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Churches respond to coronavirus; most will ramp up hygiene practices or move services online

In times of crisis, coming together to worship can bring people comfort and healing.

But what if that very act of coming together is a major contributor to the crisis?

Clergy members from across the area are grappling with that question as they approach Sunday’s services.

In the case of local Episcopal and United Methodist churches, their governing bodies made the decision for them. Public services will be suspended for two weeks, a difficult decision during the holy season of Lent, perhaps the most meaningful period in the Christian liturgical calendar. Calvary Baptist Church has also decided to suspend all public services, classes and activities.

Throughout the area, services will look a lot different in many houses of worship in an effort to keep congregants safe from the new coronavirus.

In the beautiful, cavernous sanctuary of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where nearly 600 people pack the pews, a pastor will stand alone, leading prayers and giving readings for parishioners watching a livestream on the church’s website or on Facebook Live.

The Rev. Dixon Kinser said the decision from bishops Sam Rodman and Anne Hodges-Copple gave church leaders clarity.

“This directive from the bishop underscores the unprecedented seriousness of our times, and it also clarifies any gray area we would have had as an individual congregation: How often should we gather? Do we encourage people to stay away or not? We’ve been sort of playing the line about this the last few weeks with our members who are over 65.”

Many local churches that have decided to remain open will adjust the way they worship.

At First Baptist Church on Highland Avenue, Rev. Paul Ford told his congregants in a letter that they would “hold hands in spirit” during its altar prayer and suspend the practice of dipping communion into a common cup, replacing it with single-serving cups.

Beyond reducing handshakes and hand-holding, some churches, such as Clemmons Presbyterian Church, will not pass the collection plate.

“We’ll be deciding, as we learn, what needs to be done,” said the Rev. William Hoyle.

Many churches count senior citizens among their most faithful attendees, yet they are the most vulnerable to becoming critically ill or dying from the virus.

About 1,000 people regularly attend services at Agape Faith Church in Clemmons. Pastor Michael Watson said Thursday that he doesn’t expect any changes to the church’s hygiene policy.

“We already have good sanitation policies, but we are being very cautious in the way we greet someone. If they don’t want to hug, you don’t hug. There’s a lot of waving and thumbs up,” Watson said.

There was no plan to discourage older folks from coming, he said, noting that the average age of its membership is 40 years old.

“The Bible says perfect love casts out fear, so we’re focusing on the healing part of it, and that God has given us the power of sound mind and wisdom,” Watson said.

Pastor Barry Foster at Unity Moravian Church in Lewisville said he isn’t going to make decisions for his congregants.

“Everybody is an adult and everybody can figure it out, and if you’re in the at-risk group then don’t come,” Foster said. “This is nothing different than how you would act around people with the flu or colds.”

Foster said he doesn’t plan to touch on the pandemic during his sermon on Sunday.

“I’m not going to make a big deal about it at all,” he said. “The media has done enough of that.”

Kinser, however, said he sees the pandemic and the accompanying national anxiety as an opportunity to reach people.

“We have to speak to this moment. The question is, is there a word from God in this time? What is the message of good news in times of high anxiety and high risk and an unprecedented pandemic? The good news is that none of this is surprising to God. Our forebears, from the flu to the plagues, they all followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit of how to be in the church,” Kinser said. “This is just our time. So we will address it.”

Novant sets up emergency triage area at Forsyth Medical Center

Novant Health Inc. is expanding its screening services for the virus that causes COVID-19 to include a triage tent outside its Forsyth Medical Center emergency department.

The triage area is meant for individuals who are experiencing severe respiratory and other viral symptoms, including fever, shortness of breath and a sore throat.

Individuals will be screened and transferred “to the most appropriate venue of care for further treatment.” Examinations will continue to take place in the emergency department.

The triage tents also will be at Rowan Medical Center in Salisbury and Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte.

The triage strategy is designed “to help manage capacity in our emergency departments, ensuring we are both able to respond to those who potentially need to be screened for COVID-19, and serve all patients who need emergent care at our acute facilities.”

Novant also will conduct initial screenings at clinics at 600 Highland Oaks Drive in Winston-Salem, and 111 Gateway Center Drive in Kernersville.

The Winston-Salem clinic started screening services Friday, while the Kernersville clinic begins Wednesday. Both will operate 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

All Novant-affiliated GoHealth clinics are another option for initial screening services.

