but it leveled off at around 550 and changed little for nearly two weeks in late June.

It was announced in early June that millions of dollars through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was going to county and town governments in Wilkes, Wilkes County Schools and Wilkes Medical Center. County government alone received $2.69 million.

A cluster of COVID-19 cases at the Wilkes Correctional Center in North Wilkesboro was reported on mid-May, with 22 inmates and three staff members there testing positive.

It was learned in early July 2020, that about 450 federal Paycheck Protection Program loans totaling were approved for Wilkes businesses. This included five loans between $1 and $2 million each. The loans were intended to help companies and nonprofits survive the pandemic and retain jobs.

Due to COVID-19, Wilkes high school graduation ceremonies were delayed to July 23, 24, 27 and 28. Students received their diplomas by appointment at different times in school gyms, with only immediate family, the presenter and another person from the school present to assist.

The 2020-21 academic year in the Wilkes public schools started Aug. 17 without students actually in their schools due to the Wilkes school board voting to have them remain at home and use remote learning at least until Sept. 8. This was based on Willard’s advice.

Wilkes passed the 1,000 mark in COVID-19 cases on Aug. 27, 2020.

Wilkes public schools switched to a combination of in-person and remote learning on Sept. 8. Students had the option of continuing to work remotely or rotating between learning remotely one day and in-person the next. For the rotating plan, students at each school were divided into two groups. One worked remotely while the other worked at home each day to comply with Cooper’s order limiting students in a school to half of capacity. About 1,800 students in all grade levels in the Wilkes schools continued remote learning.

Steps to prevent spreading COVID-19 in the Wilkes schools included additional cleaning of facilities, temperature and health screening checks of every person entering a school, mandatory face masks in schools and serving meals outside school cafeterias.

Wilkes averaged 10-40 new COVID-19 cases in October, mostly due to community spread

All Wilkes elementary schools switched to fulltime in-person learning on Oct. 20, with students still being given the option of fulltime remote learning. Lack of student engagement during remote learning was discussed at the Nov. 2 Wilkes school board meeting. It was stated that 21% of Wilkes students were failing more than one class as the end of the first nine-week grading period.

By Dec. 28, 3,728 Wilkes residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic started.

Vaccinations of Wilkes Medical Center staff with the highest risk of being exposed to COVID-19 started Dec. 21, 2020. They received Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine brought from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem.

In mid-December, the Wilkes schools released data showing that the number of student absences due to COVID-19 contact in a school setting was over three times the number of students who actually tested positive for COVID-19.

Vaccinations rose as the supply of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine increased and as more groups of people became eligible. Vaccination of school teachers and other staff started the week of Feb. 24, 2021.

In the first few weeks they were held, drive-through Wilkes Health Department vaccination clinics at Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge drew long lines of vehicles. People calling for vaccination appointments caused system-wide phone failures in county government. Phone system changes were made and staff were added.

The health department had vaccinated about 3,000 people, mostly Wilkes residents, by the end of January. Wilkes Medical Center held a couple of drive-through vaccination clinics at the West Park for hospital patients, with more planned.

The pandemic led to a rise in suicides in Wilkes, liquor sales and the demand for gardening and home improvement supplies. It also caused an increase in Wilkes retail sales tax revenue as people spent federal stimulus checks and did more shopping online instead of going out of town.

Willard: Nothing with pandemic has been easy

Editor’s Note: Rachel Willard had been Wilkes County Health Department director barely a year when the pandemic hit in March 2020. She had a baby that same month. At the request of the Wilkes Journal-Patriot, Willard shared some of her thoughts as she looked back on the last 12 months.

It’s hard to believe that it has already been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic started. We have made huge advancements since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11.

Local leaders in Wilkes started meeting to discuss plans and procedures for responding to the virus back in January 2020. We knew that we were going to need to be prepared. Those plans quickly changed in the beginning, and it happened rapidly.

I will always remember Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew saying at a Wilkes County commissioners meeting in mid-March 2020, “We know a lot about a virus we know nothing about.” At the time, this was very true. I think we’ve come a long way since that comment.

In Wilkes County, we started monitoring travelers in February 2020. On March 3, 2020, North Carolina got the first lab confirmed case of COVID-19. The very next day, March 4, I gave birth to my son.

On March 13, 2020, Wilkes County declared a State of Emergency. Within that declaration, I announced MerleFest 2020 was going to be cancelled. On March 30, 2020, Wilkes County had its first two lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19. After that, we slowly started to see our cases increase, with 58 in April and then 435 in May. The virus continued to spread at a steady increase, with a few spikes along the way.

