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Forsyth reports 61 more COVID-19 cases Friday, 221 new cases in 4 days

The Forsyth County Department of Public Health reported 61 new COVID-19 cases Friday, the most ever reported in a single day and the fourth straight day with at least 50 new cases.

In the last four days, the health department has reported 221 new cases and two coronavirus-related deaths. With at least 616 total cases, Forsyth County is one of six counties in the state to report at least 600 cases.

More than a third of Forsyth’s cases have been reported in the last four days.

Seven people in the county have died because of the virus, the health department says. Of the 616 total cases, 374 are considered active and 235 are considered recovered.

“We continue to see clusters in families across Forsyth County,” County Public Health Director Joshua Swift is quoted as saying in a news release. “If you are sick, stay separated from other family members in the household. ...”

Swift asked people to wear masks in their own homes if they can’t social distance within the residence. He also encourages frequent cleanings, to avoid sharing a bathroom if possible and to limit visitors.

Swift said Thursday this week’s new cases are predominantly in the county’s Hispanic community, but did not say specifically how many people of Hispanic descent tested positive. As of May 10, approximately 112 Hispanics had tested positive for the virus, according to county health data.

Across the state, there are at least 670 new cases of COVID-19 reported Friday, according to data from local county health departments and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. More than 17,100 people in the state have tested positive for the virus.

Elsewhere, the Appalachian District Health Department (AppHealthCare) informed Appalachian State University leadership that it has confirmed that 16 subcontracted workers who are non-Watauga County residents have tested positive for COVID-19.

AppHealthCare identified a small number of university employees with potential exposure. One tested positive; this case was reported by the university and AppHealthCare on May 7. The others tested negative.

There is no direct risk to the university community related to these cases, the university said in a release.

The contractor has engaged in a thorough cleaning at the job site and workers will remain off campus until cleared by public health to return, officials said.

University employees working on campus must wear masks and maintain appropriate physical distance.

N.C. DHHS reported 26 coronavirus-related deaths Friday, but Forsyth County’s two deaths announced Thursday do not appear to be included in the current death toll. At least 643 people have died across the state.

More than 12,000 people were tested for the virus Thursday, and about 5.5% of those tests were positive, according to N.C. DHHS. It’s not known how many of those people tested live in Forsyth County. The county health department releases details about the previous week’s testing on Mondays.

On Monday, the county health department reported 385 tests were completed between May 4 and May 10, an average of 55 tests a day. About one-fourth of those tests, or 25%, were positive.

On Friday, N.C. DHHS set new guidelines on who should be tested for the virus.

“We want anyone who needs a test to get one,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen, N.C. DHHS secretary. “This is particularly important for those at high-risk for severe illness, those at greatest risk for exposure and those who are being disproportionately impacted by this virus.”

The new guidance recommends clinicians ensure the following populations have access to testing, regardless of symptoms:

  • Anyone with symptoms suggestive of COVID-19
  • Close contacts of known positive cases, regardless of symptoms
  • Persons who live in or have regular contact with high-risk settings (e.g., long-term care facility, homeless shelter, correctional facility, migrant farmworker camp)
  • Persons who are at high risk of severe illness (e.g., people over 65 years of age, people of any age with underlying health conditions)
  • Persons who come from historically marginalized populations
  • Health care workers or first responders (e.g. EMS, law enforcement, fire department, military)
  • Front-line and essential workers (grocery store clerks, gas station attendants, etc.) in settings where social distancing is difficult to maintain

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Larry Womble, a former state representative, city councilman and advocate for racial justice has died (copy)

Larry Womble, an educator and advocate for minorities who held elected positions in Winston-Salem and Raleigh, has died at the age of 78.

He had been in declining health for a number of years, longtime family friend Jennifer Long said, and died Thursday at his home.

“He was just an all-around good, humanitarian person,” Long said.

Womble’s political career spanned more than three decades but ended when he was injured in a car crash that killed the driver of another car.

“On behalf of the citizens of Winston-Salem, I extend my deepest sympathies and condolences to the family and friends of former State Rep. Larry Womble,” Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said in a statement. “Rep. Womble had been a strong voice for the rights of the underprivileged while he served on the board of aldermen and later as a state representative.

