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Forsyth reports 84 new COVID-19 cases; total surpasses 2,000

Forsyth County surged past the 2,000 case mark for COVID-19 on Friday amid concerns about increased community spread causing the uptick.

The county Department of Public Health reported 84 new cases, bringing the total to 2,051. The highest Forsyth day-over-day case increase was 162, reported on June 1. Public health officials now list Forsyth among eight counties in the state running the greatest risk of rapid spread of the virus.

The county reported 66 recoveries, bringing that total to 1,254 with active cases at 772. There have been 25 COVID-19-related deaths in the county.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services lists cases and deaths by Zip code. Southeastern Winston-Salem’s 27107 has the most deaths at six, followed by 27284 in Kernersville at four, and three each in Winston-Salem’s 27103, 27104 and 27127 (the southwestern, northwestern and southern portions of the city, respectively).

Access to testing will soon improve in the county. Novant Health, the Forsyth County Department of Public Health and CVS pharmacy all announced plans Friday to expand virus testing in eastern Winston-Salem after strong criticism from community leaders and social activists.

East Winston and the city’s 27105 as a whole had been left out of initial locations for testing — even as black and Latino people have been disproportionately affected by the virus across the country.

County health officials said this week they will halt providing weekend COVID-19 case and death updates.

Meanwhile, the state experienced again a new high mark for day-over-day increase, with officials on Friday reporting 1,768 cases for a total of 41,249 lab-confirmed positive tests. DHHS has reported more than 4,000 new cases since Wednesday.

There were 1,092 deaths statewide as of noon Friday, up two from the previous report.

The number of North Carolinians currently hospitalized with COVID-19 dropped from a high of 812 on Thursday to 760 on Friday. The hospitalization count has exceeded 700 for five consecutive days.

Gov. Roy Cooper said Friday that while there is a correlation between increased testing (from 5,000 to 15,000 daily in the past three weeks) and an uptick in cases, “these numbers show the disease is spreading and more people need hospital care.”

“This has to be taken seriously. Anyone who has been in a large crowd needs to be tested, even if you don’t have symptoms.”

Lowes Foods

Employees at three area Lowes Foods have tested positive for COVID-19, the grocery store chain confirmed Friday.

One employee at each of three stores — one on Robinhood Road, one on Peters Creek Parkway and one in Kernersville — tested positive for the virus, according to company spokesperson Kelly Davis.

According to the FDA, there has been no evidence that food or food packaging is associated with transmission of COVID-19.

After learning of the cases, Davis said Lowes consulted with state and local health experts, reinforced its cleaning and sanitizing protocols and, with the support and encouragement of the local health department, the stores remained open.

Davis said any employee who doesn’t feel well or may have been exposed is encouraged to stay home.

City council meeting

The Winston-Salem City Council’s plan to meet together for the first time since the outbreak of COVID-19 was dashed on Friday when it was learned that a council member was exposed to someone who tested positive for the disease.

The city council will still meet at 7 p.m. Monday to pass the budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, but the meeting will be held virtually to limit potential exposure.

Council Member Annette Scippio said she has a relative who has tested positive for the coronavirus, and may learn the outcome of her own test before Monday’s scheduled meeting. Scippio was tested Friday and said she expects results back in 48 hours.

The changed meeting procedure won’t make any difference to the general public, since any public participation was already limited to telephone-only.

But council members were to have met together for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus caused government bodies here and elsewhere to cancel their in-person meetings. The plan had been to hold the meeting at Benton Convention Center, where the council could use one of the big ballrooms to space themselves out and maintain social distancing.

Nursing homes

The state reports that 642, or 58.8%, of all COVID-19 deaths have occurred in nursing home or residential care facilities.

There have been 4,841 cases in those facilities, representing 11.7% of the statewide total.

As of 4 p.m. Friday, nursing homes and residential care centers in these Triad and Northwest N.C. counties have active outbreaks: Forsyth with eight, Guilford with seven, Randolph with three, Alamance and Stokes with two and Ashe and Davidson with one each.

Altogether, there are 644 active cases in those facilities, along with 71 deaths, including 37 in Guilford and 27 in Alamance.

There has been one resident death reported at the Citadel at Winston-Salem and Silas Creek Rehabilitation Center.

In Forsyth, Silas Creek Rehabilitation has 11 residents and nine staff members test positive for COVID-19. The Citadel has six residents and six staff. Oak Forest Health and Rehabilitation has 11 staff and one resident. Piney Grove Nursing and Rehabilitation Center has four residents and two staff. The Oaks has one resident and one staff. Forest Heights Senior Living Community has three staff and one resident. Trinity Elms has two staff and one resident. Somerset Court at University Place has two staff.