As of this past weekend, Wilkes County had a total of 6,133 lab-confirmed cases (roughly 9% of our population) and 104 deaths. In Wilkes, we’ve seen about three spikes in cases throughout the course of the year. This is on par with what the state and nation have seen. I do think we’ll have another spike as we head into spring break and as more states open back up.

When looking back at the pandemic and reflecting on everything, I don’t think anything has been easy. It has all been difficult, and every aspect has had its own challenges and obstacles.

One of my biggest challenges was still being a young health director out on maternity leave. I only had been a health director for a year, and now was leading a team of public health officials from afar. I have a great team and knew that they all could handle it. It was just hard, because I wanted nothing more than to be in the trenches with them. It felt like I was not doing them justice by being at home, especially since those first three months were critical and things were changing daily.

Of course, other challenges include the ever-changing guidance, COVID-19 cases at the Tyson Foods chicken processing complex and long-term care facilities, vaccine roll out and communication.

In general, communication was and continues to be by far the hardest and most challenging aspect of this pandemic. In the beginning, guidance was changing rapidly. I felt like as soon as we understood something, it would change again. Luckily, we had weekly calls with local leaders to articulate and inform them. However, trying to keep confusion and frustration down in the community was and still is an issue.

The local Tyson facility had its first case at the end of March, and then by the end of April it had really taken off there. The rapid increase in cases at Tyson led to mass testing, fear in the community and more communication challenges.

As a local health department, we wanted to be able to more fully inform the community about the cases at Tyson, but under the N.C. Communicable Disease Law we couldn’t. Working with Matrix Medical to inform people at Tyson when they tested positive and their close contacts, both in a timely manner, was the biggest challenge with Tyson. The delay in the arrival of test results at our facility made it really difficult to act promptly to notify positive cases and close contacts.

I still believe that the local Tyson complex and local public health did everything they could to control the spread, with the knowledge and guidance at the time. Since then, we have been able to work together to keep the spread under control and work toward getting Tyson team members at the local complex vaccinated.

The most surprising thing to me was how long term-care facilities have fared during the pandemic, locally and across the state and nation. While we know that the virus has been deadlier and impacts the elderly at high rates, I still think what the long-term care facilities have struggled through has been unbelievable. As a local health department, we knew they would have an outbreak at some point. However, I don’t think we were prepared for how severely the virus impacted these facilities.

From my perspective, we know that long-term care facilities have policies and procedures in place to prevent the spread of illness in their facilities due to fighting and preventing the spread of other communicable diseases like norovirus.

During this pandemic, we saw that these facilities didn’t have enough PPE and staff to face the pandemic early on. We know that some of the local facilities, despite every measure they could have taken, were hit hard and had several residents die throughout the process. On top of that were all the rules and restrictions that impacted the mental health of long-term care facility residents and family members.

As with everything else, there have been challenges with the vaccine rollout.

In the very beginning, Group 1 (health care workers) were easy, and we were able to get everyone in Wilkes who qualified a vaccine. We started running into issues as we moved to Group 2 and started vaccinating those 75 and older. At that time, we were still operating under a first-come first-served policy at the health department. The biggest issue was that we were only getting 200 doses of vaccine a week and had about 5,000 residents who wanted to be vaccinated, so demand was much higher than supply. This led to frustration for the public and health department. Now, we’re seeing more supply than demand. I’m hopeful that by going to Group 4 on Wednesday, we’ll be able to get more adults vaccinated in the community.

One of the biggest logistical challenges was manning a call center to schedule vaccine appointments. Luckily, we were able to get personnel from other county departments to help us handle the four to five weeks with an overwhelming call volume. Another challenge has been finding and hiring staff for entering data into the state-based vaccine management software. The turnaround time to get information entered is 72 hours. It’s still an all hands on deck situation, with staff manually entering data into the system all weekend.

The last big challenge is mobilizing and getting out into the community. We intend to cover all areas of the community. The first step is by hosting clinics at the middle schools, but we have a dream of going out to food pantries and other places like churches in the coming month.

Despite all of this bad, I do think there was some good. I think we’ve seen that as a whole, our community is resilient. I believe the pandemic brought health department staff closer and showed how strong we all can be.

Of course, it pushed all of us to give more of ourselves. We have seen that despite being a small department we are mighty and can make a difference. This pandemic has also forced agencies who do not normally work together to come together. It has allowed us to spend more time with our families and enjoy the simple things in life. I must say that I’m ready for local music concerts to come back and to be able to gather with others. Overall, I think the pandemic forced all of us to grow in ways we never thought possible.

Splash pad to be finished by another contractor

The Town of North Wilkesboro has broken ties with North Wilkesboro-based Mastin Aquatic Recreation LLC, contractor for the stalled Smoot Park splash pad project, over breach of contract after its owner, James “Buster” Mastin, failed to meet his commitment to have the project completed by the fall of 2019, according to a press release issued by the town Monday.

