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4 die over weekend, but surge easing
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Four Wilkes County residents with COVID-19 died at Wilkes Medical Center this past weekend, bringing the county’s official death total from the virus to 160.

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said the four included the first confirmed COVID-19-related death of Wilkes teenager. She said all four had underlying health issues, with the oldest being in his/her 70s.

The four deaths came near the end of the month with the most COVID-19-related Wilkes deaths since the pandemic began, and also as new COVID-19 cases slowly decrease in the county.

Thirty confirmed COVID-related deaths of Wilkes residents were reported in the first 28 days of September.

Willard said on Sept. 21 that most of the county’s COVID deaths in the two weeks prior to that date were people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, a change from earlier in the pandemic when most of those dying were in their late 60s or older.

Willard said this shift is partly due to higher vaccination rates among older adults.

Although reports posted on weekdays by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) show a recent gradual decrease in positive COVID-19 tests in Wilkes, the county crossed the 10,000 mark in total cases since the pandemic began on Monday with 10,025.

DHHS reported a rate of 947 new cases per 100,000 people in the two weeks ending Monday for Wilkes. This rate is calculated to compare counties with differing populations.

The Wilkes rate peaked at a little over 1,500 per 100,000 in the first week of September and was above 1,000 per 100,000 all month until this week.

Willard said Wilkes County’s daily% positive rate on COVID-19 tests was 9.6% Monday, compared to 10.3% last week and 12% two weeks ago. It was 9% statewide Monday. State officials have a goal of lowering it to 5%.

The health department reported that Wilkes had 382 active COVID-19 cases as of Monday, including 40 people who were hospitalized.

Willard cited a slight uptick in COVID-19 vaccinations in Wilkes.

DHHS reported that 40% of all Wilkes residents were fully vaccinated as of Monday. Willard said 4% of Wilkes residents ages 12-17 have been fully vaccinated. The 12-17 age group became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine in May.

DHHS reported Monday that statewide, 64% of people 18 and older are fully vaccinated. It’s about 37% for people 12-17 statewide.

Willard said COVID-19 cases in the Wilkes schools have decreased since the first few weeks of this academic year.

DHHS reported that as of Sept. 21, there were six COVID-19 “clusters” in the Wilkes schools. According to DHHS, a cluster is when at least five people with COVID-19 are connected in some way in a school setting, such as being in the same classroom.

These included one cluster apiece at West Wilkes Middle School (15 cases) and Mountain View Elementary School (five cases). There were two clusters apiece at West Wilkes High School (both with five cases) and Mulberry Elementary School (one with eight cases and the other with five).

Wilkes Schooll Superintendent Mark Byrd said Tuesday that clusters far this school year occurred among the JV cheerleader squad, JV football team and varsity football team members at West Wilkes High School; seventh-graders and eighth-graders at West Wilkes Middle School; fifth-graders at Mountain View Elementary School; fifth-graders and riders on bus 179 at Mulberry Elementary School; East Wilkes High School JV volleyball team members; sixth-graders at Central Wilkes Middle School; and pre-K students at Wilkesboro Elementary School.

Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease expert at Atrium Health-Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, said in his Sept. 23 COVID-19 update on Facebook that COVID is transmitted among people under 18 more often in after-school activities and social activities than in classrooms, particularly in high schools.

“Most of the kids in our area who are being hospitalized with COVID-19 have underlying medical problems. The number one associated problem is being overweight. It’s almost like the two epidemics have crossed,” he said, referring to childhood obesity and COVID-19.

Ohl said new cases and% positivity rates are slowly decreasing statewide as a COVID-19 surge that began in August eases.

“It’s not coming down quite as quickly as I thought it would and the reason for that is that is still about a third and sometimes a little more of the cases are our under age 18 population,” said Ohl. Those under 18 are more socially active than people in any other age group, he explained.

Ohl also noted that there are a few more pediatric hospitalizations than last spring but they aren’t up substantially.

According to DHHS, Wilkesboro Assisted Living Center was the only congregate care facility in Wilkes with a COVID-19 outbreak. The facility had four cases, including two residents and two staff people.

The Prohibition Hot Rod & Moonshine Festival was Friday and Saturday at Call Family Distillers near Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge, Wilkesboro. It celebrated the shared history of moonshine and hot rods with live music and 427 car show entries. More photos on page A9.

For fans of all ages

Candidate forum is Thursday evening
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A forum for candidates in the races for North Wilkesboro mayor, two North Wilkesboro commissioner seats and two Wilkesboro Town Council seats will be held Thursday evening beneath the open-sided shelter at the Yadkin Valley Marketplace on the Central Business District (CBD) Loop in North Wilkesboro.

Social distancing protocol will be followed in spacing chairs for candidate and audience seating. People at the event will be strongly encouraged to wear masks, which will be made available.

There will be three sessions, one for each of three races. The schedule will be:

• Wilkesboro Town Council session, starting at 5:20 p.m.

• North Wilkesboro mayoral session, starting at 6:20 p.m.

• North Wilkesboro commissioner session, starting at 7:30 p.m.