DHHS is reporting the outbreak is over at Davidson’s Alston Brook nursing center, where there were 62 cases and eight deaths.

Challenge for Cooper

The Cooper administration is monitoring five public-health data points: number of hospitalizations; number of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators available; number of positive cases; percentage of positive cases; and number of individuals coming to hospital emergency rooms with COVID-19 symptoms.

The state’s upward trend in cases, hospitalizations, percentage of positive cases and deaths continues to present a challenge to Cooper and state health officials.

Cooper said Friday his options continue to include a “Phase 2.5” reopening, which would ease more business restrictions between now and the planned Phase Three reopening on June 26.

It also could include delaying the start of Phase Three, which would keep closed private bars and clubs, and prohibit indoor usage of fitness centers, gyms and health clubs.

Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, said they are not ready to set data benchmarks that would compel a delaying of Phase Three or a return to Phase One.

“We’re looking at the science and the trends,” Cooper said. ‘There has not been a decision made at this point. Neither one is off the table.”

Moving in wrong direction

Cohen provided an update on the measuring sticks three weeks after the start of the Phase Two reopening on May 22.

All of the metrics are moving in the wrong direction, Cohen said.

North Carolina’s 10% positive test rate is among the highest in the country. Cohen said she would feel more comfortable with a 5% positive rate.

“I am concerned about our COVID-19 trends,” Cohen said, particularly since four times in the past week there have been at least 1,000 new cases day over day.

Even with record levels of daily testing, Cohen said “the pace of the (cases) increase shows us that this virus is still very much present in communities across the state.”

In addition to Forsyth, counties considered at greatest risk for rapid spread of the virus are Wake, Mecklenburg, Durham, Johnston, Alamance, Lee and Duplin.

Yet, Cohen believes the state still is experiencing the first wave of COVID, rather than a second wave.

“It reminds us that the virus is here and we have to learn to live with it so we don’t see any spike,” Cohen said.
“We have to keep the virus level low enough that we can go about doing things, like opening our schools back up ... and not overwhelm our health-care system.”

Cooper said his administration “wants to avoid going backward if we possibly can.”

“I know people are tired of this virus. It’s been hard on everybody. But it’s still deadly and we cannot let our guard down.”

But the state would reimpose stay-at-home restrictions if it needs to, he said.

Legislation

On June 5, Cooper vetoed House Bill 536, which would allowed for a partial opening of private bars and clubs, along with additional patron capacity outdoors for restaurants.

When asked about Wednesday’s passage of House Bill 594 by the legislature, which would allow a partial reopening for private bars and clubs, fitness centers, gyms and health clubs, Cooper said he will review the legislation.

Cooper has 10 days to either sign HB594, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

“Obviously, I would rather do it through an executive order,” Cooper said.

“That legislation makes the process much more clumsy and much more difficult to change in the event we need to reinstate an executive order.”

HB594 would require the concurrence of the 10-member Council of State for the Cooper administration to reimpose public-health restrictions on those businesses. The council is comprised of six Republicans and four Democrats.


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Ace Speedway operators won't defy restraining order. They hope to have races later this season.

Jason Turner, who with his father runs the operations at Ace Speedway, says they haven’t given up on the racing season just yet. A judge ruled Thursday in favor of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, granting a restraining order that bars racing at the speedway near Elon. Races set for today and Friday have been canceled.

Another hearing is scheduled for Friday in Alamance County.

“We are not going against the temporary restraining order,” Turner said. “We are going to follow the temporary restraining order. We are still making improvements to the track, and we will be ready once we can return to racing.”

On Thursday, Alamance County Superior Court Judge Tom Lambeth ruled that the track would be closed after violating Gov. Roy Cooper’s Phase Two guidelines, which limit outdoor sporting events to 25 people.

Turner said, despite the loss of the seven races scheduled for today and next weekend, the plan is to do whatever he can to race later this summer.

“We aren’t going to give up,” Turner said.

Turner said he and his father, Robert, who lease the track from Abraham Woidislawsky who lives near Philadelphia, have no intention of defying the restraining order.

“You just go through the motions and what comes next with the next hearing,” Turner said. “It’s a shame that we get put out for seven more races, and that’s half our season so we will lose about 50% of our season.”

Turner said he’s seen a lot of support from the track’s fans, who have set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to help the Turners with their legal fees. That effort has raised almost $16,000 of its $50,000 goal in two days.

“I had somebody call us from New Mexico who wanted to buy two tickets,” Turner said. “And I asked her if she was actually coming to the races. But she said, ‘No, I just want to help the cause.’ We stuck our necks out and did what was right, and now we are seeing the support from people.”

