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Wilkes population drops 4.9%
  • Updated

Initial results of the 2020 Census, released Aug. 12, include Wilkes among 51 North Carolina counties with population decreases in the last decade.

Wilkes is listed with a 2020 population of 65,969, down by 4.9% from 69,340 in 2010. That’s 3,371 fewer people.

The Census Bureau reported that populations of all three Wilkes towns grew from 2010 to 2020:

• Wilkesboro, up 8%, from 3,413 to 3,687;

• North Wilkesboro, up 3.2%, from 4,245 to 4,382;

• Ronda, up 5%, from 417 to 438.

Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland said population increases within the Wilkesboros was largely due to the addition of income-based multi-family housing.

The Census showed that all areas of Wilkes except Ronda and in and immediately around the Wilkesboros lost population from 2010 to 2020.

The largest decreases were in the Champion/Elk/Mount Zion area of western Wilkes, down 12%; Traphill area, down 9%; Moravian Falls/Boomer area, down 8%; Roaring River area, down 8%; Purlear area, down 8%; Ronda-Clingman area, down 7%; Hays area, down 6% and Brushy Mountain area, down 5%.

Wilkes County’s Hispanic population of 4,654 people in 2020 was 7.1% of the total. It was 23.4% larger than in 2010 and 66.8% larger than in 2000.

The county’s Black, non-Hispanic population of 2,580 was 3.9% of the total. It was down 7.4% from 2010, and up 2.4% from 2000.

The county’s white, non-Hispanic population of 56,316 was 85.4% of the total. This segment of the population was 8.6% smaller than in 2010 and 2.7% larger than in 2000.

Wilkes Register of Deeds office issued 3,151 birth certificates and 4,821 death certificates from 2013 through 2020. (This information for 2010-2012 wasn’t immediately available.)

The office issued 605 death certificates in 2016, 598 in 2017 and 596 in both 2018 and 2019, but the number of death certificates increased sharply to 756 in 2020.

The register of deeds office issued 286 birth certificates in 2020, the fewest ever.

Only two counties adjoining Wilkes gained population in the decade ending in April 2020. Iredell’s population grew 17.1% to 186,693, and Watauga’s increased by 5.9% to 54,086. Iredell was the state’s 10th fastest growing county.

Among the other adjoining counties, Surry’s population dropped 3.1% to 71,359; Caldwell, down 2.9% to 80,652; Yadkin, down 3.1% to 37,214; Alexander, down 2% to 36,444; Ashe, down 2.6% to 26,577; and Alleghany, down 2.4% to 10,888.

North Carolina’s official population in the 2020 Census was 10,439,388, an increase of 903,905, or 9.5%, since 2010. North Carolina had the sixth largest increase among the states and was the 15th fastest-growing state.

The 51 counties that lost population since 2010 are almost all rural counties. Only seven counties ended the prior decade with fewer people.

More than 78% of North Carolina’s population growth occurred in its two largest metro areas (Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham) over the last decade.

Counties with the largest numeric declines were Robeson, down 17,638; Duplin, down 9,790; Edgecombe, down 7,652; Columbus, down 7,475; and Halifax, down 6,069.

Eight of the state’s 10 most populous counties grew faster than the state as a whole.

Johnston County grew by almost 28%, the most of any county. It was followed by Brunswick at 27.2%, Cabarrus at 26.8%, Wake at 25.4%, Durham at 21.4, Mecklenburg at 21.3%.

Wake officially surpassed Mecklenburg to become the most populous county in North Carolina. Otherwise, the five largest counties in 2020 (Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford, Forsyth and Cumberland) were the five largest in 2010.

Mandatory masks in schools urged
  • Updated

The Wilkes County and other school boards in North Carolina that made masks optional for students and staff in the coming academic year have been urged to reconsider these decisions.

Letters urging them to join other boards that reversed course by now requiring masks were mailed Aug. 12 to their chairmen. The letters are signed by Gov. Roy Cooper; Dr. Mandy Cohen, and Dr. Betsey Tilson, state health director.

The letters cite COVID-19 cases increasing by over 50% in the prior seven days statewide, rapid spread of the Delta variant of the virus and COVID-19 hospitalizations more than doubling in the prior two weeks

Wilkes Health Director Rachel Willard said in an interview Aug. 12 that she recommended that the Wilkes schools follow the DHHS Public Health Toolkit for K-12 schools, which mandates masks for students and staff while indoors.

Willard said she made this recommendation to Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd before the Wilkes school board voted Aug. 2 to make masks indoors optional. Willard didn’t publicly state this recommendation when she attended the Aug. 2 school board meeting.

The toolkit says schools should require that all children and staff in grades K-12 wear face coverings consistently when indoors, regardless of vaccination status” unless medical or developmental conditions dictate otherwise.

Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease expert at Wake Forest Baptist Health, said Thursday in his weekly COVID-19 update on Facebook that masks are the tool that will allow schools to remain open in 2021-22.

Ohl said he feels very strongly that school boards that voted to make masks optional should reconsider those decisions. “Speaking to those boards, otherwise you’re not going to get through two to three weeks of school. It’s not going to be possible.”

Ohl said that’s because the number of students with COVID-19 in schools without mask mandates will be too high from home transmission, community transmission or possibly in-school transmission to maintain contact tracing.

“When that happens, the only thing left will be to ether close a grade or close the school, depending on how widespread it is.”

He recommended that parents of students in school systems with masks not required try to make sure their kids stay masked and get them vaccinated if 12 or older and therefore eligible.

He said children are more likely to wear masks if they see their parents and other adults wearing them

Ohl also said he also feels very strongly that all day care providers should require that children and staff wear masks. The state doesn’t require this.

He noted that there are outbreaks at many daycare centers now due to people not wearing masks. Willard said Friday that there were none then at daycare centers in Wilkes.

Byrd recommended and the school board approved making masks “optional for everyone in the school system as long as the county threshold of positive cases for school age students stays below recommended levels. Should these levels be exceeded, upon advice from Mrs. Willard, this decision (making masks optional) could have to be reevaluated.”

Byrd said in an interview later that the threshold isn’t based on a set number, but will be determined on conversations with the health department.

According to guidance approved by the school board, updated data used to determine if the number of COVID-19 cases stay below recommended will be given at each monthly board meeting.

Under the Wilkes school board’s action, masks will be required on school buses and visitors to Wilkes schools won’t be required to wear masks.

The News and Observer newspaper in Raleigh reported that as of Aug. 13, facial coverings were optional for students and staff in at least 52 school districts in North Carolina

Except for the Wilkes Early College High School, which began classes Aug. 12, the first day of classes in the Wilkes schools is Aug. 23.

COVID surge worsens; 4 deaths reported
  • Updated

The prevalence of positive COVID-19 cases in Wilkes County has reached a point of severity equal to the peak of the pandemic early this past winter, said Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard on Monday.

“We’re still trending upward. At the first of July, we were seeing about 50 new cases a week. Now, it’s about 50-70 per day,” said Willard.

Two additional COVID-19-related deaths of Wilkes County residents were announced Aug. 12 and two more Monday, bringing the total to 121. Prior to last week, there hadn’t been an additional COVID-19 death reported in Wilkes since July 2.

One of the two deaths announced Aug. 12 was a person in his/her 70s and the other in his/her 50s, while the two most recent deaths included another person in his/her 70s and one in his/her 60s, said Willard.

None of the four most recent deaths was a nursing home or other long-term care facility resident, but Willard said there currently are outbreaks at some of these facilities in Wilkes.

As of Nov. 12, there were four COVID-19 cases (two residents and two staff) at Wilkes Assisted Living on Old Brickyard Road, North Wilkesboro; seven (three residents and four staff) at Wilkes Health and Rehabilitation on Old Brickyard Road, North Wilkesboro; and two (both staff) at Accordius Health in Wilkesboro.

Willard said over 10 Wilkes residents are hospitalized with COVID-19 and 14.4% of COVID-19 tests of Wilkes residents were positive in the last two weeks. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported that hospitalizations for COVID-19 reached all-time highs in North Carolina this month.

The health department reported 383 active COVID-19 cases among Wilkesresidents as of Friday. Health officials say virtually all cases now are the Delta variant of COVID-19.

As of Monday, 7,813 Wilkes residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. That’s up from 7,702 on Friday and 7,373 on Friday, Aug. 6.

Wilkes had 811 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the two weeks ending Monday, 766 in the two weeks ending Friday and 478 the prior Friday, Aug. 6.

As of Monday, 34% of all Wilkes residents had been vaccinated. This has been unchanged since July 30. Also as of Monday, 39% had received at least the first of two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

The Wilkes Clerk of Superior Court’s office in the Wilkes County Courthouse was closed Thursday and Friday due to four employees there testing positive for COVID-19.

The YMCA of Greater Charlotte’s Camp Harrison in Boomer ended its last camp session of the summer a few days early this month due to COVID-19 cases.

House budget has $20M for speedway
  • Updated

A two-year budget plan approved Aug. 12 by the N.C. House includes $20 million for the North Wilkesboro Speedway, doubling what Gov. Roy Cooper earmarked to help bring the historic track back to life.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore of North Wilkesboro said Wilkes County government would receive and oversee use of the $20 million, which is from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan (ARP).

Elmore said the money would fund extension of water and sewer lines to the dilapidated speedway, plus work on the entrance road, sidewalks, restrooms, grandstands and more. The Office of State Budget and Management is helping to make sure the work complies with ARP guidelines.