Forum moderator Dane Mastin will ask the questions, prepared in advance. Candidates for the same seat or seat will be asked the same five questions.

Candidates will have two minutes to answer each question, plus two minutes for an opening statement and two minutes for a closing statement. L.B. Prevette, timekeeper, will let candidates know when their time is about to expire and when it expires.

Candidates for North Wilkesboro mayor are Michael Cooper, William Hamby, Marc R. Hauser, and Robert L. Johnson. Johnson is the incumbent.

Candidates for two North Wilkesboro commissioner seats are Otis W. Church, Angela J. Day and Joseph A. Johnston. Jonathan Swift's name is on the ballot, but he announced that he no longer is a candidate. Day is the only incumbent. Debbie Ferguson’s term is also ending, but she didn’t file for re-election.

Candidates for two Wilkesboro Town Council seats are Nellie Hubbard Archibald, Russell F. Ferree and Lee W. Taylor. Archibald and Ferree are incumbents.

Early, one-stop voting, when registering to vote and voting at the same time and location is allowed, is from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 14-29 weekdays only and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 30.

All early, one-stop voting in Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro races is at the Wilkes Board of Elections office on the third floor of the Wilkes County Office Building in Wilkesboro.

Election Day is Nov. 2, with municipal polling places open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. The deadline is 5 p.m. for returning absentee ballots in person and 7:30 p.m. to return military/overseas ballots electronically.

The deadline to register to vote on Election Day is 5 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Wilkes Board of Elections office in Wilkesboro. Mailed voter registration forms must be postmarked Oct. 8.

Walker Center season lineup announced
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The lineup of shows for the 2021-22 season at Wilkes Community College’s John A. Walker Community Center in Wilkesboro has been announced.

It includes:

• the Haggard Brothers with country artist EmiSunshine at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 22, sponsored by Wells Fargo. Brothers Ben and Noel Haggard pay tribute to their father, Merle Haggard;

• Dailey & Vincent’s Christmas Show at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2, sponsored by Carolina West Wireless. Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent are Emmy-nominated bluegrass musicians;

• Leahy, Canadian folk group with Celtic influences, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 24, sponsored by Hampton Inn/Holiday Inn Express;

• The Return — Beatles Tribute Band at 7:30 p.m. March 10, sponsored by Hampton Inn/Holiday Inn Express;

• The Platters, with rhythm and blues hits like “The Great Pretender” and “My Prayer,” at 7:30 p.m. May 20, sponsored by Skyline National Bank;

• “The Beat Goes On,” featuring Lisa McClowry as pop rock singer Cher, at 7:30 p.m. June 9, sponsored by Piedmont Federal Savings Bank;

Aside from the usual performance season, the Walker Center will host the following additional shows:

• Travis Ledoyt, portraying Elvis Presley, at 7 p.m. Jan. 28, sponsored by Carolina West Wireless.

• Ernie Haase and Signature Sound, a Southern gospel quartet, at 7 p.m. March 31, sponsored by Becky & Arnold Lakey.

Contact the Walker Center Box Office at 336-838-6260 or walker.boxoffice@wilkescc.edu to purchase tickets or for more details on performances, events and hospitality services. Visit the Walker Center online at www.wilkescc.edu/walk ercenter/.

Other sites for Guard facility to be considered
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The N.C. National Guard’s government and legislative affairs director said possible sites for a new Guard facility presented by Wilkes County government would be considered as an alternative to renovating the existing armory in North Wilkesboro.

This was Brian Pierce’s response during the Sept. 21 county commissioners meeting when Commissioner Brian Minton asked if the Guard would look at sites suggested by the county.

“We would be falling down on our jobs if we didn’t take a look at other options,” said Pierce, adding that they would be considered by National Guard and N.C. Department of Public Safety leaders.

Minton mentioned a site at the Wilkes County Airport, saying it’s perfectly level, has good access and “is a win for everybody.”

When the commissioners unanimously passed a resolution at their Aug. 17 meeting in support of constructing a Guard “readiness center” in Wilkes, they discussed possibly building it at the airport. The resolution was sent to Major Gen. M. Todd Hunt, N.C. National Guard adjutant general, and others.

In addition to Pierce, attending the Sept. 21 meeting in response to the resolution were Col. Rodney Newton, N.C. National Guard construction facilities management officer, and Kenny Cook, Guard deputy director, federal operations.

Pierce said considering other sites would push the timeline back even more. He said the decision to renovate the existing armory here, built in 1956, was made earlier this year.

“At the end of the day we’re going to make the best decision for the N.C. National Guard and adhere to the will of the voters.”

Pierce apparently was at least partly referencing voters who passed the March 2016 Connect NC bond referendum. Legislation authorizing the bond vote said it included $70 million for “readiness centers” in Guilford, Burke and Wilkes counties.

He said during the meeting that a “readiness center” is the same thing as an armory but more closely fits its purpose.

