UPDATE: The Wilkes Health Department is getting 800 doses of the Moderna vaccine this week instead of the 200 originally announced due to Wake Forest Baptist Health deciding to let the health department have 600 doses that Wilkes Medical Center received Wednesday, said Wilkes Health Director Rachel Willard. The health department therefore has 700 doses of the Moderna vaccine to administer in Thursday’s drive-through clinic instead of 200, said Willard, adding that 100 doses will be designated for evening vaccinations by appointment at the health department. More details about Wake Forest Baptist Health’s decision to share its allocation of vaccine with the health department are forthcoming.
The Wilkes County Health Department received another 200 doses of the Moderna vaccine Tuesday for a drive-through clinic starting at 10 a.m. Thursday at a new location—Industrial Drive (old airport runway) at Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge in Wilkesboro.
Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said the clinic again is for people 75 and older (phase 1B, group 1) and health care staff working directly with COVID-19 patients, those cleaning and maintaining areas with COVID-19 patients, those administering the vaccines, staff and residents of long-term care facilities (phase 1A).
Willard said people wishing to be vaccinated need to turn from N.C. 268 West onto YMCA Boulevard, pass by the Wilkes Family YMCA and then turn onto Industrial Drive. Staff will be there giving directions. She expected all 200 doses to be administered that day.
Health department staff will screen people for eligibility for vaccinations as they wait in line in vehicles. Each will be given a card with a number when found eligible and people must have these cards to be vaccinated. When the number of cards given out equals the amount of vaccine available that day, no more cards are given, she said.
With the 200 doses to be given Thursday and those at the health department over the prior three weeks, about 1,100 people have now received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19 in the public clinics. A second dose is supposed to be received 28 days later.
Willard said next week’s shipment of Moderna is supposed to include 400 second doses of the vaccine for the first people vaccinated in the clinics, in addition to a few hundred first doses. She said second doses will be given on one day and first doses on another day next week to help make sure they’re administered correctly.
Meanwhile, COVID-19-related deaths are increasing in Wilkes at an accelerated pace. Nine such deaths were reported in Wilkes in the first 10 days of 2021. Willard said the nine reflected an increase in deaths of people in their 60s and none were related to long-term care facilities. Nearly half of the COVID-19-related deaths in Wilkes in 2020 occurred in the last two months of the year. The death total now is 80.
Wilkes is ahead of adjoining counties again in new confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. On Monday, Wilkes crossed the 4,500 mark with 4,532 cases since the pandemic started. The new year began with passing the 4,000 mark. Wilkes had 411 active cases, with 28 of those hospitalized, as of Monday. Eighty confirmed deaths were reported.
The health department has received 200 to 400 doses of Moderna vaccine per week so far, with little advance notice of the amount and arrival day from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Most of the people vaccinated so far in the clinics are those 75 and older not necessarily at increased risk due to health status or living conditions. They also include those eligible to be vaccinated first of all—health care staff working directly with COVID-19 patients, those cleaning and maintaining areas with COVID-19 patients, those administering the vaccines, staff and residents of long-term care facilities.
Clinics held in a health department parking lot drew long lines of cars and left many people frustrated when vaccine supplies ran out before they could get vaccinated. Willard said it’s equally frustrating for health department personnel because they’re working hard to serve the public. She said lacking far less than enough vaccine to meet demand and not knowing the amount coming very far in advance each week created a difficult situation.
COVID-19 vaccinations are by appointment only in many counties and Willard said this is being considered for the Wilkes clinics.
“The federal government tells the state how much North Carolina will get and from there NCDHHS (N.C. Division of Health and Human Services) how much goes to each enrolled provider.” She said factors determining allocations of the Moderna vaccine to each county include population, number of hospital beds and most doses given in a single day compared to on-hand inventory.
Willard noted that the Surry County Health Department is getting 100 and the Yadkin Health Department is getting 300 does of Moderna vaccine next week.
She said Wilkes Medical Center was supposed to get 300 doses of the Moderna vaccine this week.
Wilkes Medical Center is part of the Wake Forest Baptist Health system and began offering the Pfizer vaccine to hospital employees in phase 1A on Dec. 21. More than 600 doses of the Pfizer vaccine had been given to Wilkes Medical Center employees by Thursday evening.