Elmore said county government would coordinate with Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro officials for extending water and sewer lines to the speedway, which used wells and a septic system when it was open to the public.

He said discussions indicate the sewer line would come from North Wilkesboro and the water line from Wilkesboro. A North Wilkesboro sewer line now terminates on Speedway Road, near the Breeze Hill Road intersection. A Wilkesboro water line ends near the Northwest Visitor’s Center along U.S. 421.

Elmore said county officials would also coordinate with Concord-based Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI), owner of the North Wilkesboro Speedway, on use of the funds for infrastructure upgrades to the facility.

SMI hasn’t yet released any plans for renovating or using the North Wilkesboro Speedway. Elmore said the company’s vision for all of its motorsports properties, which include the Charlotte Motor Speedway, include using them year-round for a variety of events.

Under the House plan, another $15 million would be used for improvements to the Charlotte Motor Speedway and $10 million for work on the Rockingham Speedway.

Unlike Cooper’s plan for using ARP funds on motorsports venues, no local matches are required. Elmore said Senate budget plan includes what Cooper proposed for the North Wilkesboro Speedway and the other tracks.

The North Wilkesboro Speedway last hosted a NASCAR Cup Series race on Sept. 29, 1996. It sat dormant for over a decade before being revived for short track touring division races in 2010 and 2011.

Also in Wilkes

The Senate budget bill approved in June, the House budget bill and Cooper’s proposed version of the budget all include use of $5.7 billion tabbed for North Carolina under the ARP. The House and Senate still need to work out differences in their budget plans on the size of tax reductions and certain other areas and negotiate with Cooper to come up with a final two-year budget.

Elmore said that with the ARP funds and a state budget surplus at hand, House members were asked to submit spending proposals addressing long-sought and/or greatly needed initiatives in the districts.

In Elmore’s 94th House District, which includes Wilkes and Alexander counties, the House budget plan also includes:

• $6 million for building new and renovating facilities at Mount Pleasant Elementary School. Elmore said it includes demolishing and replacing a classroom building constructed in the 1950s and work on the cafeteria and other facilities. He said a top priority is to improve security

• $5.5 million for new construction, renovations and repairs at Wilkes Community College

• $5 million for providing larger gym facilities at Wilkes Central High School. Elmore said there have been issues with attendance at some events at the school’s current main gym exceeding capacity

• $2.5 million for work on athletic facilities at the other three traditional high schools in Wilkes, including new football stadium bleachers and tennis facilities

• $3 million for establishing the main portion (about 1,800 acres) of Rendezvous Mountain State Educational Forest in Purlear as a state park but under management of staff at Stone Mountain State Park. It would be transferred from the N.C. Department of Agriculture to state parks. The $3 million would be used to pave the gravel road to the top of Rendezvous, build trails for hiking and mountain biking, establish tent and RV hookup camping facilities and other work. Elmore said the nearby but disconnected Little Fork tract of Rendezvous (about 1,500 acres) would remain a state forest and be managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission as game land

• $500,000 for upgrading and repairing shoulders of N.C. 268 in the West End Elkin area of Wilkes and Surry counties

• $500,000 to the Town of North Wilkesboro for debt service on a water tower recently completed along River Road/Liberty Grove Road. The water tower was built to improve water pressure needed for a JELD-WEN expansion and elsewhere in that area. Elmore said the town originally was budgeted these funds but didn’t receive them when this earlier state budget wasn’t approved

• $400,000 to the Town of Wilkesboro for 25% of the cost of a bridge for Woodfield Way over Cub Creek to replace a culvert washed out by floodwaters in late October. The town is receiving state disaster relief funds for 75% of the cost of the bridge. Town Manager Ken Noland said in June that it could be completed in April or May 2022

• $350,000 to the Town of Wilkesboro for bathrooms in the town-owned “rock building” in the Carolina West Wireless Community Commons

• $50,000 to the Town North Wilkesboro for painting a new mural over the existing mural at the town’s Yadkin Valley Marketplace along the Central Business District Loop

• $500,000 to Wilkes Recovery Revolution for its R3 Recovery Center at West Park, North Wilkesboro

• $100,000 for the Blue Ridge Opportunity Commission

• $100,000 for a proposed N.C. Department of Insurance “Northwest Regional Office.” Elmore said the location hasn’t been determined yet

• $140,000 to the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission for a storage facility in Wilkes.

• $1 million for Alexander County Water/Sewer Infrastructure for the county industrial park

• $3.6 million for water and sewer system work for the Bethlehem area of Alexander

• $630,000 for repairing tennis courts and the track at Alexander Central High School

• $1.2 million for two water and sewer projects in the Taylorsville

• $8.6 million for construction and renovations of facilities for Catawba Valley Community College.