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Forsyth County registers 8th COVID-19 death, 40 new cases. Worker at Reynolds American’s Tobaccoville cigarette plant tests positive.

An eighth person in Forsyth County has died after contracting COVID-19, according to the Forsyth County Department of Public Health. The person was in their late 70s and had underlying medical conditions. The death was announced Tuesday, along with 40 additional cases of the novel coronavirus.

Forsyth is one of six counties in North Carolina to record more than 700 confirmed cases. In total, the virus has been diagnosed in 738 people in the county since March, the first time a county resident tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, according to health officials. There are 427 cases considered active, while 303 people have recovered.

Joshua Swift, the county’s health director, has said the recent uptick in COVID-19 positive tests — up 293 in the past week — is coming from “clusters in families throughout the county.”

Swift said the new cases are predominantly in the county’s Latino community, but he did not say specifically how many people in that community tested positive.

At least 70 Forsyth residents who tested positive for the virus were connected to an outbreak at Tyson Foods Inc.’s poultry-processing plant in Wilkesboro.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. said Tuesday that an employee at its mammoth Tobaccoville production plant has tested positive. Reynolds spokeswoman Kaelan Hollon said the person is in self-isolation and will not return to work until cleared under federal public-health guidelines.

“We conducted a thorough cleaning over and above the end-of-shift cleaning on the employee’s work area and equipment,” Hollon said.

“We reached out to other Reynolds team members that may have had routine contact with the sick employee and alerted them of the need for vigilance and preventative health screening for the next two weeks,” she said.

Hollon said Reynolds is in “regular communication with local health authorities to ensure workplace safety and ensure business continuity, and do not anticipate that this incident will impact our business, customers or partners.”

Hollon said that “we’ve been fortunate thus far in minimizing the impact of COVID-19 on our employee workforce and production schedule, and production is not impacted at Tobaccoville.”

Reynolds said on March 30 that two nonproduction employees had tested positive for the virus. They also self-isolated at home.

On March 20, Philip Morris USA suspended production for two weeks at its cigarette plant in Richmond, Va., after two employees tested positive.

On Friday, Hanesbrands Inc. confirmed that at least one employee has tested positive for coronavirus at its Rural Hall distribution center. Spokesman Matt Hall said there’s another preliminary positive case at the 531 Northridge facility, which has been closed for cleaning and sanitizing.

Statewide, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that 19,700 people have confirmed positive tests, an increase of 677 cases from Monday.

As of Sunday, about 8% of the tests reported to Forsyth health officials have been positive — 676 out of 8,006 tests. (Officials have said private labs aren’t required to report tests if the results are negative.)

About 54% of those testing positive, or 365, are Latino, although Latinos make up only 13% of Forsyth County’s population. Another 19%, or 128, are white, 13%, or 89, are black, and 12%, or 81, are Asian.

Winston-Salem's Hispanic community at the forefront of COVID-19 crisis with more than half of county's cases

The line of cars stretched down Monmouth Street on Friday afternoon, past the pediatric clinic, the nail salon and the Mexican bakery — each one waiting to enter the white triage tent in the corner lot where the motorists could get a COVID-19 test.

Novant Health’s Waughtown Respiratory Assessment Center has been open for a little more than a month, and as the weeks go by, testing lines like Friday’s are becoming more frequent.

This section of Winston-Salem is predominantly Hispanic — Mexican bakeries, Hispanic grocery stores, floral shops and other Spanish-language businesses line this part of the Waughtown commercial corridor.

Of the more than 700 people in Forsyth County who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, over half are Latino, according to the county’s health department, even though Latinos account for just 13% of the county’s population. Data showing coronavirus cases in the county by ZIP code show the most cases in the 27107 postal code, where predominantly Hispanic census tracts are located.

Census data shows that just under half of all people who live in and around the city’s South Side and Sunnyside neighborhoods are Hispanic. In census tracts that are predominantly Hispanic, the median household income is considerably lower — sometimes less than half — of the median household income for the county as a whole. State and local officials have said, with data to support their claims, that minorities and people in lower socioeconomic classes are disproportionately more at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.