First doses of the Moderna vaccine have been given or are scheduled to be given to residents and staff of all long-term care facilities in Wilkes in clinics conducted by either Walgreens or CVS pharmacies. Directors of some of these facilities said only about half of their employees were willing to be vaccinated at this point.
Willard said during the Wilkes Board of Education meeting Monday night that phase 1B, group 2 in the state’s vaccine eligibility plan, which includes K-12 teachers and staff age 50 and older, is supposed to start around Jan. 20. Phase 1B, group 3 includes K-12 teachers and staff under 50.
“All of this information could change tomorrow,” Willard told the board. “We know that our (vaccination) phases changed just recently,” referring to revisions that included advancing all people 75 and older in vaccine eligibility.
She also said the Wilkes Health Department won’t necessarily be ready to start vaccinating people in phase 1B, group 2 next week “because we’re only getting about 200 doses of vaccine per week instead of the 600 to 1,000 doses larger counties are getting each week.
Dr. Westley Wood, assistant superintendent for personnel and human resources in the Wilkes schools, determined an estimate of the number of teachers and teacher assistants age 50 and older. She said a survey will be sent to determine interest among school teachers and teacher assistants in receiving the vaccine and further define the actual number to be vaccinated and facilitate the process.
School board member Hardin Kennedy asked Willard when the Wilkes schools might reach something approaching herd immunity, now that vaccinations are being given.
Willard said the transition from President Trump’s administration to President Biden’s should result in a more aggressive timeline for reaching herd immunity since Biden plans to make larger amounts of vaccine available.
She said it’s possible that 65-70% of Wilkes residents could be vaccinated by the time the 2021-22 school year starts, but that timeline could be moved up three months if Biden gets enough additional vaccine released.
Willard said that if the health department had enough vaccine on hand to vaccinate every Wilkes resident 18 and older and everyone was willing, it could do this within a month. “But, we don’t have that supply. It all depends on how much is available and that is far beyond the control of the State of North Carolina.”
Willingness to be vaccinated is an issue in the governments of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro.
“We’re having difficulty getting our front-line workers to take the vaccine that has been made available to them,” said Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland during the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. board meeting Friday.
Noland said the concerns apparently are based on reports of the vaccine being rushed through the approval process, so they’re concerned about side effects and don’t want to be among the first to be vaccinated. Noland said there are no plans to make vaccinations mandatory.
In the last few days, the North Wilkesboro and Wilkesboro elected governing bodies both took action with benefits offerings to give employees incentives for being vaccinated for COVID-19.
The Ronda Board of Commissioners has joined the governing bodies of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro in addressing drainage issues, including a large sinkhole a few feet off N.C. 268 East near the Clingman Road intersection.
Ronda Commissioner Sandra Simmons raised the subject at a Ronda board work session Thursday night, saying the worst drainage problems are in the lower end of town between the railroad tracks and the Yadkin River. Simmons lives on Second Street, which is in that part of Ronda.
“When we start to lose our property, something needs to be done. We need an engineer or someone to study this and see if grates and drainage pipes are where they need to be,” said Simmons.
No action was taken on authorizing such a study, but there was discussion about who is responsible for addressing the drainage problems. The Town of Ronda, N.C. Department of Transportation, private citizens and the Yadkin Valley Railroad, which owns the train tracks through Ronda, were all mentioned.
Mike Pettyjohn, DOT Division 11 engineer, said Monday that the large sinkhole near N.C. 268 East appeared after heavy rain on Nov. 11 and 12. This same weather event resulted in severe flooding in southeastern Wilkes and a disaster designation for Wilkes, Alexander, Iredell and Caldwell counties.
Pettyjohn said the DOT highway right of way extends 30 feet on either side of the N.C. 268 East centerline, but the DOT isn’t responsible for repairing the sinkhole even if it’s within this right of way because it resulted from work by a party other than the state.
The sinkhole occurred where someone other than the state installed a concrete box with culverts that connect to a DOT culvert beneath N.C. 268 East, he said, adding that it resulted from a culvert failure at the concrete box. One or more of the connecting culverts appear to have broken off. The sinkhole is partly in a parking lot.
