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.