“We remember his work as an alderman in pushing for downtown development of residential housing many, many years ago before it became an accepted concept,” Joines said.

Womble was born June 6, 1941, in Winston-Salem. After completing his studies at Atkins High School, he enrolled in Winston-Salem State University, graduating in 1963.

He returned to the Winston-Salem public school system as a teacher and remained in education while his political career flourished.

A loss and a win

Civic involvement came naturally to him. He was known as a community organizer for leading an effort to improve conditions at the rundown Columbia Terrace neighborhood off Stadium Drive (now called Rams Drive).

He made his first run for office in 1977, running for a seat on the Board of Alderman (now City Council) in the racially mixed Southeast Ward.

He forced a runoff in the Democratic primary with incumbent Eugene F. Groce. The showdown became racially charged when Groce sent a letter to white voters noting that “our black citizens” had a higher turnout than whites in the primary and that he needed support from white voters to win. Womble was black. Groce was white.

Womble supporters blasted the letter as racist. Groce insisted it was a compliment to black voters for their turnout. Groce prevailed in the runoff.

For Womble, 1981 was a milestone year. In May, the North Carolina Association of Educators named him the Assistant Principal of the Year. The group cited his community activism for his work with such local groups as the Experiment in Self-Reliance, the Arts Council, the NAACP and the Forsyth county library board. At the time, Womble served as the assistant principal of Old Town Elementary.

That same month, Womble announced he’d once again challenge Groce for alderman. This time Womble faced an additional challenge. Realignment had shifted the ward, leaving it with fewer minorities. The shift appeared to favor Groce.

Yet Womble won the September primary against Groce and three other challengers. It was another close race. He won by fewer than 100 votes. In defeat, Groce once again turned to racial disparity in the turnout.

“The blacks got out and voted, and the whites didn’t,” Groce said at the time.

Womble would go on to win the general election against Republican R. Dale Catlett, becoming the first black alderman in the ward’s history. For years he served as the only black alderman from a majority white ward.

Over the next 12 years, Womble worked to improve conditions for his ward while earning a reputation as a loquacious gadfly during board meetings, speaking up for the poor, minorities and those he felt the city neglected.

He could be longwinded in both praise and condemnation.

Fellow Alderman Robert Northington would become so annoyed by Womble’s effusive rhetoric during meetings that he would swivel his chair to turn his back to him.

In 1987 Womble argued that the name of the Dixie Classic Fair should be changed, saying the throwback “Dixie” connotation was not acceptable to certain segments of society.

“It’s just like the Confederate flag,” he told the Journal. “The flag does not do anything to harm me or my psyche, but what does it represent?”

It would be another 32 years before city council voted to drop the word “Dixie” from the fair’s name.

Cleared in probe

In the summer before the 1989 city elections, word broke that Womble was among a group of five politicians that federal authorities were investigating for political corruption.

His Republican opponent, Dale Folwell, didn’t make the probe a campaign issue. Womble hung on to win by 75 votes. Despite the loss, Folwell would go on to a lengthy political career that includes serving as state treasurer.

The investigation dragged on almost throughout the entirety of his next term. The school board transferred him from his assistant principal position at Kennedy Middle School to an administrative post focusing on building maintenance and energy conservation.

The charges involved more than $2,000 in charitable contributions. A jury acquitted Womble in 1992. Two co-defendants, former Alderman Patrick T. Hairston and Rodney J. Sumler, were convicted of conspiracy to extort money from businesses that had issues before the city board.

The following year, when Winston-Salem officials applied to be named an “All-America City,” Womble wrote a letter in protest, saying the city didn’t deserve the designation.

He wrote that the city was “sitting on a powder keg” in the way it treated minorities, and the recognition would have shallow meaning and no substance.

He never meant the letter to become public. When it did, it set off a powder keg of its own.

The city — which had won the award in 1959 and 1964 — lost the bid that year, and Womble took much of the blame.

Robert Nordlinger, then a 22-year-old accountant and political novice, was so angered that he filed to challenge Womble for his seat on the board. Running as a Republican, Nordlinger beat Womble in the biggest surprise of the 1993 municipal elections.