“All community members are encouraged to call their health-care provider first before driving to clinics in order to help curb the spread of possible infection,” the system said.

“A provider will determine whether or not a patient meets the criteria for testing set by the CDC, or if they should undergo other testing/order of testing based on their evaluation and screening.”

Novant stressed that individuals “who have no symptoms will not be tested.”

“Visiting a screening center unnecessarily will only further one’s risk of exposure and put a strain on resources for those who need it most.”

The system did not say whether individuals examined at screening centers would be required to submit a co-pay at the time of service.

“We defer to individual insurance companies to provide that information, as we understand it to be an evolving situation,” Novant said.

Many health insurers, including Blue Cross Blue Shield NC, have said they will cover members’ cost for COVID-19 testing, and will not require prior approval for COVID-19 testing.

“We are covering doctor visits to screen for COVID-19, and any required care the same as any other doctor visit or care, based on your health plan,” Blue Cross said.

Novant also has established a 24/7 hotline — 877-499-1697 — for individuals without a primary care physician to answer questions about coronavirus, including whether they need to be screened.

“The community needs to know Novant Health has immediately and appropriately activated all protocols for handling potential COVID-19 cases, for which we have been preparing since the onset many months ago,” Carl Armato, the system’s president and chief executive, said in a statement.

“We understand people in our communities are feeling uncertain and stressed in these unprecedented times. I’m hopeful that with these additional measures in place, our patients will have a clearer sense of how should they seek care if they feel they need to in the weeks ahead.”

On Wednesday, the Triad’s health-care systems started tighter visitor restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic.

They are asking the public not to visit — even if healthy and regardless of age — patients who are not immediate family members “unless absolutely necessary.”

The systems include: all hospital affiliates of Novant Health Inc. (Clemmons, Forsyth, Kernersville, Medical Park and Thomasville); Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center (Davie, High Point, Lexington and Wilkes Regional) and Cone Health (Alamance Regional Medical Center, Annie Penn Hospital, Cone Health Behavioral Health, Cone Memorial and Wesley Long).

Triad hospital nursing staff and the infection prevention team will work with extended families who have special circumstances, such as a critically ill or injured family member, on a case-by-case basis.

Temporary visitor restrictions for children ages 12 and under, implemented Jan. 12 because of the seasonal flu, remain in effect.

N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission finds "sufficient evidence of factual innocence" to require further judicial review in the cases of four men convicted of killing Chris Paul's grandfather, Nathaniel Jones.

The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission found sufficient evidence Friday that four men might be innocent of killing Nathaniel Jones, NBA star Chris Paul’s grandfather.

The eight-member commission voted 5-3 to move the case to a panel of three superior court judges who will be chosen by Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. That panel will hold a hearing at some later date in Forsyth Superior Court to determine if the four men should be exonerated.

The commission rarely holds a hearing like the one this week, and only 12 people have been exonerated through the commission process since the commission started operating in 2007.

An expert testified to the commission that this case had astonishing similarities to the famous case of five black and Hispanic boys who were exonerated in the 1989 rape of a female jogger in Central Park. Both cases involved young men of color and allegations of police coercing false confessions.

In the Winston-Salem case, five teenage boys in total were convicted in two separate trials in 2004 and 2005 of robbing and murdering Jones, a 61-year-old friendly churchgoing gas station owner. Jones was found lying in the carport of his home on Moravia Street on Nov. 15, 2002.

Nathaniel Cauthen; his younger brother, Rayshawn Banner; Christopher Bryant, Jermal Tolliver and Dorrell Brayboy were all arrested and eventually convicted in Jones’ death.

Banner was the youngest of all of them at 14 while the rest of the boys were 15 at the time of their arrest.

Paul was a standout basketball star at West Forsyth High School when his grandfather died. Days after his grandfather’s death, he scored 61 points at a high school basketball game in Jones’ honor. He now plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Efforts over the past several weeks to contact Chris Paul and his family have been unsuccessful. Family members attended the hearing, and they provided victim impact statements to the commission. The impact statements were provided during a closed part of the hearing.

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, who is running as a Republican for N.C. Attorney General, strongly criticized the commission’s work last year after the commission found sufficient evidence of factual innocence in the case of Merritt Drayton Williams, who was convicted for his role in the death of Blanche Bryson in 1985. New DNA evidence led commission staff to Darren Johnson, who has confessed that he alone strangled Bryson to death during a home invasion and that Williams was not there. Johnson is facing pending murder charges in Bryson’s death.

