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Wilkes Central junior running back A.J. Villalpando rushes for a 1-yard touchdown Friday, eluding would-be tacklers Tyler Mash, left, and Brennan Arnder of East Wilkes. Villalpando later added four two-point conversion runs in the Eagles' 46-20 victory in Ronda.

Wilkes picked for FEMA-funded monoclonal site
  • Updated

North Wilkesboro is among places in North Carolina chosen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for a monoclonal antibody treatment center for people with COVID-19.

Heather Murphy, executive director of The Health Foundation, said Thursday that the treatment center is planned at 1901 West Park Drive, a vacant office owned and renovated by the Health Foundation for non-profit organizations to use as a meeting space.

In a recent email to representatives of other non-profits in Wilkes, Murphy said the 1901 West Park Drive facility won’t be available for the foreseeable future for that reason because it will be used for the monoclonal antibody treatment center.

“With amazing support from Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and Wilkes Medical Center, the 1901 Meeting Space was converted overnight,” she stated in the email.

Wilkes Medical Center President Chad Brown said Monday that officials at the hospital are working with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on releasing information about the monoclonal antibody treatment center. Brown said details will be announced when they’re firmed up.

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard Monday that said her understanding was that the clinic already was seeing patients.

The extent to which monoclonal antibody treatments were made available to COVID-19 patients through Wilkes Medical Center up to now isn’t clear. The treatments have been available at Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital in Elkin, Caldwell Memorial Hospital in Lenoir and some other area hospitals for months.

Bailey Pennington, DHHS communications specialist, said Friday that there will be six FEMA-supported monoclonal antibody treatment sites opening in North Carolina. Pennington said more site-specific details should be available this week.

Murphy said the goal is to make getting tested of COVID-19 and treated with monoclonal antibodies as seamless as possible.

“FEMA identified Wilkes County as a high priority area (for a monoclonal antibody treatment center) based on our high number of cases, transmission rates and our hospital’s capacity. We are in the midst of a severe outbreak, and the decisions each of us make are impacting our entire community,” said Murphy.

“While it is heartening to have FEMA arrive, knowing that we are one of the highest priority areas in the country should cause all of us to review and tighten our COVID-19 protocols.”

“FEMA is running the program, including providing the medical personnel, procuring a site, ensuring equipment, setting up supply chains etc. They have been coordinating with us, our local hospital, Atrium Wake Forest Baptist Medical, DHHS, the (Wilkes) Health Department etc..” she said.

“One of the strengths we have as a community is the ability to work together and mobilize resources. I am exceedingly proud of the efforts of Atrium Wake Forest Baptist Health, Wilkes Medical Center and the Wilkes County Health Department and the leadership of The Health Foundation to do whatever it takes to bring this service here.”

Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order on Sept. 2 intended to make it easier for North Carolinians to access monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 by increasing places where it is available. The order is in effect through Nov. 30.

The DHHS has said that while the number of providers administering the treatment increased, many providers were limited by not being affiliated with health systems. Cooper’s order allows treatment to be provided in a medically-supervised community setting, including those that are part of COVID-19 testing sites.

In a COVID-19 update Thursday, Cooper said state and FEMA officials are working together to set up monoclonal antibody treatment centers. He said the hope is that by preventing COVID patients from developing more severe illness, lives will be saved and the strain of the virus on hospitals will be eased.

Cooper said a person who tests positive and has mild to moderate symptoms should talk his or her doctor about whether treatment with monoclonal antibodies is right for that person.

“They’ve been shown to be effective at preventing hospitalization and severe illness once you already have COVID. It shows how important it is to get a COVID test because this (monoclonal antibody) treatment has to be administered within 10 days from the start of symptoms” to be effective.

He also reminded people that COVID-19 vaccine is available across the state for free, regardless of whether people have insurance.

“We can’t stress enough, by far the majority of people hospitalized by COVID right now are unvaccinated,” said Cooper, adding that this is largely preventable by being vaccinated.

“If you’re still unsure about getting one, get off social media and get on the phone with your doctor. That’s the best place for accurate medical information.”

According to DHSS, monoclonal antibodies are proteins made in a laboratory to fight infections — including the virus that causes COVID-19 — and are given to patients directly with an IV infusion or a shot.

For more information about monoclonal antibody treatment, call the Combat COVID Monoclonal Antibodies Call Center at 1-877-332-6585 (English) or 1-877-366-0310 (Spanish).

MerleFest returns, but with precautions
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A special section in this issue includes MerleFest artist biographies and festival details.

MerleFest, called “the gold standard for bluegrass” music by “Rolling Stone” magazine, is Thursday through Sunday at Wilkes Community College.

