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Winston-Salem, Blue Cross NC announce plans to tackle coronavirus if it arrives here

The city of Winston-Salem announced Wednesday it is establishing contingency plans for critical municipal operations if a serious outbreak of coronavirus occurs locally.

Meanwhile, Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.C. sought to reassure members and providers of its stance for handling the health crisis.

Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said the contingency plans are designed “to ensure we can continue to provide” police, fire, sanitation and other critical services.

The plans, requested by City Manager Lee Garrity, involved determining how to continue those services if staffing levels decline by at least 25% related to corinavirus.

“That’s not necessarily because that many folks would be sick, but because we might also have employees who are unable to come to work because of sick children or parents,” Garrity said.

“I’ve asked our critical departments to aggressively determine how many employees could work from home if it were to become necessary, and to start making those arrangements now.

“We’re also making sure we have appropriate personal protective equipment for our first responders.”

Garrity said the contingency plans are separate from an existing pandemic plan.

Joines said contingency plans also would involve Forsyth County Public Health Department, local hospitals and emergency medical services.

“We are working closely so that the Health Department’s pandemic and isolation/quarantine plans can be implemented smoothly if it becomes necessary,” Joines said.

“There will be a detailed briefing on this work within the next week.”

Blue Cross plans

Blue Cross NC said it is “taking specific steps to improve our members’ access to doctors and medications,” effective Thursday. Those include:

  • Expedited approvals for acute care for members needing care related to COVID-19, specifically relating to hospitalization, post-acute care and medical equipment needed in the home.

The insurer said it will cover doctor visits to screen for COVID-19 the same as any other doctor visit, based on a member’s health plan.

  • Expand virtual access to primary care providers, allowing members to be monitored at home with the goal of “minimizing the spread of infection and easing the burden on emergency rooms.”
  • And increased access to medications, such as early medication refill limits on 30-day prescription maintenance medications. Member cost sharing would apply.

“By taking these steps, we are helping our members stay home if need be with the goal of keeping them and others well,” said Dr. Von Nguyen, vice president of clinical operations and innovations with the insurer. Nguyen was part of CDC teams responding to Cholera, Zika, MERS, and fungal meningitis.

Blue Cross NC’s membership increased by 90,000 in 2019 to 3.81 million. The insurer benefited in 2017 from UnitedHealthcare and Aetna exiting the North Carolina health exchange individual market.

Blue Cross NC said the measures will remain in effect for a 30-day period and then be re-evaluated. The insurer is providing updates at bluecrossnc.com/coronavirus.

For those members whose doctor is concerned about exposure to COVID-19, they will contact the CDC, who will decide if a test is warranted.

Guidelines and testing for COVID-19 currently can only be conducted through the CDC and select public health laboratories, such as the N.C. state public health laboratory that began testing Monday.

N.C. case

The first potential coronavirus case in N.C. was reported Tuesday by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

It involves a Wake County women who had visited a Seattle-area nursing home that has had an outbreak with several deaths. That test will be confirmed by a CDC laboratory. State health officials consider the coronavirus case to be isolated.

The likelihood that the coronavirus will reach elsewhere in North Carolina, including the Triad, is relatively high, state and local infectious disease experts cautioned this week.

However, they stress that the risk of any individual developing a life-threatening case is minimal. There are no proven treatments for COVID-19.

As with the flu, individuals with pre-existing health conditions and the elderly are projected to be more susceptible to serious cases of coronavirus.

The vast majority of individuals who come down with the virus, experts say, will experience about a week of symptoms similar to those of flu.

However, for about 15% of those who contract coronavirus, it could turn into viral pneumonia requiring hospital care.

According to the CDC, the global mortality rate for coronavirus is between 1% and 4% — which officials acknowledge is an estimate given an overall lack of transparency about deaths in China, where the outbreak began.

By comparison, the mortality rate for the flu typically is about 0.1%, though still accounting for between 30,000 and 40,000 deaths each year in the U.S.

More of your kids in advanced classes. That's a goal for Winston-Salem/Forsyth schools, superintendent says.

Advanced Placement courses are expanding throughout the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system as part of Superintendent Angela Hairston’s goal to increase the number of participating students.

The changes will start in the 2020-21 school year for the full credit/full-year courses. Four AP courses will be added at traditional schools that currently do not have them.

“As part of our strategic plan, one of the areas identified was increasing access to Advanced Placement,” Hairston said.

She said that AP courses will continue to be offered in the Career Center, which offers the highest number of AP courses, on Highland Court in Winston-Salem.

Brent Campbell, WS/FCS spokesman, said that school officials do not expect the changes to affect numbers at the Career Center.

At this point, more students are enrolled in AP courses at home schools than at the Career Center.

“The Career Center, however, still offers more AP Classes in total than any other place, but it is also at capacity,” Campbell said. “We can’t send more students to Career Center. If our goal is to increase participation and access, we must look at ways to allow access for students to the courses we know they want, within their home schools.”

Hairston said that while school officials realize the district has a good Career Center and Advanced Placement opportunities, several schools do not have students engaged in the AP program.