In a recent survey of Spanish-speaking immigrants in North Carolina’s metropolitan centers, nearly 24% of respondents listed access to medical care among their most urgent needs right now. Many others expressed worry about paying rent and utility bills and buying groceries.

Novant Neighborhood Engagement Partner Nora Toncel has been assigned to the Waughtown respiratory center since April 16, one day after it opened. A Spanish speaker, Toncel said she gets, on average, 15 minutes with every Hispanic patient who arrives wanting a test, and it’s her job to translate for them if needed and try to connect them with vital community resources. Most important, Toncel tries to put their minds at ease.

“A lot of them are worried to even go home, and many come straight from work,” she said. “There’s a lot of anxiety out there for sure. … The Latino community can be very shy and nervous about asking for help.”

As of Friday, Novant was testing only symptomatic patients, which left many people in limbo as several were sent by their employers to get tested, Toncel said. Health officials have repeatedly said a person can be asymptomatic and still have the COVID-19 virus.

“The fear is that they will go home and share any virus with their relatives, and if they choose to stay home, they might lose their jobs,” Toncel said.

There is also fear of government involvement or being part of the system for some Spanish-speaking immigrants who may be living in the country illegally. Those fears may contribute to a perceived reluctance to get tested for the novel coronavirus, according to Willie Herrera, a community volunteer and member of the Winston-Salem Hispanic League board of directors.

“A lot of Hispanic families do not seek medical help until the very last minute because they don’t have the resources or they don’t have insurance,” Herrera said. “If they’re not here legally, they’re thinking ‘Now they know where I live and they’re going to come get me.’”

A retired police officer and volunteer firefighter from Hempstead, N.Y., where the population is about 18% Latino, Herrera moved to the South at his wife’s urging, with the family settling in Winston-Salem. He said he is urging everyone he comes across in the Hispanic community to take the virus seriously. Herrera, 50, said he knows so many people from his hometown who have died fromCOVID-19 that he has stopped counting.

“I stopped counting after well over 20 people that I am friends with or acquaintances with passed away,” he said. “Information doesn’t get to (Lations) as quick as everybody else and I think things got very lax at the beginning. Businesses stayed open.”

“I had a fireman from my fire department pass away. I have a nephew in the hospital now. He’s been there almost two weeks now,” Herrera said. “I have a very good friend who is like a son to me. His mother has been in the ICU for two months, going up and down.

“It’s spreading like wildfire and it started off slow and you didn’t hear about it in the Hispanic community,” he said, “and then all of a sudden the cases rose.”

One of Herrera’s sisters recently died in medical care from an “upper respiratory illness,” but apparently not COVID-19. He said he isn’t entirely sure the cause of death is accurate. His family, like many others, couldn’t have a proper funeral and will have to wait until they can safely gather to memorialize their dead.

At least some of the spread in the Hispanic community comes from crowded living arrangements. Apartments often meant for four people might have eight or 10 people living in them, Herrera said. It’s a byproduct of low-paying jobs, a culture that prioritizes family and the need to send money to family members living in their native countries.

Last week, Joshua Swift, Forsyth County’s health director, advised people who lived in cramped conditions to wear masks in their homes if social distancing wasn’t possible there.

However, some people still don’t have access to face masks. Alex LaComa, a student at Atkins High School, is working to install a Little Free Pantry, which people can stock for food needed by others, and a Little Free Library, which offers free books, at the Acadia Food Forest in the city’s south as part of his Eagle Scout project, a requirement for the Eagle Scout Award. LaComa said he and his family have started giving away masks to people who come to the community garden in the limited times they’ve been out to work on the project.

“The people who did not have a mask, it’s not because they weren’t willing to wear it, it’s because they didn’t have one,” LaComa said.

As part of his project, which he anticipates will be finished by the end of May, LaComa and others plan to leave masks at the Little Free Pantry with a bilingual note asking people to take and wear them. More than 40% of the people surveyed by Siembra N.C. reported not having access to a mask.

