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Daycare, Chick-fil-A close as COVID-19 cases rise to 5 in Forsyth. State says there’s evidence of community spread in NC.

With at least five cases of new coronavirus in Forsyth County and more than 100 in the state, local health officials are not releasing information about where local cases originated and who patients have been in contact with.

The Forsyth County Department of Public Health announced three additional cases Thursday, more than doubling the previous total of two.

While the official state total sits at 97, there are at least 118 known cases in North Carolina, according to various county health departments.

Public health departments, private labs and university hospitals have administered at least 2,505 COVID-19 tests in the state, according to N.C. DHHS. The state public health lab administered 549 of the tests and has supplies to test 900 more patients.

The largest cluster of cases can be found in Durham and Mecklenburg counties, where there are at least 32 cases in each. There are 22 cases in Wake County. There are at least eight known cases in the Triad.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday in Raleigh, Gov. Roy Cooper said “community transmission” of the disease has begun, with the first known example occurring in Wilson County.

The CDC says community spread means people have been infected with the virus without traveling outside their communities, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected.

The Wilson County case is the state’s first known case not related to travel or close contact with someone who has the virus.

Few answers

Answering questions from reporters Thursday after briefing the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners on the current state of COVID-19 response in the county, Public Health Director Joshua Swift appeared to distance himself from statements made a week ago when he said the risk to the public was low and that the pandemic was comparable to the H1N1 outbreak.

“I don’t believe there’s a way to put a label on the risk,” Swift said. He said it’s hard to compare one pandemic to another.

“It’s hard to compare as far as every time you deal with a pandemic or an illness, there are differences.”

All five Forsyth County cases are linked to out-of-state travel, according to the health department, and one of the patients is no longer showing symptoms.

Swift declined to release any information about where the patients traveled, how old they are or how many people they had come into contact with in the area, citing guidance from the North Carolina Division of Public Health.

However, other counties in the state, as well as the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, have released such information. When asked why he was opting not to, Swift cited privacy concerns.

“Some counties where health departments have released additional information, those people have been harassed,” Swift said, “and we don’t want to do anything that would deter someone from getting tested.”

Swift said the risk of experiencing severe symptoms lies primarily with people over the age of 65, and that most young people may not even experience symptoms.

Of the more than 500 patients hospitalized due to COVID-19 nationwide, 38% are between the age of 20 and 54, according to a report from the CDC. About 47% of patients admitted to intensive care units were adults under 65.

Swift said he had not read the report and could not comment on it.

Businesses close

At least one local COVID-19 case caused the Kernersville Chick-fil-A and the daycare at Main Street Baptist Church to temporarily close after both businesses were exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus.

The church’s childcare facility sent a letter Wednesday night announcing the closure after a parent of a child who attends the daycare tested positive for COVID-19.

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Walter Overman said in the letter that the church has not determined how long its daycare will be closed.

“I am very sorry for any inconvenience this may cause for you, your families and your employers,” Overman wrote. “My sincerest desire was to remain open, recognizing the importance of the service we provide for not only you, but also for the community at large.”

Overman told the Journal he wouldn’t reveal what county the child’s family lives in, but said he and the daycare staff looked to the Forsyth County Department of Public Health for guidance.

“We ended up speaking with a nurse eventually, and she gave us instructions,” Overman said.

The nurse told them to clean and sanitize the daycare, and it was their decision whether to close, Overman said.

When he asked if the church should inform the families about the positive case and possible exposure of COVID-19 to the children and other families, Overman said the nurse told him it was up to them. The daycare said if a family’s child attended the “Younger Toddlers through PreK” program, it’s possible that child came into contact with an infected person.

A person with knowledge of the exchange, who did not want to be named, said a person on the county health department’s COVID-19 hotline accused the church of inciting panic by telling the families who use the daycare about the positive diagnosis and had advised the daycare not to tell families.

Asked about the incident, Swift said, “If they believe they were in close contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19, we encourage them to voluntarily quarantine themselves and to practice social distancing and to monitor for 14 days.

“... We’re referring everyone to the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services and their guidance because the guidance is changing rapidly on a daily basis.”

Overman told the Journal he has received mostly positive reactions from parents, thanking him for closing the daycare and informing the families.

The person with knowledge of the daycare’s positive case said that patient is linked to a possible case of COVID-19 at the Kernersville Chick-fil-A. The Kernersville restaurant’s franchisee, David Grix, said he is closing the restaurant after an employee there started showing symptoms.

“Out of an abundance of caution, I have decided to temporarily close our restaurant after learning someone on my team has started to experience symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and has been in close contact with a person who has a confirmed diagnosis,” Grix wrote on the store’s Facebook page. “No team members at the restaurant have been diagnosed with COVID-19 at this time.”