She said that the number of students currently in the program is unacceptable because colleges and universities want students in Advanced Placement.

“Our students are missing out on opportunities, so expanding access in all of our high schools simply makes us better,” she said.

Campbell said high school principals were told on Feb. 14 that the AP expansion plan is an effort to increase access to rigorous coursework aimed at better preparing students for college and/or the workplace and to provide more equitable access to advanced courses.

He said Biology AP, Government & Politics Comparative AP, Government and Politics U.S. AP, and Statistics AP are the new courses being added to traditional high schools that do not already have these courses.

He said that AP courses currently vary per home school depending on interest and requests from school-based instructional teams and other reasons, such as how those courses may match with other courses or themes already in the school.

“Many public comments at events related to equity and access have included people requesting better access to AP courses for all students,” he said. “This is an effort to improve access and allow more students the opportunity to take these courses should they want to.”

Currently, 3,221 students take AP courses at the Career Center, compared with 4,527 students who take the courses at their home schools. The Career Center has 28 AP courses while the number of AP courses at individual home schools ranges from zero to 16.

Reagan High has the largest number of AP participants at the Career Center with 895; and West Forsyth High has the largest number of AP students in a home school at 1,028.

Several schools have limited participation in AP courses at the Career Center. For example, Carver has one student at the Career Center, Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy has six and Parkland High has 25.

Schools with low numbers of students taking AP courses at their home schools include Carver High with a total enrollment of 14 in just two AP classes; and Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy and Parkland High School, both with no AP classes.

Some of the schools in this story and related chart offer other advance courses that are not part of this Advance Placement courses’ expansion.

Tripp Jeffers, a social studies teacher at Parkland High School, currently teaches International Baccalaureate history and philosophy but has taught AP government and politics in the past.

“Expanding the opportunity for students in every high school to take more challenging courses like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate is an excellent idea and will no doubt serve to increase academic achievement and prepare more students for college rigor,” Jeffers said.

Clerk of court race tighter than most in Forsyth County. Official vote tally set for March 13.

Piles of uncounted provisional and absentee ballots from the March 3 primary won’t make a difference in most contests when election officials start counting them, but have the potential at least to alter the results in the close contest for Forsyth County Clerk of Superior Court.

Still, elections director Tim Tsujii said incumbent clerk Renita Linville would have to get a lopsided bounce from the uncounted ballots to cut significantly into the 716-vote lead that challenger Denise Hines built on election day in the Democratic primary.

If that margin stays about the same when elections officials conduct their canvass and make the results official, Linville would not be able to even ask for a recount: Under state law, a losing candidate can ask for a recount only if the margin of victory is less than 1% of the total votes cast in the contest.

In Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Hines received 24,416 votes in complete but unofficial returns, and Linville received 23,700 votes. Since the total vote comes to 48,116, Linville would have to cut the margin to under 482 votes to reach recount territory.

Tsujii doesn’t know yet how many uncounted ballots there will be, but he said the total number of ballots and the vote totals for the candidates are guaranteed to change.

“The number will change because we have absentee ballots to count, and absentee ballots can be received up to three days past the election, if they have been postmarked by election day,” Tsujii said.

None of the other local races was anywhere as close as the contest between Hines and Linville. Hines did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Linville said she hasn’t made up her mind what she’ll do if the numbers shift enough to give her the recount option:

“I’ve been deliberating over that, and I have not made a decision,” she said.

Linville was appointed clerk of court in 2019 on the retirement of former clerk Susan Frye.

Provisional ballots are given to voters when the election official cannot determine on the spot that someone has the right to vote. These ballots are put individually into envelopes with the relevant information on them, and the five-member elections board has to decide on whether to count each one.

Provisional ballots and absentees will be counted by the elections board during the canvass on March 13 — a Friday — and the results of the clerk’s race and other contests will be official at that point, assuming no challenges.

In 2016, there were 960 provisional ballots cast in the primary, when about the same number of voters turned up as this time around. But only 500 or so of the provisional ballots were ruled countable. The additional ballots didn’t change any results.

Recounts that change the results of an election are rare. In 2018, Republican David Singletary called for a recount when he lost in the school board primary by 49 votes. The recount dropped the margin to 43. Singletary tried for a second recount, but it turned out that he had missed the deadline to request it.

In 2014, Democrat Katherine Fansler missed getting an at-large seat on the school board by 319 votes and called for a recount. The recount left Fansler down 303 votes and didn’t change the result.

Other problems in the past have caused significant differences between the election-night tallies and the official numbers shown by the canvass. In 2014, the elections office discovered that some votes were double-reported in some precincts, and that more than 800 ballots cast in curbside voting had remained uncounted. Even so, the proper count didn’t turn any losers into winners.

According to the complete but unofficial returns, 82,314 people cast ballots during this year’s primary, a turnout of 32%.

One polling place, Miller Park Recreation Center, ran out of ballots in the Democratic primary Tuesday afternoon, causing a 40-minute delay until additional ballots could be delivered.