“In the last four years Womble has shot himself in the foot,” Nordlinger said when the results came in. “I was just there to give the Southeast Ward an alternative.”

On the loss, Womble said he was proud of the changes that were made for his constituents and that he tried to articulate the residents’ needs to the city. “I try to make government personal for them,” he said.

He wouldn’t be out of politics long. The next year, Womble ran for state House in what was then the 66th District after incumbent Annie B. Kennedy announced her retirement.

The district was so overwhelmingly Democratic that the GOP couldn’t find anyone to run. Womble won without opposition and would hold the seat for the next 18 years.

His tenure as a lawmaker would be marked by two major efforts.

In 2002, the Journal ran a series of articles on the state’s shameful eugenics program. More than 7,000 girls and young women had been targeted for sterilization — often against their will — under the idea that society would be better off if they didn’t reproduce.

Administrators could target young women for dubious reasons. They could be rendered childless because someone considered them “feeble-minded” or doubted their moral integrity. Many were poor and black.

Outraged, Womble became a staunch ally of the victims of the defunct program, reflecting his long-running commitment to those who felt invisible before the government. In 2005, he filed the first of many bills to get compensation for the victims.

He would find that many fellow legislators supported the victims verbally, but less so financially.

Still, he pressed on.

“I’ll do like (U.S. Rep.) John Conyers did when he kept filing bills to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday,” Womble said in 2007. “It took 20 years before we got King Day, and I’ll do the same here.”

The effort moved so slowly that the victims didn’t start getting their money until after Womble ended his last term.

“Larry Womble will be forever known as the tireless champion for the victims of North Carolina’s shameful eugenics and sterilization program,” U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said in a statement. “Larry was relentless in shining a light on one of the darkest moments of our state’s history, and he never backed down and never gave up in the pursuit of justice.”

When Tillis served as the leader of the N.C. House, he supported Womble’s bill to compensate the victims of the eugenics program.

“Larry had a heart of gold and epitomized what it means to be a servant leader,” Tillis said. “Susan and I are deeply saddened to lose such a great man, and we send our deepest condolences to Larry’s family.”

Womble was also the leading House advocate for the Racial Justice Act, a controversial measure that allowed death-row inmates to challenge their sentences on the grounds of racial bias.

Gov. Bev Perdue signed the measure into law in 2009. Critics called it a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” and soon unintended consequences emerged. Almost everyone on North Carolina’s death row, white and black, including Forsyth County’s notorious serial poisoner Blanche Taylor Moore, appealed based on the new law. The law was repealed in 2013, a year after Womble’s House career ended.

Seriously injured in wreck

On the night of Dec. 2, 2011, Womble left home and got on Reynolds Park Road toward downtown for a banquet. David Carmichael, 54, had left downtown after having drinks.

Their two cars collided on Reynolds Park Road. Carmichael was killed. Womble survived but was seriously injured. Like much of his political career, the crash would be imbued with controversy.

Witnesses told police that Womble had crossed into Carmichael’s lane, and he was charged with misdemeanor death by vehicle. But a crash reconstruction indicated that it was Carmichael who made the fateful move.

Add to the fact that Carmichael had a blood-alcohol level way above the legal limit, while Womble had no alcohol in his system.

The charges were dropped.

That wouldn’t be the end of it, though. Winston-Salem Police Chief Scott Cunningham publicly defended the department’s original conclusion that Womble was at fault.

“Our initial investigation was not flawed,” Cunningham said.

The comments drew a rebuke from Councilwoman Vivian Burke, and Cunningham would retire that year. But for many, the split among investigators would allow questions about the crash to linger.

Womble spent much of 2012 recovering from his injuries. With little time to campaign and facing significant health issues, Womble decided not to run for re-election.

His political career was effectively over.

Womble was married twice, first to Lonnie Hamilton Womble in 1965. The pair divorced four years later. In 2019, he married Violet Sabatia, and she was at his side when he died, according to Alan Doorasamy Sr., Womble’s attorney.

His son, Jamaal Womble, was often at his side when Womble would be honored for his career service.

Jamaal Womble was close to his father, Long said, and rarely left his father’s room in the weeks after the accident.

“Larry would fight injustice where he saw it,” she said. “He was just a good person.”