O’Neill said in a statement provided to the commission that Lindsey Guice-Smith, executive director of the innocence commission, and other staffers expressed an opinion that the four men were innocent when the commission opened a formal inquiry.

He also accused commission staffers of being biased and not considering other pieces of evidence that might prove that the men are guilty.

Guice-Smith strongly objected to O’Neill’s contentions, and several members of the commission said they found O’Neill’s position to be offensive.

“I was an assistant district attorney and a district attorney for 30 years,” commission member Luther Johnson Britt III said. “I find Mr. O’Neill’s statements in his report offensive and I find it is offensive to this commission. I would highly recommend that Mr. O’Neill or his staff re-read the mandate that established this commission. This commission is unique to every criminal justice body in this country ... To attack you and to say you are biased is unfounded and, as I said, highly offensive.”

O’Neill condemned the commission’s decision late Friday, saying that the constitutions of the United States and North Carolina guarantee protections for both defendants and victims.

“However, in these commission hearings, the state prosecutors are not allowed to call witnesses, present evidence, raise objections, present legal arguments or even argue one single word in summation in the pursuit of justice. We can only sit and watch,” O’Neill said.

He said his office will never stop fighting for Nathaniel Jones and his family and that he looks forward to presenting evidence to the independent three-judge panel.

Cauthen and Banner are serving sentences of life in prison with parole for convictions of first-degree murder. Bryant, Tolliver and Brayboy were convicted of second-degree murder and received sentences of up to 14 years. Bryant and Tolliver were released from prison in 2017; Brayboy got out in 2018 but was stabbed to death last year before he had a chance to file a claim with the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission.

The vote came on the last day of a five-day hearing held in Raleigh, where commission members heard testimony from Jessicah Black, a key witness in the original trials.

She recanted her trial testimony in which she said she drove the boys to and from the area around Jones’ house and heard the boys discuss plans to rob Jones. Black also said she sat on a picnic table in a park across from Jones’ house and heard Jones scream for help while he was being beaten. Jones died from a heart arrhythmia brought on by the stress of the attack.

Black told commission investigators and commission members that Winston-Salem police coerced her into making false statements and that everything she testified to in two separate trials was a lie.

The case also revolved around the work of former Houston Chronicle sports reporter Hunter Atkins (Paul previously played for the Houston Rockets). Black first recanted her testimony in conversations with Atkins, who also interviewed all five men. Atkins has never published a piece on the case and he stopped working for the Houston Chronicle in February for unknown reasons.

Cauthen, Bryant, Tolliver and Banner appeared before the commission on Friday and they all said Winston-Salem police officers threatened and coerced them into making false confessions. They said every time they claimed innocence, investigators became angry. They said they were told if they just implicated themselves they could go home.

“I was scared for my life,” Cauthen told the commission Friday. “I thought the police would do something to my life. If I didn’t admit to the crime, I felt my life was in danger.”

Bryant said one of the detectives falsely said he would get the death penalty. At age 15, Bryant couldn’t have gotten the death penalty. Juveniles are not eligible for the death penalty.

According to testimony, Winston-Salem detectives Sean Flynn and Stan Nieves admitted that they falsely told Bryant and Tolliver that they could get the death penalty. They never made mention of it in their reports on the interviews.

Hayley Cleary, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., testified Thursday that this case had numerous risk factors that could lead to the five boys making false confessions. She pointed out that no physical evidence tied the boys to the crime scene, including DNA. And the boys, because of their age, lack of maturity and intellectual limitations, were susceptible to making false confessions. The boys were vulnerable to Winston-Salem police detectives’ aggressive interrogation, which included telling the boys falsely that they could face the death penalty, she said.

The boys also were isolated in interview rooms for long periods of time and because they had less-developed minds than adults, they were also more likely to make false statements when police told them they could go home, Cleary said.

The only clear evidence against the boys were their statements, which were all inconsistent to the physical evidence found at the crime scene, she said. Detectives also got the boys to confess by playing one against the other; they would play snippets of interviews from one codefendant to another, she said.

All four men told commission members Friday that they lied because police investigators did not believe them when they tried to tell the truth — that they had nothing to do with Jones’ death.

And when police detectives told them they could go home if they would just admit their guilt, they started lying, they said.

“What do you want me to do,” Cauthen said. “I’m 15. I can’t read or write. Any kid would do that (lie). Every kid would lie to make a situation better.”