Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew spoke with conviction about the need to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people and other federal guidance to slow the spread of the coronavirus during a Wilkes County commissioners meeting Tuesday night.
Shew first joked that he, Wilkes Emergency Medical Services Director Tim Pennington, County Manager John Yates and other county staff have “been to meeting after meeting after meeting” concerning the virus. “We know the most about something that we don’t know anything about.”
Shew then turned serious and said, “What we found out today is that there are no known cases of contact with hard surfaces” causing COVID-19.
“It’s person to person. If the residents will go by the guidelines and recommendations of the CDC, everybody will be okay.” He said this included limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people.
“If we don’t, this thing will get ahead of us and it will tax our medical system and our law enforcement and everybody else to death. It’s imperative that everybody go by these guidelines,” said Shew, his voice indicating strong emotion. “It will get away from us overnight.”
The list of 18 guidelines, released Tuesday by the CDC and President Trump, also advised people to stay at home if they’re elderly, are at risk due to serious underlying health conditions or feel sick.
Eddie Settle, chairman of the commissioners, said there is discussion in Wilkes about limiting gatherings to 50 people and the commissioners have authority to do that.
An emergency declaration for Wilkes announced by Settle on March 13 prohibited gatherings of 100 or more people in the county. Gov. Roy Cooper issued an order on March 14 doing the same statewide.
“Fifty people is too many, Mr. Chairman,” responded Shew.
He said the governor banned gatherings of more than 100 people, but that’s much too many. “Fifty people is entirely too many. I don’t see anything that would cause 50 people to meet under one roof at this time.”
Commissioner Gary Blevins indicated that he agreed with Shew.
Mandatory closures and other action by Cooper “really helped,” said Settle, also noting that Wilkes was among the first counties to declare a state of emergency.
Blevins asked how large companies like Tyson Foods Inc. get around the crowd size limits. Pennington said the limit doesn’t apply to work places.
No confirmed cases in Wilkes
Pennington gave an update on the emergency services response to the coronavirus locally during the meeting.
Wilkes still had no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, by Tuesday night, but local officials were awaiting results of over a dozen samples taken from people exhibiting symptoms. Samples are taken with nasal swabs.
“We’ve been going ’round the clock and kind of shooting from the hip at times, with so much information changing constantly every hour or two… and learning as we go, too,” said Pennington.
“But make no mistake, we are going to manage this event instead of letting it manage us. We are way ahead of it right now.
“All of the departments are working in a completely unified approach,” he said.
“Our approach has been very aggressive and remains that way. We are being proactive with preventive measures.”
He said an infectious disease nurse at the Wilkes Health Department said Wilkes will probably have a case of COVID-19. He added, “Right now, we’re doing a knockout job of containing it.”
Blevins questioned if what’s coming can be projected. “We’ll be extremely fortunate if we don’t have some sort of an outbreak, won’t we?”
Pennington said, “We’re feeling pretty good about it right now,” but remaining stringent in containment efforts is essential. “There’s always that chance” of a confirmed case of COVID-19. “If there is, we are going to escalate our response rapidly.”
County Manager John Yates said that according to the health department, “We’re probably going to get a case” and that will start it.
Blevins asked if day cares in Wilkes are closed and was told they’re open. Pennington said Dr. Mandy Cohen, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services director, made the point earlier about the importance of day care centers staying open so medical personnel and others with young children providing critical services can remain on the job.
Settle said he is encouraged by the way new COVID-19 case numbers are trending downward nationally, as reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
He said the emphasis on social distancing and closing things down “has really helped.”
Blevins emphasized the importance of people remaining vigilant in following rules and recommended practices. He stressed the importance of “bringing the curve down” to prevent overburdening medical systems. Pennington said this will help with getting through it faster.
Pennington said he learned Tuesday that the testing process has been sped up, but the number of samples from across the state tested per day now is about 100. He said that on Tuesday, the Wilkes Health Department briefly ran out of kits used to send samples off for testing.
He said keeping EMS staff healthy so they can serve the public is a top priority. “I am encouraging them to get plenty of sleep to keep their immune systems strong.”
Pennington said the supply of personal protection equipment is adequate. Wilkes Emergency Management Director Suzanne Hamby is working with suppliers on this and will start also getting them through state emergency resources.
He said Wilkes EMS ambulances and staff are being spread out by assigning them to the Wilkes Rescue Squad building on Boston Avenue, North Wilkesboro, and the Cricket, North Wilkesboro, Mulberry-Fairplains and Pleasant Hill fire stations.
Pennington said EMS staff are using a viral cleaning agent to thoroughly clean ambulance interiors twice a day, which is double the standard.
He noted that county government buildings are being cleaned more than normal and public access to them has been greatly limited. Signs are up at the entrances to these buildings asking the public to not enter unless it’s absolutely necessary.
He said a sign at the Wilkes County Courthouse asks people to wear masks if they have symptoms of the virus and must enter. “Most things at the courthouse have been delayed or cancelled,” including court cases.
Yates said the public has cooperated by limiting visits to the County Office Building, including to pay taxes. He said Wilkes Department of Social Services social workers are being issued personal protection equipment.
Wilkes Sheriff Chris Shew said all non-essential and some essential sheriff’s office employees were sent home to reduce risks of becoming sick. He said the county jail was emptied as much as possible, ingress and egress was limited to one point and temperatures of people are checked before they’re admitted as inmates, among other steps.
Commissioner Brian Minton said the Blue Ridge Opportunity Commission (BROC) congregate meal program for the elderly in Wilkes was closed but the program in which meals are delivered to the elderly in their homes is continuing.
The commissioners approved a budget amendment transferring $25,000 from the county government fund balance to Wilkes Emergency Management for COVID-19 response.
Commissioner Keith Elmore suggested that county department budgets be frozen and that no new hires be made because of the likely impact of the coronavirus.
Blevins said it will reduce sales tax revenue, but once the virus passes, sales tax revenue could surge upward due to pent up demand. County Finance Director Chris Huffman said the rush on purchases from supermarkets will help make up for impact of MerleFest being cancelled and other losses.