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9 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Forsyth County

Forsyth County has nine new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number to 395, the county Health Department said Monday. The number of deaths in Forsyth remained at five. There has not been a reported death since April 15.

With 207 Forsyth individuals considered recovered and five deaths, that leaves 183 individuals with active coronavirus infections. A total of 242 cases have been added in Forsyth since April 27, which is when the first cases were reported from a Tyson Foods plant outbreak in Wilkesboro.

At least 70 cases of COVID-19 are Forsyth residents who either work at the Tyson plant or have come into close contact with someone who works there, according to the Forsyth Department of Public Health.

“There is no significant change or update from the Tyson plant cases,” Tony Lo Giudice, Forsyth’s assistant public health director, said Monday.

Meanwhile, the number of cases in Wilkes County has jumped from 21 on April 27 to at least 242.

Wilkes health officials said that as of 9:45 a.m. Monday, about 86% of cases are considered to have come from close-contact exposure.

Tyson confirmed Saturday a temporary shutdown of its fresh chicken production plant “for deep cleaning and sanitizing.” It is scheduled to resume operations today. That facility has about 2,200 production and support employees.

State Health Secretary Mandy Cohen said DHHS is determining how much detail it can provide in identifying meat-processing plants with outbreaks since several state regulators are involved, as well as the U.S. Agriculture Department.

“We have released cases total by ZIP code, and people know where (meat-processing plants) are across North Carolina, so that’s a good start,” Cohen said.

Cohen is recommending meat-processing plant operations provide employees with personal protective equipment similar to those used by medical personnel and conduct testing on site to prevent someone who is sick from infecting coworkers.

The official DHHS count had 15,045 cases, 550 deaths and 464 hospitalized statewide as of 10:30 a.m. Monday.

The statewide cases total is up 26.7% from 11,848 a week ago, while the deaths are up 27.9% from 430 a week ago.

Monday, DHHS began providing detail on the number of North Carolinians considered recovered from COVID-19. That total was at 9,115, or 60.6%.

Cohen said the median recovery time has been 14 days for those not requiring hospitalization and 28 days for those hospitalized.

The state commenced Friday, with Gov. Roy Cooper’s approval, the first of a three-phase initiative for reopening the state’s economy.

Cohen said it is too early to determine any potential trends from that step.

“I know people are eager to get out and resume some of our favorite activities, and the beautiful weather was an added incentive,” Cohen said.

Cohen said she was concerned that there may have been too much of a relaxing of individuals wearing masks “as more traveling around increases.”

A group of 18 state Republican senators sent a letter to Cooper on Monday asking for clarity on how worship services fit into the Phase 1 mass gathering guidelines. Among the signees are Sens. Deanna Ballard of Wilkes, Joyce Krawiec of Forsyth and Vickie Sawyer of Yadkin.

The senators wanted Cooper to address permitting “worship services or other protected First Amendment activities” to take place outdoors “unless impossible.”

“Many faith leaders and other constituents who are eager to resume worship services this Sunday have reached out to our offices with confusion of what conditions make an outdoor worship service ‘impossible,’” the senators wrote.

The senators gave examples of whether impossible signifies “severe weather, light rain, strong wind, heat or cold? Is it impossible if a particular church lacks access to a suitable outdoor space to conduct a worship service for its congregation?”

Cohen said DHHS is consulting with its legal staff to provide more clarity on what “impossible” signifies for outdoor mass gatherings.

“We’re trying to help folks do the things that will keep us all protected and keep the viral spread low,” Cohen said.

Because worship services fall “into a category with special legal status” in Phase I, Cohen said “we don’t want to interrupt anyone’s ability to worship and pray.

“We’re trying to find a middle ground. When you’re outdoors, please stay 6 feet apart, (wear) face coverings and wash your hands. If you’re indoors, can you stagger (worship times), go into multiple rooms ... to be as protective as you possibly can.”

Statewide, nursing homes account for 2,157 confirmed cases and 279 deaths, while residential care facilities have had 389 confirmed cases and 44 deaths, and correctional facilities have had 1,064 cases and 14 deaths.

About 76% of COVID-19 cases have come from outside those facilities.

However, 61.2% of deaths statewide have come from inside nursing homes, residential care centers and correctional facilities.

The state defines nursing homes as providing nursing or convalescent care. Residential care facilities can include adult-care homes, family-care homes, multi-unit assisted housing, group homes and intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Nursing homes in Forsyth County work to keep residents safe. Only two COVID-19 cases reported, countywide

When Gail Miller puts a hand to the glass, and her sister, Ann Lowe, does the same from the other side, it’s as close as the two can get. The sisters talk on the phone all the time, but since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Somerset Court at University Place, where Lowe lives, has been off limits to visitors.