The move was made at the direction of North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson and the town’s board of commissioners. The town has sent a demand letter to Mastin Aquatics directing the company to turn over all equipment intended for the project that’s in its possession, the release stated.

The town will complete the project with a third-party contractor and seek restitution from Mastin upon completion. If Mastin does not pay, the town will seek legal relief from the courts, according to the release.

“We had grounds to take this action since late 2019, but we held off hoping that Mastin would eventually complete the project. We knew if we sued at that time the company would have walked away and we would have had to start over,” said Johnson in the release. “It was a risky decision, but we didn’t want to throw good money after bad.”

Johnson continued: “Now, more than a year later and with very little progress made, we’re left with no choice. Mastin’s recalcitrance makes me believe the company will not finish the project or, if it does, it’ll be of such poor quality that it’ll become a millstone around our neck.

“We have to take this action, even if it means losing the progress we’ve made so far, to hold Mastin accountable.”

Town staff have engaged other contractors to assess whether the partially constructed splash pad can be physically completed and, if so, at what cost. Staff plan to present this information to the commissioners at their March 25 work session.

Mastin started work on the splash pad in the fall of 2017, with completion scheduled by Dec. 1, 2017, under his contract with the town.

The town paid Mastin $120,930 for his work on the project through June 7, 2018. In July 2019, its estimated cost was $130,000 due to upgrades required by the county health department. The original estimate was $85,794.

Mastin said some of the delays in the project were partly due to changes the town made in specifications and equipment after a $29,503 grant from Lowe’s Companies was received for the project in February 2018.

In the summer of 2019, the town board voted to have the town attorney consult with District Attorney Tom Horner regarding potential legal action against Mastin. No such action was taken.

Switching middle and high schoolers to Plan A on agenda Wednesday
  • Updated

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this online article said the special called meeting would be Thursday as a result of an email from the Wilkes School System Tuesday morning saying it would be Thursday. An email sent by the school system later Tuesday said the correct day of the meeting was Wednesday, as the online article now says. When the Wilkes Journal-Patriot became aware of this correction, it was too late to change the article in the print edition so it still incorrectly says the meeting is Thursday.

The Wilkes Board of Education will discuss a possible return to full-time in-person learning in Wilkes middle and high schools in a special called meeting that starts at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Stone Center on Cherry Street, North Wilkesboro

Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd said the school board will discuss transitioning the four middle schools and four high schools to Plan A, which is full-time in-person learning in classrooms, as a result of a bill Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law on March 11. The meeting is open to the public.

The new law requires that all traditional public elementary schools in the state operate under Plan A, but it gives school districts the option of having traditional middle and high schools operate under Plan B or Plan A.

All Wilkes middle and high schools currently operate under Plan B, which is a combination of in-person and remote learning to be at no more than 50% of student capacity in each school.

Under the Wilkes County Schools’ version of Plan B, students in each school who didn’t opt for full-time remote learning were split into two groups. Both groups alternate between remote learning and in-person learning each day but never the same on the same day.

The effective date for the legislation is 21 days after Cooper signs the bill and it’s ratified, which means the Wilkes school board could approve having Wilkes middle and high schools return to full-time, in-person learning in about two weeks.

Under the new law, all students in the public schools still have the option of full-time remote learning for the remainder of this academic year. This is true even if the elementary, middle or high school a student attends uses Plan A.

All Wilkes public schools started the current academic year on Aug. 17 with all students in Plan C (100% remote learning) as required but switched to Plan B on Sept. 8.

Wilkes elementary schools transitioned from Plan B to Plan A when the second grading period began on Oct. 20, but Wilkes middle and high schools remained in Plan B as required. Cooper announced on Sept. 17 that Plan A could be used in elementary schools starting Oct. 5

Cooper, a Democrat, and the Republican-led legislature had been at odds about how and when all of the state’s 1.4 million K-12 public school students should get back to full-time, in-person learning.

Cooper had previously vetoed legislation allowing middle schools and high schools to go to Plan A because he said it wasn’t safe to have the lower social distancing requirements for preteens and teens. The legislation gives him the ability to restrict districts from going to Plan A if he feels that is needed.

The bill Cooper signed into law represented a compromise with the legislature.

The statewide mask mandate is still in effect for schools operating under Plan A and Plan B. The law doesn’t require that schools follow the 6 feet of social distancing recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where there’s high community spread of COVID-19.

Private schools are not covered by the law. Many private schools have been offering daily in-person instruction since the start of the school year. Private schools are required to have students and staff wear face masks on campus.