Nothing in legislation authorizing the bond vote said any of the three would be regional facilities or not, but Pierce said the plan leading up to the referendum was for Guilford and Burke to get what are now called regional readiness centers. These encompass multiple counties and have substantially more soldiers and equipment.

Minton said his understanding was that Wilkes was supposed to get a regional readiness center.

Pierce responded, “Wilkes was always going to be a spoke and the regional readiness centers are the hubs under our readiness center master transformation plan done around 2013 or 2014.” He said this plan looked at demographics, resources and how the Guard can react to emergencies while balancing federal requirements.

Some state government press releases before and after the bond vote stated that regional readiness centers were planned in all three counties. As the years moved along after the bond vote, state government reports more consistently indicated regional facilities were planned in Guilford and Burke but not Wilkes.

Shirley Randleman of Wilkesboro, a state senator before and after the Connect NC bond vote, said during the meeting that she was involved with the process concerning a Guard facility in Wilkes from day one.

Randleman said a distinction was never formally made between a regional and non-regional Guard facility, but the new facility proposed in Wilkes was supposed to also serve Watauga County.

“When we met with the commissioners in 2018 or 2019, the Guardsmen from Watauga County came down and met with us. I guess that’s where the regional part came in…. It was supposed to be for northwest North Carolina,” not just Wilkes.

Wilkes voters who were urged to vote for the bond package thought the county was to get a new regional Guard facility, not a renovation of the current facility, she added.

Randleman said turnover of people in key jobs, including Pierce’s position and North Wilkesboro town manager, caused “misinterpretation of information.”

“People voted for the bond package because of the possibility of having something here for northwest North Carolina, but now we’re learning that it’s not really for northwest North Carolina” and much less than was expected is being spent on Wilkes.

“There are a lot of people who live in this county who feel that way. They feel like they were encouraged to vote for a bond package and now they’re learning that what they voted for wasn’t what they thought it was.”

She added, “From what I understand from what’s going on in Raleigh,” state government has plenty of money.

Eddie Settle, chairman of the commissioners, said it’s obvious on maps that Wilkes is the hub of northwestern N.C. “I think the voters of this county and northwest North Carolina were looking for more than an upfit” of the current Guard facility on Armory Road.

Settle added, “I feel like if we don’t get more, when another vote (referendum) comes up, this county and northwestern N.C. will say no thank you. We feel like we got hosed in the last one. We ask you to reconsider. We’ll show you land.”

(Settle said in an interview that County Manager John Yates is going to take Guard officials to multiple potential sites in Wilkes.)

Commissioner David Gambill concurred with Settle and added that Republicans and Democrats in Wilkes agree on this. All five commissioners are Republicans.

Larry Pendry of Millers Creek, retired sergeant first class in the North Wilkesboro-based Guard unit and former chairman of the Wilkes County Democratic Party, said “If the bond package said three readiness centers, that’s what North Carolina should get.”

Pendry added, “Additional money was allocated for Burke and Wilkes in 2018. There is (an additional) $10 million in the state budget right now for water and sewer lines to the facility in Guilford.”

He said it makes much more sense to provide the additional funds needed to build a regional facility at the airport “that can be force multiplier for eight or 10 counties in our area.” Pendry said the Guard responds to various weather emergencies and it’s concerning for northwestern North Carolina to not be better served.

He questioned spending $8 million to upgrade the current armory when it wasn’t scheduled for an upgrade.

Newton said the current 13,300-square-foot facility on a 3.7-acre parcel on Armory Road has a replacement value of about $3 million.

Under the current plan for renovating the existing facility, he added, design work could be completed in 12 months and then finish construction in about 18 months.

“There is potential to add new spaces either with the armory or the site or both. The existing structure is sound and solid and can be converted to last for another 25-30 years and potentially 50 if maintained properly,” he said.

Newton said the existing armory is dimly-lit and has too little space, window air conditioner units, radiated heat, inefficient windows, outdated office furniture and flaking paint. He said it needs mechanical upgrades and modernization for new digital devices. The facility has building code and ADA compliance issues and bathroom plumbing needing replacement.

Settle asked why renovating the existing facility is being proposed when state officials said when the bond referendum passed that a new readiness center would be built on 110 acres given by the Town of North Wilkesboro in its industrial park on River Road/Liberty Grove Road.

Pierce said about $7 million of the $70 million was originally earmarked for Wilkes, but it was determined that grading and infrastructure (roads, lights, power, water and sewer) alone would cost $14 to $16 million.

He said that even with an additional $7 million allocated for the Wilkes facility in 2018, it’s still too costly. This didn’t factor in inflation.

He said it was a matter of “what can we do under the confines of that bond to honor the will of the voters but also make the most cost-effective resource decisions for the National Guard.”

Settle said, “Well, there just seems to be a feeling in the county that we’re getting a short end of the stick,” especially with only $8 million being spent on Wilkes.

North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper said in June that he and North Wilkesboro Mayor Robert Johnson decided it was best to support renovating the existing facility on Armory Road instead of insisting on building on the 119 acres. He said this was discussed with commissioners individually and they concurred, so a letter stating this was sent to Pierce.