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2 COVID-19 deaths, 60 new cases in Forsyth County

The Forsyth County Department of Public Health announced Thursday 60 new cases of COVID-19 and two coronavirus-related deaths. It’s the third day in a row with at least 50 new cases announced.

One of the patients who died was in their early 60s and the other in their early 70s, according to the health department. Both had underlying health conditions. The health department isn’t releasing any other information about them.

Thursday’s new cases bring the Forsyth total to 555, and 315 of the cases are considered active. Seven people have died from coronavirus-related illnesses in the county.

In Forsyth County, at least 70 local cases of COVID-19 are people who either work at the Tyson plant in Wilkes County or have come into close contact with someone who works there, according to Forsyth health officials.

Meanwhile, the number of cases in Wilkes County jumped from 21 on April 27 to at least 274 with 173 considered as recovered.

Wilkes health officials said that, as of 8 p.m. Wednesday, about 85% of cases are considered to have come from close-contact exposure, most related to the Tyson plant outbreak

Tyson conducted a temporary three-day shutdown of its fresh chicken production plant “for deep cleaning and sanitizing” from Saturday through Monday.

The plant resumed operations Tuesday, but Tyson announced Thursday it will conduct additional deep cleaning that will shut down its Fresh plant 2 facility and its food services plants until Tuesday. Its Fresh Plant 1 will operate on a temporary basis.

The facilities have combined about 2,200 production and support employees.

Across the state, case totals increased significantly from Wednesday, with at least 731 new cases and at least 20 additional virus-related deaths announced, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and local county health departments.

Forsyth’s 160 new cases over the last three days make up approximately 13% of all new cases in North Carolina, according to available data. County Health director Joshua Swift, in a teleconference with reporters, said Thursday the new cases are predominantly in the Hispanic community.

As of Monday, white people comprised only 27.1% of all COVID-19 cases in Forsyth County, with people of Hispanic or Latin descent being the largest ethnic group to test positive. As of Monday, 29% of all cases in Forsyth County were people of Hispanic or Latin descent.

“Part of that is we’re seeing more testing in the Hispanic community,” Swift said.

Contact tracing is taking place daily by the Forsyth health department’s nursing team, said Tony Lo Giudice, assistant health director.

“We don’t know if the individuals were symptomatic or asymptomatic when exposing others,” Lo Giudice said. “Almost all the cases that reported positive had a symptom(s).”

Earlier Thursday, an infectious disease expert at Wake Forest Baptist Health, Dr. Christopher Ohl, said the virus is disproportionately affecting people in lower socioeconomic classes, as well as racial and ethnic minorities.

Many of the new cases announced are people who contracted the virus from a family member or other close contact, Swift said.

The Forsyth health department began efforts in mid-March to reach out to the Hispanic community, with Swift saying his department conducted 108 site visits and 78 phone consultations in those communities. Posters and flyers explaining social distancing and other coronavirus issues were distributed at eight super markets, 40 grocery stores, 10 restaurants, 13 apartment complexes and numerous bakeries, auto repair shops and churches.

The local COVID-19 hotline added a Spanish-language line in recent days, and there are Spanish speaking contact tracers on staff.

“All of our staff has been trained in cultural competency and to make sure we understand the needs in these communities,” Swift said. “It seems to be going well, but still there are always challenges.”

Forsyth’s surge in new cases comes as Dr. Mandy Cohen, N.C. DHHS Secretary, told North Carolinians Thursday they had flattened the curve in terms of the spread of COVID-19.

When asked about Cohen’s comments, Swift said it is too early to make that determination.

“Right now, we’re 64 days into this,” he said. “Throughout this we’ve seen spikes that have occurred. It’s too early to say we’re through this and it’s too early to say that we’re not there yet. We’ve just got into Phase 1 (of reopening), and I think we assess in the next week to two weeks and see where we are.”

Both Swift and Ohl implored area residents to take their coronavirus precautions seriously. Swift asked people to wear a mask when in public, and to practice social distancing.

On social media, some people have begun to question the seriousness of the pandemic, claiming hospitals receive more money if they diagnose more COVID-19 patients than actually exist.

Ohl issued a flat-out denial of that conspiracy theory Thursday.

“I can absolutely with 100% certainty tell you that is absolutely false,” Ohl said.