LaComa, along with his mother, said the project started with the library idea because some research has shown children who are still struggling to read by the third grade will likely never catch up. As the coronavirus pandemic kicked into gear and people started losing their jobs, the project’s timeline got accelerated and the idea to add a pantry was born. LaComa said he anticipates building one other pantry-library combination at a yet-to-be-determined site.

Herrera, who volunteers with HOPE Winston-Salem (Helping Our People Eat), said the shortage of food may actually be exacerbating the virus’ spread in some cases, as families who have lost their jobs are having to carpool to community feeding sites in an effort to save gas money.

“One thing I’m seeing now is you’re seeing them come together and come out as groups,” Herrera said. “They’re doing this as a need, but we’re telling them you need to keep your distance and respect all that’s going on and have your masks.”

A COVID-19 party? 'You can easily kill someone you love.'

Novant Health Inc. is warning the Triad community that some individuals may be exposing themselves to the coronavirus on purpose in an attempt to acquire immunity from COVID-19. That’s even though experts are in no way certain that catching and then recovering from COVID-19 provides immunity.

The idea is based on “chickenpox parties,” where parents deliberately expose their children to that virus in order to acquire immunity without having to be vaccinated. The reasoning is that chickenpox tends to be milder and less painful for children than adults.

Novant’s warning is based on anecdotal comments made by patients who sought services at local respiratory assessment centers.

“Our providers have heard this first hand. It’s happening in the Triad,” said Yolanda Enrich, a family-practice nurse practitioner with Novant. “This is a trend that we’ve seen emerging in the last week, both at the respiratory assessment centers and during the follow-up calls we conduct 48 hours after COVID-19 screenings.”

Novant is not involved in community contact tracing, Enrich said.

“We don’t have data to accurately identify the demographics or proportion of patients voicing these beliefs,” Enrich said.

Joshua Swift, Forsyth County’s health director, said Tuesday that “we have heard from the medical community that people may be exposing themselves to others with COVID-19 to gain immunity.”

“Knowingly exposing yourself to COVID-19 is irresponsible and can put you and your loved ones at risk,” he said.

Kelly Haight Conner, spokeswoman with N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday the agency “is not aware of any ‘immunity parties.’”

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center said Tuesday it has not been informed at its clinics or practices of any gatherings aimed at exposing people to COVID-19.

Both Gov. Roy Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, responded forcefully Monday when asked about people knowingly exposing themselves to COVID-19.

“That is completely irresponsible and absolutely unacceptable,” Cooper said. “You do that, and you can easily kill someone you love.”

Cohen said “there is no circumstance under which we want folks to actively pursue getting COVID-19. ... Please do not do that.”

‘A huge concern’

Enrich said that, based on patient comments, “all ages are involved” in the gatherings, including children and people in high-risk categories, such as those who are 65 and older or have compromised immune systems.

“If you go around spreading this virus, maybe you were very lucky and have mild symptoms, but maybe somebody else that you expose to the virus (could have) a very poor outcome,” Enrich said.

“As you can imagine, this is a huge concern for us for a number of reasons: additional community spread; complications from the virus; but also the lack of understanding about antibodies and how we’re still learning about the virus,” Enrich said.

Enrich said individuals’ willingness to be exposed to COVID-19 also is being heard in its Charlotte market.

Physicians in Charlotte have seen a corresponding trend of patients, particularly younger people, who say they are unafraid to contract the virus, incorrectly believing that acquiring antibodies will provide permanent protection, according to Enrich.

“People who have tested positive are not distancing themselves from friends or family members because they believe it’s preferable that the entire family deal with the virus at once,” Enrich said.

“People are attending planned gatherings, including birthday parties and other celebrations, to increase the likelihood that they will be exposed. People are choosing to spend time with friends, family and neighbors that have tested positive to ensure exposure.”

Not just one community

Swift has said the recent uptick in COVID-19 positive tests — from 445 to 738 in the past week — comes from “clusters in families across Forsyth County.”