Bergie Speaks of Ronda, owner of the property where the sinkhole appeared, said Friday that he doesn’t know who installed the concrete box and connection with the culvert beneath N.C. 268.
Speaks said he also doesn’t know what plans exist for repairing the sinkhole and isn’t sure who is responsible for this. He said he intends to have more communication with Ronda officials about the matter, especially since a new Ronda mayor (Rhejean Benge) and other new board members were elected in November.
Also during the work session Thursday night, the Ronda board discussed proposed renovations to a portion of Ronda Town Hall with water damage. The repairs would be on the portion of the building referred to as the archives room.
It was stated in the meeting that funding would come from the town’s reserve funds and would result in little being left in reserves. Simmons said she understands that the renovations are needed, but recommended seeking grant funding related to the town hall being a historical building. Originally, it was the Ronda High School gym.
Board member Kevin Reece said he secured a proposal for doing the work for $19,300, which he said is a good price. “I don’t know if we advertised this” for bids, but whoever does it needs to be secured, added Reece, who was elected to the board in November.
Benge said in an interview that the proposed work includes establishing an office for the mayor. She said the more important aspect of the work is securing the damaged portion of the building. Ronda currently doesn’t have an office for the mayor.
The proposed renovations were on the agenda for the Ronda board meeting Tuesday night, which was past the deadline for this issue.
The Wilkes County Schools have had 442 confirmed COVID-19 cases since Sept. 8, when all Wilkes elementary, middle and high schools transitioned from full-time remote learning to optional half-time remote and half-time in-person learning (A/B plan).
This information was part of an update from the Wilkes Health Department on COVID-19 in the local public schools during a Wilkes Board of Education meeting Monday night.
Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said she believes the Wilkes school system is doing everything it can to keep students and staff safe.
Willard cited a COVID-19 cluster at North Wilkes High School in late September as an example. She said that through diligent screening and additional cleaning at North Wilkes High, the cluster was contained to a single class. The school also returned to full-time remote learning for over a week.
She said the close relationship between the health department and the Wilkes school system, including on the local COVID response team, is a blessing.
“School involvement” was identified in 41% of the 442 cases, said Lindsey Roberts, community health services director for the health department. This refers to a person being at school or in a school function within two days of the onset of COVID-19 symptoms or within two days prior to testing positive if asymptomatic.
“I think that shows a great deal of work to make sure the kids who need to be excluded (due to COVID-19) are excluded” from contact with other students, said Roberts.
Roberts also said that among the 442 cases:
• 31% were elementary students, 21% were middle school students and 45% were high school students;
• 10% were students engaged in remote-only learning;
• 5% involved school athletics;
Roberts said 38 of the 442 are students or staff currently in self-isolation due to having COVID-19.
Among the four school districts in Wilkes, the Central District has had 146 cases; North District, 100; West District, 94; and East District, 71.
Wilkes Early College High School has had 12 confirmed cases. Nineteen were employees who work in different areas of the Wilkes County Schools.
Also since Sept. 8, said Roberts, 1,812 students or teachers have been in isolation due to COVID-19. She said this includes people exposed to someone with COVID-19 outside a school setting. “I would say way less than half of those are school contacts.”
Over 3,600 students in Wilkes middle and high schools are now using the A/B plan. On Oct. 20, all elementary schools went to full-time in-person learning. Total enrollment in the Wilkes schools is now nearly 8,500.
Willard said now was a good time to give the school board an update since vaccinations have started. Willard noted that after she and Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd talk each week, he passes on COVID-19 metrics she provides to school board members.
School board member Hardin Kennedy said he thinks the Wilkes school system has one of the better plans in the state for addressing COVID-19.
School board member Joan Caudill asked Willard if she foresees mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations being required for children anytime in the near future. Willard said that instead of becoming mandatory, COVID-19 vaccinations will likely have the same status as flu vaccinations.
One important factor is how long current COVID-19 vaccines are effective, which isn’t known yet, she added.
The Sparta Police Department has charged a North Wilkesboro man with murder in the death of a former Wilkes County resident.
Joshua Anthony Allen, 34, was arrested by Capt. Justin West of the Sparta Police Department for the murder of Kadejuia Nichole Hamilton, 26, of Crestview Apartments in Sparta.