“I think it’s an insult to all our people in our hospitals, our wards and our intensive care units who clearly have it. Coronavirus is real. It’s a real threat. If we don’t take it seriously, it’s going to win this.”

Sen. Burr steps down as Senate Intelligence committee chairman amid federal investigation

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr resigned as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a day after federal investigators seized his cellphone from his home and amid calls for him to also resign his Senate seat.

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., released a statement: “Senator Burr contacted me this morning to inform me of his decision to step aside as chairman of the Intelligence committee during the pendency of the investigation.”

“We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee and will be effective at the end of (today).”

Burr’s office did not respond to a Journal request for comment.

Burr told McClatchy News Service Thursday that he plans to serve out the remaining 2½ years of his term. Burr said during his 2016 campaign he would not seek re-election in 2022.

“It’s a distraction to a committee that’s extremely important to the safety and security of the American people and a distraction to the members of that committee being asked questions about me, so I tried to eliminate that,” Burr told McClatchy.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Burr’s decision to step down as chairman “is the right thing to do, and it demonstrates the seriousness of this unfolding matter.”

“The Intelligence committee has important duties that cannot appear compromised.”

The FBI’s seizure of Burr’s phone “signals that this controversy likely involves more than just a hit job from left-of-center partisans,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.

Seized cellphone

Burr’s committee resignation followed reports late Wednesday that his cellphone had been seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents.

Calls have been renewed for the Republican from Winston-Salem to not only step down as chairman of the committee, but also the Senate, amid claims he violated the federal STOCK Act.

Congress passed the Stock Act in 2012, making it illegal for lawmakers to use inside information for financial benefit. Burr was one of three Republican senators to vote against the bill.

The cellphone seizure appears to be tied to U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations into stock sales made in February by Burr and his wife, Brooke.

U.S. Senate financial disclosure documents show Richard and Brooke Burr sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million of their stock holdings in 33 separate transactions on Feb. 13. The publication Roll Call listed his net worth at $1.7 million as of 2018.

The Los Angeles Times first reported Wednesday night, citing an anonymous law-enforcement source, that FBI agents came to Burr’s home in the Washington area with a search warrant for the cellphone.

The newspaper said Thursday that federal agents served an earlier warrant on Apple for information in Burr’s iCloud account. Agents used that information as evidence to obtain a search warrant from a judge for Burr’s phone.

Burr spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll declined to comment on the L.A. Times story.

Not done lightly

CNN reported March 30 that Burr is facing potential Justice and SEC probes into stock sales made Feb. 13 — a week before the stock market began its sharp coronavirus-related decline Feb. 20. CNN reported the two federal agencies contacted the FBI as part of their initial steps.

Burr attended a joint Jan. 24 Senate Health and Foreign Relations committee briefing on coronavirus that included the director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

On March 20, Burr requested the U.S. Senate Ethics committee investigate the stock transactions.

Burr released a statement March 20 saying “I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on Feb. 13. Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time.

Action by the Senate Ethics committee is not as relevant now that an FBI investigation is under way, Sabato said.

“The committee very probably wouldn’t take any action until the FBI and, if necessary, the courts had finished,” Sabato said. “Burr could easily be out of office by then” considering he has pledged not to seek re-election in 2022.

Sabato said “the fact that the FBI seized Burr’s cellphone is unsettling on its face.”

“But every American deserves the presumption of innocence, so let’s wait and see whether there are actually charges filed against Burr and if so, how they are adjudicated.”

Trading patterns

For most of the past 7½ years, Burr has been a low-volume, modest-value buyer and seller of corporate stocks.

But that changed dramatically over a 14-day period from Jan. 31 to Feb. 13.

That’s when the Burrs conducted two buys and 36 sales, eight of the sells were in the $50,001 to $100,000 range. The sells included shares of three corporations in the hotel and hospitality industry.

“There’s no question it was clearly a market change in strategy” for Burr in the 2020 stock sales, said Bruce Sacerdote, a Dartmouth College economics professor who released a report in April on the STOCK Act’s impact on senators’ stock transactions.

The Burrs’ stock trades are based on quarterly and annual filings required by the act.

Overall, the stocks that the Burrs sold this year underperformed the market by 8% between the sale and March 31, according to NPR. This means the stocks performed worse than comparable stocks in the same sector.

“It’s way above his normal range for trading considering he was average two to three trades a quarter, and he does 38 in one quarter,” Sacerdote said.