The year’s festival again features much of the best in bluegrass and other genres under the broad umbrella of Americana or roots music.

Headliners among the nearly 100 acts on a dozen stages during the four days include Sturgill Simpson, Melissa Etheridge, LeAnn Rimes, Mavis Staples, Tedeschi Trucks and Margo Price.

Regional favorites include Balsam Range, Darin & Brook Aldridge, Ashley Heath and Her Heathens, the Kruger Brothers and the Chatham Rabbits. Joining them are jam bands like Scythian, the Waybacks and Donna the Buffalo.

And then there are MerleFest mainstays, including Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, Jim Lauderdale John Cowen, Pete & Joan Wernick and T. Michael Coleman.

And the list goes on.

MerleFest Director Ted Hagaman said the festival is unique for its family atmosphere (alcohol and drugs prohibited) and the fact that it is put on by a community college as a huge fundraiser for educational programs, scholarships and local non-profit organizations.

Hagaman said musicians know the festival for the close attention of attendees as they perform. It also is a reunion of sorts for many artists.

When held during its normal time slot in late April, MerleFest kicks off the music festival season. It’s being held in September due to this past April’s festival being canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s being held now with many safety precautions, based on input from local and state public health officials.

Chief among these is that to enter the festival grounds, proof of full vaccination or a printed or digital copy of a negative COVID-19 test performed within 72 hours of time of entry must be shown at the gate. That means printed or photos of a vaccination card or negative test results.

In addition to festival admission wristbands, MerleFest attendees and participants will be issued a “well” wristband showing the person met this safety criteria.

MerleFest organizers arranged for free testing this week for anyone in the immediate Wilkes area to help a large segment be tested before out of town fans arrive. The testing is at the main box office plaza, beside the WCC Culinary building on Beacon Hill, in the parking lot of Herring Hall off Oakwoods Road and at two stations on the old airport runway at Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge.

Hagaman said this testing is available and well wristbands can be picked up at these sites on Wednesday until 7 p.m. and on Thursday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Optum is providing the rapid tests.

He said the negative test requirement applies to children of all ages, per state health officials. He added that losing or removing a well wristband will mean having to repeat the process of proving eligibility.

“If you choose to wait (to get tested) until you arrive at the festival, you might find yourself waiting in a long line instead of inside the festival enjoying the music. Your action prior to arriving will make a huge difference in the speed in which we get you into the festival.”

To help reduce congestion in the box office area, the following will open/start at 1:30 p.m. on the first day of the festival and at 9:30 a.m. each of the three subsequent days: gates, box office, shuttle buses, cooler checks and shops/craft vendors. A new festival exit for pedestrians will be added where the Yadkin River Greenway connects with WCC.

Masks must be worn anywhere indoors at the event, including the Walker Center Stage, Austin Stage, Watson Stage backstage and portable bathroom trailers. In addition, fewer people at a time will be allowed in the MerleFest Museum.

The Mayes Pit Stage won’t be open due to the small size of its auditorium and the difficulty increasing air flow there. To have fewer people backstage, side stage seating for patrons and backstage tours won’t be offered.

Hagaman said attendees not vaccinated are strongly urged to wear masks at all times at the event and especially in high concentrations of people, even if vaccinated. He said masks are highly recommended for children.

Social distancing isn’t required, “but logic tells us that we need to be sensitive in crowds and keep adequate space between you and other festival attendees,” he added.

For safety of young attendees, the scrap exchange, crafts, large sandbox, do-it-yourself bubbles, arcade style games and instrument petting zoo were deleted from the Little Picker’s area this year. The annual Acoustic Kids Showcase won’t be held. The Little Pickers Stage will still have programming for children.

School Day, when admission is free for students in certain grade levels, won’t be offered this year.

Inventory in the MerleFest Mall will be limited to items from this year’s performing artists, Doc and Merle Watson items and other select offerings. Masks are recommended for all in this area. All heritage crafts booths will be in tents allowing vendors to face outside.

Over 100 hand wash and sanitizing stations are being added. WCC custodial staff and festival cleaning teams will clean and sanitize high touch areas throughout the event, as well as dispose of trash.

All festival volunteers, staff, food workers and shuttle bus drivers must complete a health attestation prior to starting a work shift each day.

Much of the seating under the large food tent will be relocated, making that area primarily only for preparing and selling food and beverages and for customer lines. The former R&R Tent will be a place for dining, with appropriately spaced tables and chairs.

A Shade Tent will be where the Raffle Tent used to be, with seating, lactation room and baby changing station.

Wilkes Health Department staff will be onsite monitoring health practices. They will also offer free vaccinations to volunteers and staff before the festival and to attendees during the event.