Miller said she used to come by two or three times a week.

“I came up and gave her clothes and visited around,” she said. “I would go around and talk to the residents and bring them Tootsie Pops.”

On the other side of the glass at Somerset Court, Lowe tapped on the window and lifted her foot to show that she was wearing the new shoes her sister had gotten for her. But it was too difficult, really, to carry on a proper conversation.

Somerset Court is an assisted living center run by Affinity Living Group based in Hickory. Jaylee Wilson, the vice president of operations over several Affinity-owned communities in the Triad, said staffers were instructed about stricter infection control measures in February when it was clear that people who take care of the elderly needed to ramp up their game.

“At the beginning of March, we started restricting visitor access,” Wilson said. “The only exception would be for medical providers — a physician or nurse. It was a challenge to get the staff and relatives to understand that to keep people safe we had to restrict people from coming into the community. Although I am part of operations, I am not essential — I can’t go inside.”

What the people who run Somerset Court have done is set up alternatives to personal contact for the residents.

“Our battle looks different than what you would see in a hospital setting,” Wilson said. “We are working to find creative ways to keep our residents engaged, connected to their families, and overall just smiling and happy.”

Teams have been providing residents with video calls with families and friends, tours that they can take virtually, and church services and concerts they can attend from the safety of their community.

Tammy Estrada, the executive director of Somerset Court, said that residents are accepting of the changes because they’ve heard all about the coronavirus and that having the staff all wearing face coverings gives them confidence that their safety is a top priority.

Residents can sit in their doorways and play bingo at a safe distance from others. And, like Ann Lowe, they can visit at the window with friends or family members.

Staffers are screened before they start work to make sure they’re symptom-free.

Resident Leurdes Ellison stood in the doorway of Somerset Court on a spring afternoon and talked about how life at the facility has changed. She misses the times when Estrada’s husband would come by and play music for the residents, but that just isn’t safe now.

“We have activities that keep us busy,” she said, adding that on that particular afternoon residents were making beaded bracelets.

The nightmare scenario for people who operate rest homes and similar places is what would happen if they relaxed their diligence and COVID-19 came inside.

Homes in Forsyth County were apparently coronavirus-free until Wednesday’s update on local conditions showed two cases at a local rehabilitation center.

Wilson said she hopes that the lack of cases at Somerset Court is not just good luck.

“I don’t think it is luck,” Wilson said. “It has to do with all the precautions that were put in place early on. It shows how seriously the community as a whole has taken this.”

The county health department has been closely involved with Somerset Court and other care institutions from the beginning of the crisis.

Erin Sheldon, a public health nurse with the Forsyth County Health Department, has been working with nursing homes and other elder-care institutions since the outset of the pandemic.

She said some care homes were not ready as the epidemic approached.

“At the time, there were places that did not have a preparedness plan,” Sheldon said. “We had to get them on board to start planning. At this point, everybody knows what they are supposed to do.”

“Part of the prevention is to identify illnesses early,” she said. “In accordance with guidelines, they screen residents on a daily basis for illness. If a nursing home identifies someone who is ill, they need to be in touch with their medical provider and the health department to follow the guidelines.”

With suspected cases, not only are tests ordered, but the person is put in quarantine for 14 days.

Lines of communication have to stay open between care homes and families, Sheldon said.

If a case of COVID-19 occurs in a Forsyth County adult care home, both health officials and families are to be notified, Sheldon said.

Ann Roberts, the adult services division director for the Forsyth County Department of Social Services, said the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way her office goes about monitoring the welfare of people in adult care homes.

Roberts’ staff investigate complaints about resident care, but the new coronavirus regulations mean that they can no longer go inside the care homes to see firsthand about complaints. As much as possible, she said, everything is handled over the phone.

And that’s good, she said, because an investigator could accidentally bring COVID-19 through the door.

“My parents live at Salemtowne, and from early on, they did not allow anybody through those gates,” she said.

Beginning April 27, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services began issuing statewide data on coronavirus cases in care homes and other settings where people are congregated. The twice-weekly update will report the names of homes where COVID-19 has been reported and the number of cases in each home.

At Somerset Court, work goes on to take care of emotional needs as well as physical protection: Hands of Hope, which started as a craft project, has become something that draws together residents and their caregivers, Wilson said.

Residents drew outlines of their hands on paper and decorated the sheets to personalize them. The hand prints are displayed in windows at Somerset Court. Estrada said the staff drew their hand prints as well to take part in the project.

Dealing with the pandemic “has brought us closer together,” Estrade said.

“I feel closer to my team and closer to my residents,” she said.

Dick Miller, Gail Miller’s husband, gives credit to the staff at Somerset Court for handling the stress that coronavirus conditions have put onto them.