Swift said the new cases are predominantly in the county’s Latino community, but did not say specifically how many people in that community tested positive.

This isn’t chickenpox

Medical researchers at Johns Hopkins University said recently that, “some have entertained the idea of ‘controlled voluntary infection.’ However, COVID-19 is 100 times more lethal than the chickenpox.

“COVID-19 is now the leading cause of death in the United States, killing almost 2,000 Americans every day. Chickenpox never killed more than 150 Americans in a year.”

Given that scientists are unsure that recovering from COVID-19 provides short- or long-term immunity, the Johns Hopkins researchers question the rationale for implementing herd immunity — the idea that a large percent of the population being immune keeps the disease from spreading.

They said that, without a vaccine, more than 200 million Americans would have to be infected just to reach the level necessary for potential herd immunity to play a role in slowing the spread of the virus.

Court overturns conviction in fatal shooting of Jonesville Police Sgt. Gregory Keith Martin in 1996


A man’s convictions for his role in the murder of a Jonesville police officer in 1996 were overturned Tuesday.

The N.C. Court of Appeals ruled the indictment should have included the specific names of the people he and two other men had planned to rob at a diner before the fatal shooting of the officer during a traffic stop.

The court threw out all the convictions because the man, Marc Peterson Oldroyd, 47, accepted a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery.

Oldroyd and the two other men — Scott Vincent Sica and Brian Eugene Whittaker — had planned to rob the Huddle House in Jonesville on Oct. 5, 1996. Sica and Whittaker drove a stolen truck to the back entrance of the diner, but Sica found that the back door was locked, and the planned robbery was abandoned. Oldroyd was in a get-away car in a nearby parking lot.

Later, Jonesville Police Sgt. Gregory Keith Martin stopped Sica and Whittaker on Interstate 77 and asked both men to step out of the truck.

Sica pulled out his handgun and fired nine times — five of those shots hit Martin in the head and a sixth one grazed his head. Martin died at the scene.

Martin’s murder would remain unsolved for 16 years.

In 2012, Sica, Oldroyd and Whittaker were arrested and charged in Martin’s murder. Sica was convicted in March 2014 of first-degree murder and other charges and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He died in 2016.

Oldroyd and Whittaker each pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, attempted armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery in 2014. Oldroyd was sentenced to a maximum of 12 years and nine months while Whittaker was sentenced to a maximum of 17 years and seven months.

The indictment alleged that Oldroyd did “attempt to steal, take and carry away another’s property, United States currency, from the person and presence of employees of the Huddle House.”

The indictment also said that Oldroyd “committed this act by having in possession and with the use and threatened use of a firearm, a 9mm handgun, whereby the life (sic) of the Huddle House employees (sic) threatened and endangered.”

Saying that the alleged crime was committed against employees of Huddle House wasn’t good enough, the court ruled in its decision.

“We cannot hold that ‘employees of the Huddle House located at 1538 NC Highway 67, Jonesville, North Carolina...’ was sufficient; specifically naming a victim of the attempted armed robbery was required,” the court said. “By failing to do so, the indictment for attempted armed robbery was fatally defective and the trial court had no jurisdiction to enter judgement.”

The court said that attempted armed robbery is a crime against a person and that’s why indictments must name a specific victim.

Judge Wanda Bryant dissented, arguing that the language in the indictment was sufficient enough and that the convictions should stand.

The ruling on Tuesday means that the case will go back to Yadkin Superior Court. Yadkin County prosecutors would have to seek a new indictment against Oldroyd from a grand jury and then either offer a new plea deal or go to trial.

Tom Horner, the district attorney for Yadkin County, said because there was a dissenting opinion from the N.C. Court of Appeals’ decision, prosecutors have the right to seek an appeal with the N.C. Supreme Court.

He said his office plans to ask the N.C. Attorney General’s Office to file an appeal.

Emily Holmes Davis, an appellate attorney for Oldroyd, declined to comment on Tuesday.