Since 2013, the Burrs have bought and sold between $639,500 and $1.1 million of stock in companies that make medical devices, equipment, supplies and drugs, according to a ProPublica analysis of his financial disclosures.

“Senators are prohibited from pushing legislation in order to directly further their own financial interest, but they can own stocks in industries overseen by committees on which they sit and trade in and out of individual stocks,” ProPublica reported.

Public Citizen, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, said Richard Burr’s stock trading represents “a scandal that shouldn’t have happened” given the restrictions listed in the STOCK Act.

The group said the two federal investigations and the Senate Ethics committee “have a near impossible task: determining whether Burr traded because of what he heard on the news (legal) or what he heard in classified meetings (illegal).”

Citing the recent federal sentencing of former U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., for insider trading, Public Citizen said “the STOCK Act can work.”

“But we can’t always rely on a smoking gun, like the insider trading texts that Collins sent.”

“There’s an easy solution to making sure this never happens again.

“Members of Congress shouldn’t be able to trade individual stocks at all.”

Heads up?

The Feb. 13 stock sales by the Burrs occurred six days after Burr co-wrote an op-ed piece saying America had tools in place to combat COVID-19.

The Jan. 31 to Feb. 13 trading period ended a week before the stock market entered its coronavirus-related roller coaster ride on Feb. 20.

Sacerdote said he believes Richard Burr “is arguing that these were market-driven trades, a big shift based on public information, as opposed to private information.”

“It’s actually hard to infer from the data whether Sen. Burr was trading on publicly available information and/or whether he had very fortunate timing.”

“What I am better positioned to talk about is how his trades have done in the long haul, which is very middle of the road.”

Other Burr issues

Burr has faced bipartisan criticism of his actions over the past three months. Those include:

Burr giving a stark warning about COVID-19

  • at a Feb. 27 private event that he has not repeated publicly.

Burr’s comments carry significant weight in part because he is author of the federal Pandemic All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2006.

Burr’s 2017 sale of a town house

  • in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington to pharmaceutical lobbyist John Green and a business partner of Green.

The sales price was $900,000 — an amount “tens of thousands of dollars above some estimates of the property’s value by tax assessors, a real estate website and a local real estate agent,” according to the report by ProPublica, an online investigative news outlet.

“There is no evidence that Green tried to influence Burr’s actions as a senator or discussed any legislation with him specifically,” ProPublica said.

But if the town house was sold for more than fair market value, the transaction could be considered as a gift from a lobbyist, which typically would not be allowed under U.S. Senate ethics rules.

Even if a gift is allowed, it typically must be publicly disclosed.

Burr’s brother-in-law sold a significant share of stocks

  • on the same day — Feb. 13 — that Burr and his wife conducted 33 sell transactions.

According to a federal Public Financial Disclosure Act filing, Gerald Fauth sold six stocks valued between $97,006 and $280,000.

Are we ready for more reopening? No, says Baptist Health expert.

An infectious disease expert with Wake Forest Baptist Health says we’ll likely have to wait a while longer to visit hair salons and gyms or dine-in at restaurants, given the state’s continued increase in COVID-19 cases.

Dr. Christopher Ohl responded, “No,” on Thursday when asked if he thinks North Carolina, and specifically Forsyth County, is ready to transition to Phase 2 of reopening — which would allow limited opening of gyms, indoor worship services, restaurants and bars, barbershops, hair salons and other businesses still closed under Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order.

“Going into Phase 1 was like putting your toe into the water,” Ohl said. “It’s not looking like we’re on the right path.”

Ohl expressed concern Thursday about the recent spate of new cases in Forsyth County, with 100 announced in the two days before his news conference.

An additional 60 cases and two deaths were announced about 40 minutes after Ohl concluded.

While many of the cases are in “clusters” and are among family members, Ohl said the virus is especially impacting people of lower socio-economic classes and racial and ethnic minorities.

“Groups of people who couldn’t shelter in place are disproportionately affected,” he said. As of Monday, white people comprised about 27% of all COVID-19 cases in Forsyth County.

Hospitalizations in Forsyth County are also up compared to two weeks ago, Ohl said. No figures were provided Thursday, but on Monday the Forsyth County Department of Public Health reported at least 16 people were hospitalized.