“These people here are enduring a lot of stress to keep these people away from us knuckleheads,” he said.

Banks, credit union remain cautious about allowing customers inside branches

Banks and credit unions remain cautious about allowing customers inside branches during Phase 1 of reopening North Carolina’s economy.

Even though Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order began allowing retailers Friday to reach 50% of their occupancy capacity, banks and credit unions surveyed by the Winston-Salem Journal still offer inside assistance by appointment only while serving customers at the branch through drive-through lanes and ATMs.

Phase 2 would begin at least two or three weeks after Phase 1, potentially as early as May 22.

At that point, stay-at-home orders would be lifted, but vulnerable people would be encouraged to continue staying at home.

“North Carolina bankers are eager to see and visit with their customers again,” said Peter Gwaltney, president and chief executive of N.C. Bankers Association. “However, not all banks will have the same procedures and policies for reopening lobbies, so we encourage customers to check with their bank for information and instructions on access during Phase 1.”

When banks and credit unions reopen their lobbies, they will ask customers to continue following social distancing guidelines and use hand sanitizer if they are planning on conducting a transaction involving cash.

Gwaltney said customers may want to call their branch to see if they are recommended to wear a mask.

“Banks entered this pandemic from a position of strength and remain committed to helping their communities by assisting in the reopening of the economy in the safest way possible,” Gwaltney said.

When branch lobbies are reopened to customers, they will feature many of the same safety protection protocols as other retail outlets, such as plexiglass shields at the teller lines and employees wearing masks and gloves.

“We currently are looking at timelines and ways to safely bring back our remote employees and to reopen our lobbies, based on guidelines provided by the government and our medical communities,” said Cathy Pace, president and chief executive of Allegacy Federal Credit Union.

Pace said Allegacy members quickly adapted to predominantly online and drive-through interactions.

“During March and April, we saw an increase of almost 74% of members using our online account opening option, a 61% increase in mobile deposits, and 74% increase of members using interactive teller machines with live-teller assist,” Pace said.

Truist Financial Corp. responded to the first round of easing retail restrictions by resuming Saturday drive-thru service at select branches.

“We will continue to monitor developments and enact changes as we are able to safely offer lobby services,” the company said.

Wells Fargo & Co. spokesman Josh Dunn said that for now, “the branches that we have temporarily closed will remain closed.”

“At our open branches, we are keeping in place measures to ensure we can serve our customers and keep our branches safe, including social distancing measures, utilizing drive ups where we have them, and staggering staff and shifts.”

Piedmont Federal Savings Bank said customers will be required to wear masks with some available at branches.

The bank plans to offer limited lobby hours at first “to provide sanitizing of the branch during the day,” said Ginger Salt, the bank’s chief experience officer.

First Horizon National Corp. marketing spokeswoman Amy Tharrington said “given that counties and work sites may be operating under varying protocols, the phased return to normal operations plan will vary by area, location and business function.”

Salem Academy and College names an interim president

Salem Academy and College has named one of its college vice presidents to be its interim leader.

The private college for women and high school for girls announced Monday that Susan Henking will serve as interim president as Salem searches for a permanent leader.

Henking is currently the interim vice president for academic and student affairs and dean of the college, a role she had held since January 2019.

Henking served as the last president of Shimer College, a private liberal arts college that was merged into another private college in Illinois in 2017. She’s also professor emerita of religious studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York. She taught at the private institution for more than 20 years and held several administrative roles, including chairwoman of the religious studies department, interim dean of the faculty and acting provost.

A Duke University graduate, Henking earned her doctorate in religion and psychological studies from The University of Chicago Divinity School.

McDara Folan III, chairman of Salem’s board of trustees, called Henking “highly qualified” in a statement announcing her appointment.

“Susan cares deeply about Salem’s students and faculty and will be able to transition to interim president with an uninterrupted flow of outstanding leadership for Salem Academy and College,” he said.

Henking will take over the school of about 1,040 students from Sandra Doran, who is leaving Salem on June 1 after two years. Doran announced in February that she will become president of Bay Path University, a private institution in Longmeadow, Mass., on June 30.

In her brief tenure as Salem’s president, Doran led a fundraising campaign that exceeded its $10 million goal and resolved several financial issues that led Salem’s accrediting agency to put the school on probation for 18 months. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges removed Salem from probationary status in December and deemed the college to be in full compliance with its financial standards.

Salem on Monday also announced a temporary replacement for Henking.

Richard Vinson, currently the college’s associate vice president for academic affairs, will serve as the interim vice president of academic and student affairs. Vinson has worked at Salem since 2008 and also serves as dean of undergraduate studies, registrar and professor of religion.

Salem is looking for a permanent president but hasn’t announced a timetable for that search.