Clean sweep

Fredrick Barren, a painter with the Winston-Salem Department of Recreation and Parks, pressure washes playground equipment at Washington Park on Thursday. Recreation and Parks employees will be disinfecting parks all over the city during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Kids, teachers handle first day of online learning in stride despite some technology glitches

Scarlett Kriofske got up early Thursday, slipped on some leggings and a sweatshirt, ate breakfast and went to school, which for the time being, will take place at her family’s kitchen table.

A sixth-grader at Wiley Magnet Middle School, Scarlett said she thought the first day of online learning went pretty well.

For one thing, she enjoyed not having to abide by the school’s dress code. She was also able to connect with teachers to get her assignments with little difficulty.

After three days of preparation, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools shifted into online learning, with many of its 55,000 students logging on Thursday to reconnect with teachers and get back to work.

PowerSchool Learning, a platform that teachers use to post assignments and hold discussions, became bogged down for parts of the day, a problem that school spokesman Brent Campbell said was beyond the district’s control. Other school systems across the country use PowerSchool, leading to the outages. Students will not be penalized if the outages cause them to miss an assignment.

“We want to use eLearning to keep students engaged and active, not stressed or worried,” Campbell said in a statement.

But teachers found other ways to connect, including emails, phone calls and other messaging systems.

Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order Saturday shutting down public schools to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The official state total of cases is 97, though there are at least 118 known cases in North Carolina, according to various county health departments. Cooper said at a press conference Thursday that schools will likely be closed for a longer period of time.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools rolled out an ambitious plan to distribute 18,000 Chromebooks to students in a two-day period. Next week, about 4,000 mobile hotspots will become available for students who don’t have internet access.

School officials asked parents to put their kids on a routine to help adjust to this different style of learning.

Scarlett put herself on such a routine, sitting down to start her schoolwork around 8:45 a.m., and powering through several classes.

“I want to get it done early, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. It’s a lot to do in a little amount of time,” she said. “Online school is way harder in my opinion.”

Her father, Kris, was working from home, making him the family’s point person for making sure Scarlett and her sisters, Anna and Isabel, stayed on top of their schoolwork. Anna and Isabel go to Reynolds High School and worked independently.

“So far from what I can tell, it’s been smooth. They got their lessons from their teachers, and their teachers have been actively engaged. They’ve all responded,” Kriofske said. “Life is going on. It’s not like we’re in a bunker or anything where nothing is happening. Life is continuing but it’s different.”

Marshall Marvelli, who teaches 9th and 10th grade English at Paisley IB Magnet School, spent some of his day reconnecting with his students by phone.

“Oh God, you have no idea how I missed those kids,” he said. “The children, not all, but some, are anxious. One student was afraid and said she thought she was looking at the world coming apart.”

The district is asking people to post pictures on kids learning at home on social media with the hashtag #wsfcslearnon.

Evictions halted in Forsyth and elsewhere by chief justice's order

A new order from Chief Justice Cheri Beasley will keep the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office from having to serve pending eviction notices until April. That means people who are facing eviction will get to stay in their homes until at least April 17.

Housing advocates have been urging county officials to stop eviction proceedings against Forsyth County residents during the coronavirus pandemic. Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough held a news conference Tuesday in which he said he had talked to Chief District Court Judge Lisa Menefee about pausing eviction orders that were signed before Beasley halted all court proceedings for 30 days.

Menefee had said she didn’t have the authority. But on Thursday, Beasley issued another order that states “all pleadings, motions, notices and other documents and papers that were or are due to be filed in any county of this state on or after” March 16 and before April 17 should be considered timely filed if they are filed at the close of business on April 17.

“Sheriff Kimbrough is grateful for this order, and the wisdom of Chief Justice Beasley,” said Brad Stanley, a special assistant to Kimbrough. “The sheriff is trying to help the people of Forsyth County specifically, and now that has spilled over to the state of North Carolina.”

Under the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, “the sheriff will always do what is legal and what is right,” Stanley said. “That is what he’s tried to do in this situation.”

Christina Howell, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said the order means that any pending eviction orders that the sheriff’s office was required to serve will essentially be halted until April 17.

Kimbrough said Tuesday that the sheriff’s office had 76 eviction orders it was legally obligated to serve on residents who were delinquent on their rent. Eight of those were magistrate summons and represent the beginning of the eviction process. The sheriff’s office served four eviction orders on Tuesday. One of the tenants, however, paid the past-due amount and was allowed to remain in their home.

The other three were evicted.

That left 64 eviction orders, or writs of possession, which the sheriff’s office was previously required to serve before March 23. The order from Beasley means those 64 writs of possession will not have to be served until mid-April.

Burr gave stark COVID-19 warning to private group weeks ago. Senator also sold stocks in hospitality industry, according to report

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr told members of a well-connected private group that the novel coronavirus would have dire effects on the U.S. economy and population, likening it to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that left millions dead, according to a secret recording obtained by NPR.

Also on Thursday, ProPublica reported that Burr sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million in stocks on Feb. 13, including in the hotel and hospitality industry.