As of Thursday there are at least 315 active cases in the county and seven deaths as well as 233 people considered recovered.

According to the governor’s plan for reopening the state, the earliest North Carolina could enter Phase 2 would be May 22. While N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen has previously said the state could revert to the stricter stay-at-home guidelines, the governor is facing political pressure from Republicans in the General Assembly and on the Council of State as well as from protesters to fully reopen the state and restart the economy.

State Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth and Davie, is one of several co-sponsors of the “Freedom to Work Act” which would allow businesses to reopen in violation of the governor’s executive order.

Phase 1 of reopening, which still includes a modified stay-at-home order, is in place through May 22, Cooper said Thursday.

“Our COVID-19 decisions are guided by the data and science. We’ll use the time in this phase to keep a careful eye on the indicators before we are ready to announce the start of Phase 2,” he said.

Cooper said he hopes the decision to move into Phase 2 will be a statewide decision and that the possibility of opening by region won’t be necessary.

Cohen said Thursday the indicators for moving to Phase 2 are encouraging and reiterated that the state has “flattened the curve.”

With retail shopping reopening, although stores are limited to half-capacity, Ohl said the impact of Phase 1 on COVID-19 numbers wouldn’t be felt for at least another week as would-be patients start to develop symptoms and more people get tested for the virus.

Ohl said he thinks the earliest the state could enter Phase 2 would be the end of May, and even then it would likely be a modified Phase 2, with outdoor dining and more outdoor activities, such as playgrounds, more likely to be allowed.

‘Give churches … what he’s giving Walmart.’ Local pastor part of rally demanding eased restrictions on worship services.

A local pastor joined 200 churchgoers in Raleigh on Thursday as they demonstrated at the Legislative Building, demanding that they be allowed to hold regular worship services in spite of North Carolina’s stay-at-home orders.

“We are asking (Gov. Roy Cooper) to give churches at the minimum that he’s giving Walmart, abortion clinics and liquor stores,” said the Rev. Ron Baity, the pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, and the president of Return America. “We are just standing up for our First Amendment rights.”

Several protesters spoke of the “evil” behind Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus.

Cooper’s latest executive order forbids indoor worship services with more than 10 people, allowing for socially distant church services but recommending multiple or outdoor services “unless impossible.”

Return America has sent a statement to Cooper signed by 200 pastors, asking to operate at 20% occupancy as retail stores could.

“We are asking the governor to let us go back,” Baity said. “We are going to be sanitary. We are going to be above what the (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) requests as we go back.”

Baity’s church and Return America are among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Thursday against Cooper that asks a federal court in Greenville to throw out the governor’s restrictions on indoor religious services in North Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Churches have a constitutional right to be open,” Baity said. “We are being discriminated against because they are treating others differently than how they are treating the church.”

Cooper, a regular churchgoer, said he hadn’t read the lawsuit. Cooper said his orders “have been drawn carefully to recognize First Amendment protections” and will ultimately end.

Bishop Sir Walter Mack Jr., the senior pastor at Union Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, said that his church will not join the lawsuit against Cooper.

“As clergy, there comes a time when we have to adhere to governing authorities,” Mack said. “Medical professionals and the CDC are advising us to limit large gatherings for a certain period of time.”

Mack pointed to Thursday’s news that the Forsyth County had 60 additional cases and two more deaths attributed to the coronavirus. In total, there are 555 cases and seven deaths in Forsyth County as of Thursday, local health officials say.

There were 16,507 reported cases of the coronavirus in 99 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported Thursday. The state’s death total reached 615 people.

“The virus is still spreading,” Mack said. “For us to put our worshipers in a close setting at the church could be suicidal for our community.”

Thursday’s rally in Raleigh coincided with Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell announcement that he will not enforce stay-at-home rules on church gatherings, calling them “inconsistent and unfair” because retail stores are allowed to have customers.

Forsyth County sheriff’s deputies will seek to educate individuals if they encounter violations of the governor’s executive order, said Christina Howell, a spokeswoman for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.

“We are a law-abiding law-enforcement agency, but we will not be interrupting services this Sunday to count the number of attendees in a worship service,” Howell said.

A spokesman for the Winston-Salem Police Department couldn’t be reached Thursday to comment on whether city police officers are enforcing the governor’s orders at churches.

Major denominations in North Carolina have encouraged congregations to follow the governor’s mandates about worship services and volunteer activities.