Seventeen Wilkes Department of Social Services employees have tested positive for COVID-19 or have had to quarantine due to exposure to the virus so far this month, said Wilkes DSS Director John Blevins.

That’s about 13% of the Wilkes DSS workforce, added Blevins during the Jan. 19 meeting of the Wilkes County commissioners.

“We’ve really had a time with it lately and it’s been tough,” said Blevins.

He said about 60% of the cases were in child protective services and about 40% were in income maintenance (40%) “so it kind of has spread throughout the building.”

Blevins said Wilkes DSS employees aren’t yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, but the N.C. Association of County Directors of Social Services asked the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to move them up in priority.

Blevins said DSS social workers have tried to do their communications with client families by phone as much as possible during the pandemic, but sometimes home visits are essential.

Blevins said Wilkes Health Director Rachel Willard, despite being extremely busy, has been very helpful in getting children tested for COVID-19 after removal from their homes due to abuse or neglect. They must test negative before they can be placed in foster care.

He said Willard has been very helpful answering questions about how long DSS employees need to be off work based on their situations with COVID-19.

Blevins also said about 288 low income people signed up for assistance with heating expenses recently in the basement of the DSS facility on Curtis Bridge Road in Wilkesboro. Blevins said doing it there accommodated social distancing better.

He said Wilkes DSS spent about $164,000 on this assistance so far in January, but still had about $112,000 for the program. He said people can apply for it in person or by calling or emailing Wilkes DSS.

He noted that renovations are progressing well on part of the Curtis Bridge Road building to accommodate DSS adult services.

Blevins said the agency’s Guy Wyatt ranked fifth in the state in delinquent child support collections by an individual in December. Wyatt collected $11,369 then.

High Country COG

The commissioners discussed but took no action on proposed amendments to the High Country Council of Governments (COG) charter during the meeting.

The proposed revised charter incorporates amendments already approved, updates its language and makes it consistent with established procedures and practices, according to a letter from High Country Executive Director Julie Wiggins.

Wiggins said approval is needed from two-thirds of the member county and municipal governments in Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany, Watauga, Avery, Mitchell and Yancey counties for the charter to be amended.

High Country was established as the Region D Council of Government in 1974 under authorizing state legislation.

Wilkes County Attorney Tony Triplett said he didn’t see any substantive changes but had a question about the ability of member governments to withdraw from High Country. Triplett said all of the member governments signed an inter-local agreement in 2008 agreeing to purchase High Country’s current building in Boone and to not withdraw until debt from the purchase is fully paid.

Triplett asked Wiggins, participating in the Jan. 19 meeting remotely, if the debt has been paid off.

Wiggins said about $1 million is still owed, with payments scheduled over the next nine years.

Triplett said he can’t imagine any of the member governments wishing to withdraw. He also said he didn’t think the charter amendments would impact the 2008 inter-loçal agreement.

Eddie Settle, chairman of the commissioners, said action on the charter amendments will be in the agenda for the commissioners Feb. 1 meeting.

Two parcels sold

Also during the meeting, the commissioners unanimously approved the sale of two county-owned land parcels, .30 of an acre and .50 of an acre, on Luffman Road in Edwards Township to Larry and Susan Brindle of Millers Creek for $10,025.

County government acquired the two parcels through tax foreclosure and they were sold after an upset bid process with an opening bid of about $4,000.

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