Allen remains in the Alleghany County Jail with no bond, with a court appearance scheduled Jan. 12 in Alleghany District Court. His current address is 226 Peace Street, North Wilkesboro and his former address is 1275 North Ridge Road, Roaring River.
The Sparta Police Department also charged Allen with felony identity theft and felony obtaining property by false pretense in connection with the use of a food stamp card belonging to Hamilton. Warrants for these offenses indicate that the murder occurred on Oct. 10 or 11.
Allen was extradited from Horry County, S.C., to Sparta and charged with murder on Dec 18. He was in the Myrtle Beach Jail after being arrested on unrelated charges by the Surfside Beach Police Department there on Oct. 17.
Surfside Beach police took Allen into custody after receiving a call from the N.C. State Bureau of Investigating asking them to to to a certain beach pier parking lot to look for an orange Chevrolet with a certain North Carolina license plate number. They were told the male driver was likely armed and the female passenger was reported missing.
Surfside Beach police located Allen and the female passenger, who had her infant son, and reported that he acted very nervous. A Surfside Beach police report said the woman was one of three missing females the SBI was investigating.
Allen was arrested for simple possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and a hold was placed on him for unlawful carry of a handgun after the car was searched. The report said that according to the SBI, car he was driving and a cell phone in the car belonged to one of the three missing females, who wasn’t identified. The phone was “pinged” to locate Allen, the report said.
Hamilton was reported missing to the Sparta Police Department on Oct. 16 after the grandparents of Hamilton’s young child weren’t able to make contact with her for several days, stated a Sparta Police Department press release. The grandparents live in Wilkes.
The release said statements were obtained regarding Hamilton’s possible whereabouts during the ensuing investigation by the Sparta Police Department, Wilkes Sheriff’s Office, Wilkesboro Police Department and State Bureau of Investigation Agent Chris Laws. The investigation spanned two states.
A body found on Oct. 19 in the White Plains Road section of Roaring River was identified as Hamilton on Oct. 26. Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew said at the time that the death was being investigated as a homicide that occurred in Sparta and that there was a suspect.
Authorities haven’t said anything about the cause of Hamilton’s death, apparently because they’re still awaiting a full autopsy report. Hamilton was a 2012 graduate of Wilkes Central High School
Allen was already awaiting trial in Wilkes on charges of assault on a female, battery of an unborn child and habitual misdemeanor assault filed by the Wilkesboro Police Department in July 2020. Vanessa Davis of North Wilkesboro, identified by police as the victim, said Allen assaulted her in the Food Lion supermarket parking lot on Westwood Lane.
According to a police report, Davis said Allen was her boyfriend. The report said Davis was nine months pregnant and that Allen was the father. She was identified as the victim in an earlier case in which Allen was charged with assault on a female.
Allen also is awaiting trial on charges of possession with intent to sell and deliver heroin and with two counts of sale and delivery of heroin filed by the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office in June 2020. Allen has several prior convictions of assault on a female, communicating threats and other criminal offenses.
Meanwhile, the Wilkesboro Police Department is still investigating the disappearance of Renee Ann Walker, 28, of Purlear. On July 9, Walker’s grandmother told a Wilkesboro officer that Walker was missing and that she hadn’t seen her since June 19.
According to a police report, Walker was staying at the Quality Inn in Wilkesboro and checked out of the motel on June 29. She was a 2010 graduate of West Wilkes High School.
Wilkesboro Police Chief Craig Garris got a Silver Alert issued for Walker by the N.C. Department of Public Safety (DPS) on Sept. 25. Silver Alerts are issued to help locate missing people who suffer from some cognitive impairment and may be endangered.
Law enforcement officials have declined to comment on any possible connection between the disappearance and murder of Hamilton and disappearance of Walker, but they have indicated awareness of the possibility of gaining information on one of the cases while investigating the other.
They also have declined to comment on any possible connection between these cases and the Dec. 10 discovery of human remains off North Ridge Road in Roaring River, about a mile north of the intersection of N.C. 268 East and North Ridge Road.
Officers of the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office and Wilkesboro Police Department responded to that discovery. No identifying information or other details about the remains have been made public.