No apple festival again due to COVID
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The Brushy Mountain Ruritan Club issued a press release Monday evening stating “with deep regret” that the Brushy Mountain Apple Festival has been canceled for the second year in a row to avoid health risks posed by COVID-19.

The event was scheduled Oct. 2 in downtown North Wilkesboro, where the Brushy Mountain Ruritan Club has held it every year since the second festival in 1979, except in 2020 and now 2021.

“This decision has not been made lightly or in a vacuum. We have had input from many places, including members of the Ruritan club, the Town of North Wilkesboro and data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services,” the release stated.

“This decision was made solely by the Brushy Mountain Ruritan Club and we are the only ones responsible for this decision. We sincerely hope that folks will understand and support us in this decision.”

The release said the recent marked increase in COVID-19 cases locally helped push the issue to the forefront.

“As the festival is outside and in a downtown setting with many ways for the public to access the event, we do not feel we have adequate control to provide even the most basic precautions to monitor the crowd,” it continued.

The release said that due to staffing shortages, the task of putting on the festival has become even larger.

“If we were to have the apple festival and it were to become a ‘super spreader’ event, we would risk the lives of anyone in attendance and, possibly, the entire future of the apple festival. None of that is something we wish to claim for the apple festival.”

The release said the club realizes that canceling the apple festival will negatively impact many people and that some non-profits in Wilkes County, already suffering from cancellation of last year’s festival, will have an even harder time now.

“We are truly sorry for that. However, considering what is at stake in this time of COVID, particularly considering the recent surge in cases locally and the severity of those cases, we felt that we had no other choice.”

Other site chosen instead of Wilkes
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Wilkesboro was one of two finalists for a project with an investment of several hundred million dollars and hundreds of new jobs before the company planning this chose the other site, which is in another state, less than a month ago.

The five-month economic development effort, called Project Flow locally, involved the Wilkes Economic Development Corp. (EDC), Economic Development Partnership of N.C. (EDPNC) and governments of Wilkesboro and Wilkes County.

A couple of government officials here said in interviews last week that they had been optimistic about the Wilkesboro site being chosen because Wilkes County was such a good fit for the company’s plans.

The Wilkesboro and Wilkes County governing bodies scheduled public hearings in mid-May, early July, early August and early September to consider incentives for the company based on what it planned to invest and jobs it planned to create.

When the first three hearings scheduled by the two local governing bodies were postponed, local officials said the company needed more time.

At the Sept. 7 meeting of the Wilkes County commissioners, Chairman Eddie Settle simply said the hearing was canceled.

As part of the effort, elected and other Wilkesboro and county government and Wilkes EDC officials agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements with the EDC and EDPNC. Local officials said this legally bound them to not publicly reveal the company’s name.

Government officials in Wilkes had never before signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of an economic development effort. Interviews with Wilkesboro and county officials last week indicated uncertainty and differing views on how long the agreement is binding.

Wilkes EDC President LeeAnn Nixon, who represented the Wilkesboro and county governments in dealings with the company, said non-disclosure agreements have become standard in economic development.

“We were able to get in the game by signing the NDA (non-disclosure agreement) and respecting (the company’s) need for privacy up until the public hearing process.”

Nixon said the name of the company, its plans and details of economic incentives from Wilkesboro and the county would have been disclosed in the public hearings if the company had agreed to move forward with that process here.

After the public hearings, the Wilkesboro and county governing bodies would have voted on whether to officially offer the incentives.

“The town and county had not officially made an offer. The EDC had only outlined with the company, following the local approved guidelines/point system for industrial incentives, what the company might be approved for as incentives and a potential amount,” said Nixon.

“The EDC did express to the company that the local governments welcomed their project and taking the next formal steps.”

Nixon said the company’s officials “decided after looking at the overall project numbers that their best decision was to go elsewhere.” The company considered sites in multiple states and in multiple sites in North Carolina.

She said it was a positive experience overall and should leave Wilkes in a better position for future economic development efforts. “I’m proud of the way our local governments came together to work on this.”

Nixon added, “They (officials with the company) spoke highly of us here and what we had to offer…. In a situation like this, it often comes down to internal decisions. We were very competitive with our incentives and the state was also.”

Nixon also said she didn’t believe the amount of workforce available in Wilkes a significant factor. “Workforce is a challenge for everybody right now and I don’t think it’s very different in Wilkes than elsewhere in rural counties.”

Comments of some local officials in interviews indicated that the site chosen could draw workers from North Carolina because of its location in a neighboring state.

The Wilkes County commissioners recently considered but decided against purchasing a certain tract of undeveloped land in Wilkesboro for economic development. County officials said this property wasn’t involved in Project Flow.