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Low-profile Sen. Burr becomes polarizing political figure with stock sales

Has a low-profile U.S. Sen. Richard Burr become the most polarizing member of Congress? The seizure of Burr’s cellphone by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents Wednesday night and his stepping down as a Senate committee chairman have put the senior senator from North Carolina into a blazing national spotlight.

Bipartisan criticism of the Republican from Winston-Salem erupted in March with news of the Feb. 13 stock sales by Burr and his wife, Brooke, and his providing of a warning about the seriousness of COVID-19 to private donors without making a similar public announcement.

U.S. Senate financial-disclosure documents show the Burrs 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 criticism has intensified since the Los Angeles Times’ report that the FBI acquired a search warrant to seize the cellphone.

That move came on top of CNN reporting March 30 that Burr is facing potential U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission 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.

“I don’t think there was any other possible outcome after news emerged of the search warrant being served than for Burr to step aside from his Intelligence committee chairmanship while investigations continue,” said John Dinan, a Wake Forest University political science professor.

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.

“Whether it turns out that he engaged in any illegal activity, it makes sense for him to step down from his high-profile Intelligence committee role.

“The serious questions about his conduct would make it hard for him to operate in the post of committee chairman.”

Political motives?

Criticism coming from the Democratic and left-leaning sides is focused on the stock sales and Burr’s private donor warning.

Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the N.C. Democratic Party, said in a statement Thursday that “as the criminal investigation into Senator Burr escalates, it’s clear that he can no longer try to sweep his apparent illegal trading under the rug.”

“If he has any sense of decency left, Burr will resign immediately, and if they have any regard for the rule of law, Republicans across this state and all over our country will demand the same.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., has said repeatedly, including again Thursday on the radio show of conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt, that Burr owes North Carolinians an explanation for the stock sales.

Tillis again deferred action to the Senate Ethics committee that Burr asked to investigate his stock sales on March 20.

“What will it take before Senator Tillis and North Carolina Republicans demand some actual accountability from Senator Burr?” N.C. Democratic Party spokesperson Robert Howard said.

Political loyalties

By contrast, the criticism coming from the Republican and right-leaning pundits appears more directed at Burr not being sufficiently loyal to President Donald Trump.

The foremost example cited is Burr’s role in the Senate Intelligence committee’s investigation into Russia’s actions in the 2016 presidential election.

For example, CNN reported Wednesday morning that Burr and Donald Trump Jr. had reached an impasse on Burr’s approval of a subpoena to get the president’s son to answer more questions about a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting and the pursuit of a Trump Tower Moscow project.

Although Intelligence committee vice chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., also signed off on the subpoena, Burr was the first Republican member of Congress to subpoena a member of Trump’s family.

Among the most vocal voices calling for Burr to step down is outspoken U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of the president’s fiercest defenders.

Left-leaning groups and never-Trump Republican advocates have said since the Burr controversies erupted that Gaetz has been trying to force Burr’s removal as Senate Intelligence chairman as payback for Burr’s chairman role.

Gaetz has tweeted “Worth noting that Chairman Burr was swampily complicit in dragging an innocent @DonaldJTrumpJr before Senate Intel time & time again.”

Weaponizing U.S. Justice

Before and after Burr’s decision to step down as Senate Intelligence chairman, there were Twitter posts Thursday claiming the FBI action as another example of the weaponizing of the Justice Department in the president’s favor by U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

“A lot more is needed to develop the record, but I do think this is a moment to be seriously on guard for DOJ being used to carry out political retribution,” tweeted Susan Hennessey, executive editor at Lawfare and a CNN national security and legal analyst.

“Serving a warrant on a senator is a very significant and rapid escalation, and Trump has long had an axe to grind with Burr.”

Friday, Burr and Senate Intelligence vice chairman Warner released for classification review the final of five scheduled committee reports on the U.S. intelligence community assessment of the Russia investigation to the Office of Director of National Intelligence. The fifth volume “will examine the committee’s counterintelligence findings.”

Burr said in an April 21 statement that the committee “looked at two key questions: First, did the final product meet the initial task given by the president, and second, was the analysis supported by the intelligence presented?”