A double-whammy hit Miller Park, since a computerized voting terminal — in place for voters with disabilities — wasn’t set up properly. Had the terminal been functioning, election workers could have allowed people to vote at the machine while waiting for the additional ballots to arrive, Tsujii said.

The terminal was repaired, Tsujii said, but not in time to avoid the delay caused by the lack of ballots. The poll was kept open an extra 40 minutes.

Tsujii said the election went smoothly. There were problems at one polling place when workers couldn’t locate some of the ballots, and several voters contacted the Journal to report difficulties, ranging from missing registration information to slow check-in.

The county has new voting equipment, and Tsujii said it performed well.

“All in all, considering it was a primary, it went without a hitch,” Tsujii said.

China likely to be a no-show at High Point Market because of coronavirus

GREENSBORO — High Point’s semiannual furniture market usually draws between 75,000 and 80,000 attendees, many of whom come from other nations.

China, however, won’t be among them this spring. Normally, the country sends the second-largest contingent of international furniture buyers and exhibitors to the High Point Market, which begins April 25.

But not now. Not after the coronavirus.

The outbreak has paralyzed parts of the world — Italy closed all schools and universities Wednesday — but China, where the virus originated, has suffered the most and longest. Life has been reduced to a crawl. Some factories remain shuttered. And the country’s international business travel has slowed almost to a halt.

“We have zero industry people from China who have registered” said Tom Conley, the High Point Market Authority’s president and CEO.

As the outbreak continues, big companies are trying to keep their employees healthy by banning business trips — but they’ve dealt a gut punch to a travel industry already reeling from the virus outbreak.

Swiss food giant Nestle told its 291,000 employees worldwide to limit domestic business travel and halt international travel until March 15.

French cosmetics maker L’Oréal, which employs 86,000 people, issued a similar ban until March 31.

Other companies, like Twitter, are telling their employees worldwide to work from home.

Google gave that directive to its staff of 8,000 at its European headquarters in Dublin on Tuesday.

According to some estimates, the virus is costing major airlines, hotels and others associated with the business travel industry around $47 billion per month.

Still, buyers and sellers from other countries are continuing to register for the High Point Market. That includes Canada, which is the market’s top source of international attendees.

Canadian registration is actually higher than it was during last spring’s market, Conley said.

“Whether it affects other countries remains to be seen,” Conley said.

And whether it affects the market also remains to be seen.

“As of right now, we’re strong, but that could certainly change,” Conley said.

If the virus continues to spread, experts say it will have a significant impact on the U.S. furniture industry. Manufacturers from Vietnam to Mexico that need Chinese parts for furniture have been cut off through production or shipping interruptions.

“There’s been disruption to the supply chain, but we’re not alone,” Conley said.

Former Forsyth County commissioner pleads guilty to tax fraud in federal court

Former Forsyth County Commissioner Everette Levon Witherspoon Jr. pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on Wednesday to federal tax fraud and failure to file a tax return.

A federal grand jury in Greensboro indicted Witherspoon on Sept. 30, 2019, on three counts of filing a false tax return and one count of failing to file a tax return.

Witherspoon and federal prosecutors reached a plea agreement allowing him to plead guilty to one charge of filing a fraudulent tax return and one charge of failure to file a tax return.

In exchange, the two other tax-fraud charges were dismissed.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee, called Witherspoon’s plea agreement “fairly sophisticated.”

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Witherspoon could be sentenced to a maximum of four years in prison for the two separate charges, with supervised probation after being released.

However, the plea agreement came with the caveat that prosecutors would recommend a shorter sentence. Judges are not required to adhere to prosecutors’ recommendations.

In addition to possible prison time, Witherspoon will be ordered to pay at least $207,060 — the amount he failed to pay in income taxes — to the federal government.

In fall 2019, federal prosecutors accused Witherspoon of not reporting the money he made as a county commissioner and underreporting income from a mental-health company in Greensboro that he started in 2009. Prosecutors also say Witherspoon did not file a tax return in 2012, though his gross income was enough to require that he do so.

Witherspoon served two terms on the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, beginning in 2011. He lost his bid for reelection in the 2018 Democratic primary.

He was the fifth person charged in connection with a tax-fraud scheme that operated in part out of a business on North Liberty Street in Winston-Salem called Fast Tax of Winston-Salem. Witherspoon co-owned Fast Tax with Claudia Lynette Shivers and S. Wayne Patterson.

Shivers and Patterson were both charged, convicted and sentenced for their roles in the tax-fraud scheme that also ensnared two other people. In July, Shivers was sentenced to nearly two years in federal prison after she pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to defraud the United States by filing false tax returns.

Patterson, a past president of the Winston-Salem NAACP, a former magistrate and a former lawyer, was sentenced in September 2018 to 13 months in prison after being convicted for his role.

Kristyn Dion Daney, 34, and Rakeem Lenell Scales, 35, each pleaded guilty in federal court in April 2018 to one count of aiding and assisting in the preparation and presentation of a false tax return, in connection to the Fast Tax business.