The trading occurred six days after Burr co-wrote an op-ed piece saying America had tools in place to combat COVID-19 and seven days before the first major decline in the stock market.

Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned about the dangers of COVID-19 on Feb. 27 — the same day President Donald Trump downplayed the virus.

The audience was identified by NPR as the Tar Heel Circle, a nonpartisan group comprised of business leaders and entities. A membership in the group costs between $500 and $10,000 and the group claims on its website to offer “interaction with top leaders and staff from Congress, the administration and the private sector.”

Burr told the audience that “there’s one thing I can tell you about this, it is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything we have seen in recent history.”

“It’s probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic” that had 675,000 deaths in the U.S. and 50 million worldwide.

Trump said that day of COVID-19: “it’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle. It will disappear. It could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens.”

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

On Thursday, Burr spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll said that “Senator Burr has been banging the drum about the importance of public health preparedness for more than 20 years.”

She did not respond when asked about why Burr offered a stark COVID-19 warning in private, but hasn’t made similar comments to the public.

Hospitality stock sales

ProPublica reported Burr sold a large portion of his stock portfolio Feb. 13. The assets come from accounts that are held by Burr, his spouse or are jointly held.

Periodic financial disclosures are required to be submitted by U.S. senators.

Burr sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings in 33 separate transactions. The publication Roll Call has listed his net worth at $1.7 million as of 2018.

Burr made his first statement on his Senate website about coronavirus in a Feb. 7 op-ed piece written with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health committee. At that time, there were 15 identified cases in the U.S.

“Senator Burr filed a financial disclosure form for personal transactions made several weeks before the U.S. and financial markets showed signs of volatility due to the growing coronavirus outbreak,” Carroll said.

“As the situation continues to evolve daily, he has been deeply concerned by the steep and sudden toll this pandemic is taking on our economy.”

The reporting documents showed some of the stock Burr sold on Feb. 13 included separate transactions valued at between $15,001 and $50,000, and between $50,001 and $100,000 of shares of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts.

On Feb. 4, Burr bought between $1,000 and $15,000 worth of stock in Extended Stay America, but also sold stock valued between $15,001 and $50,000 that same day.

On Feb. 13, Burr sold in separate transactions Extended Stay America stock worth between $15,001 and $50,000, and between $50,001 and $100,000.

Other companies whose stock Burr sold Feb. 13 in the range of $50,001 and $100,000 were biopharmaceutical company AbbVie Inc., automobile coatings company Axatla Coatings Systems Ltd., telecommunications company Centurylink Inc., insurer Everest RE Group Ltd., and alcoholic beverages manufacturer Constellation Brands Inc, Class A shares.

Multiple media outlets said there is no evidence that Burr sold the stock on the basis of any insider information gained from his chairmanship.

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

‘Putting lives at risk’

On Twitter, Burr was accused of “putting American lives at risk to maintain allegiance to Trump,” because he didn’t make his warnings about COVID-19 publicly.

Scott Huffman, Democratic candidate for North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, said in a tweet: “Shame on you for not stepping up and sounding the alarm so we could have started preparing then.”

Burr’s comments to the group came 13 days before the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to Europe and 15 days before the president banned European travelers, according to NPR.

“Every company should be cognizant of the fact that you may have to alter your travel,” Burr said on the recording.

“You may have to look at your employees and judge whether the trip they’re making to Europe is essential or whether it can be done on video conference. Why risk it?” Burr said.

NPR also pointed out that 16 days before Gov. Roy Cooper ordered March 14 the closing of schools due to COVID-19, Burr warned the audience of that likelihood.

“There will be, I’m sure, times that communities, probably some in North Carolina, have a transmission rate where they say, ‘Let’s close schools for two weeks. Everybody stay home,’” he said.

Burr also spoke about requiring the assistance of military hospitals to handle a potential surge in COVID-19 cases.

‘U.S. in better position’

Alexander and Burr said in the op-ed that “thankfully, the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus, in large part due to the work of the Senate Health committee, Congress and the Trump Administration.”

“The work of Congress and the administration has allowed U.S. public health officials to move swiftly and decisively in the last few weeks,” including that the “CDC has developed a diagnostic test that detects coronavirus infections and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is prepared to expedite its review.”

Burr issued a statement March 3, when the first COVID-19 case was disclosed by state health officials, in which he said “the U.S. is in a better position than any other nation to handle a public health emergency like coronavirus.”

Carroll said Thursday that Burr’s message “has always been, and continues to be, that we must be prepared to protect American lives in the event of a pandemic or bio-attack.”

“Since early February, whether in constituent meetings or open hearings, he has worked to educate the public about the tools and resources our government has to confront the spread of coronavirus.”

“At the same time, he has urged public officials to fully utilize every tool at their disposal in this effort. Every American should take this threat seriously and should follow the latest guidelines from the CDC and state officials.”