“We found the (assessment) met both criteria. The (assessment) reflects strong tradecraft, sound analytical reasoning, and proper justification of disagreement in the one analytical line where it occurred.

“The committee found no reason to dispute the intelligence community’s conclusions.”

Warner said in the joint statement that the assessment “correctly found the Russians interfered in our 2016 election to hurt Secretary Clinton and help the candidacy of Donald Trump.”

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, said the Senate Intelligence committee’s Russia investigation “is a complicating factor” in having U.S. Justice officials investigating Burr.

“Law enforcement investigations should be non-partisan and not politically driven, and only go after the facts of an alleged crime,” Bitzer said.

2½ more years?

Burr told McClatchy News on Thursday that he plans to serve the remaining 21/2 years of his term, which he has said would be the final of his three in the Senate.

With the Republicans holding a 53-47 margin in the U.S. Senate, analysts say Trump and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could pressure Burr to resign so to give his replacement the advantages of incumbency going into the 2022 election.

A state law passed in June 2018 by the Republican super-majority in the General Assembly sets the parameters for replacing a U.S. senator.

The law was changed from allowing the governor to select the replacement from the political party of the senator to the governor having to choose between three candidates recommended by the senator’s political party.

If Burr were to resign before Sept. 4, then a new election could be held as part of the general election Nov. 3, and the winner would serve the remaining two years of the six-year term.

In that scenario, both of North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seats would be on the ballot since Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is running for re-election.

If Burr were to resign after Sept. 4, the appointed senator would serve the rest of the term and the election for the seat would be held in November 2022.

Trump weighing in

A Politico article posted Friday questions how long it may be before the president weighs in on the Burr investigation.

When asked by reporters Thursday about Burr stepping down as Intelligence committee chairman, the president responded by saying “That’s too bad.”

Political analysts say Trump would want a major role in selecting Burr’s successor given North Carolina being a pivotal swing state for Trump’s re-election bid, the vulnerability of Tillis seeking his first re-election, and Charlotte being the host of the 2020 Republican National Convention.

“Considering the various personalities and power bases within the N.C. Republican Party, (it) will make the potential replacement process must-see TV,” Bitzer said.

According to political analysts, among potential Republican replacements for Burr are U.S. Reps. Mark Walker (6th District), George Holding (2nd) and Patrick McHenry (10th), former U.S. Rep. and current White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and former Gov. Pat McCrory — all considered sufficiently loyal to Trump to gain his support.

“One would think Trump would endorse Meadows,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“McConnell thinks in a broad strategic way. Uppermost in his mind will be: Who can best hold this seat at the next election?”

Double standard?

Political analysts suggested that if Justice officials do not take similar search warrant actions against U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., for her February stock sales, it will be a sign that Justice wants Burr replaced as Intelligence chairman for not protecting Trump in the Russian elections investigation.

U.S. Senate public document disclosures show Loeffler, who was sworn into office Jan. 6, and her husband sold more than $1 million worth of stock in 29 separate transactions — 27 sales and two purchases — in February.

The only February trading overlap with the Burrs and Loeffler was that they sold Abbvie stock.

Multiple media outlets have reported that Loeffler voluntarily submitted stock transaction documents to U.S. Justice, SEC and Senate Ethics committee. She has said her stock sales were handled by third-party financial advisers.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Friday that a Loeffler spokeswoman said the senator has not been served any search warrants.

Burr and Loeffler 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.

The controversy over Burr’s stock sales fits into the wheelhouse of an influential Washington watchdog organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics. The nonprofit filed a complaint March 30 to the Senate Ethics committee, citing the stock trades by Burr and Loeffler.

The senators “should be investigated for possible violations of the STOCK Act, insider trading laws and ethics rules when they sold millions of dollars in stock assets after receiving nonpublic briefings about the coronavirus outbreak,” said Noah Bookbinder, CREW’s executive director.

“You have seen partisan actions taken by the U.S. attorney general in the favor of a Trump administration official (Michael Flynn) and a longtime supporter in Roger Stone,” Bookbinder said.

“Those steps were so extraordinarily outside the norm for the U.S. Justice Department that it’s hard to rule out there’s a political motivation in the FBI going after Burr, and not Loeffler.”