Part of that support is a rally at 11 a.m. today in Burlington. The rally, sponsored by ReOpen N.C., is being billed as a Cruise-In Car Show tailgate and will be held at 3222 N.C. 49 in Burlington.

A Facebook post says the rally is for Ace Speedway “and all businesses currently being oppressed.”

Kevin Neal, a driver at Ace Speedway who is from Walkertown, says he will be there.

“I’m excited about the rally to be able to show my support for Ace Speedway just as they have for all of us racers,” Neal said. “I think it’s a great time for racers, fans and family to rise up and come together.

“What’s going on just isn’t right. It’s against our First Amendment. Governors are taking our rights and freedom right before our own eyes. I hope this event gives Ace Speedway the thank-you they deserve for standing up for what they believe.”

Neal’s son, 12-year-old Riley, was going to make his racing debut this weekend in a Street Stock Division race, but now that is on hold.

Turner said he and his father plan to keep pushing for their speedway.

“They aren’t going to break me,” Turner said. “They can maybe slow us down and shut down the track, but nothing is going to stop me from running my business. Ultimately, our business will start back up again, and we don’t know when that might be because it’s in the court’s hands now.”


Local
Forsyth County jail officers contract COVID-19, authorities say

Five detention officers at the Forsyth County jail have contracted COVID-19, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office said Friday.

There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the jail’s current population of 629 inmates, said Christina Howell, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office.

“The results have been negative for every (inmate) who has been tested,” the sheriff’s office said.

Not every inmate is being tested, Howell said. The detention officers who tested positive are self-quarantining at their homes, she said.

The infected officers were among the 84 new cases of COVID-19 reported Friday by the Forsyth County Department of Public Health, according to Assistant County Manager Shontell Robinson.

Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough said the jail is committed to protecting inmates and officers.

“We are thankful that the measures implemented have kept the (inmates) in our care safe from COVID-19,” Kimbrough said. “We will continue to work closely with the Forsyth County Department of Public Health to ensure that everyone remains safe and healthy to the best of our ability.”

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services requires local sheriff’s offices to publicly release information about its detention officers or inmates who test positive for the novel coronavirus.

Court officials, not the sheriff’s office, decide whether inmates remain in the jail, according to the sheriff’s office.

Inmate advocates and some demonstrators in recent protests in Winston-Salem have demanded inmates be released from the jail amid the coronavirus pandemic.

From March 13 through Friday, 1,448 inmates have been released from the jail, and 1,323 new people booked into jail, according to the sheriff’s office.

On March 13, the sheriff’s office suspended all public visitation for inmates except for their attorneys.

The sheriff’s office has taken other measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus such as:

  • All detention and contract staff are checked daily for symptoms and fever before they enter the jail. The sheriff’s office said on March 13 that inmates also would be screened.
  • Every newly admitted inmate is asked specific questions by the jail’s medical services provider regarding exposure to and symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Newly admitted inmates are held in the jail’s intake housing for 14 days before being moved into the jail’s general population, as opposed to the normal 72-hour hold before the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Jail staff members working in areas where they interact with newly admitted inmates wear N95 respirators.
  • Detention and contract staff employes are wearing surgical masks while interacting with the jail’s inmate population.
  • Staff members wear surgical masks when they cannot practice social distancing while interacting with co-workers.
  • The current inmates have received surgical masks to wear inside the jail. Each housing unit has foaming hand sanitizer readily available to inmates.
  • Hospital-strength cleaner is used to clean cells. Inmate workers assigned to intake housing are wearing N95s masks and personal protective equipment.
  • Educational materials about the importance of hand-washing and physical distancing are available on kiosk machines and in the inmate’s cells inside the jail.
  • Fewer inmates are out of their cells at one time, allowing for physical distancing. Inmates who have to leave the jail for medical appointments and court hearings are given masks.

In addition, the jail’s population specialist works with the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office to manage the inmate population, according to the sheriff’s office.

“By receiving continually updated information, the DA’s office is able to work within the judicial system to minimize the number of new residents introduced into the existing population,” the sheriff’s office said.


Local
Here's what school might look like when classes begin again in Forsyth County

For the 2020-21 school year in Forsyth County, buses may transport only 14 students at a time; students may be in their school for one week, then back at home the following week; and students who rely on bus transportation may have to go to their residential schools instead of the school of their choice.

Officials with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools are giving weekly briefings to a committee made up of members of the board of education about what the new school year will look like, using guidance recently released by the state.

Nothing has been decided — that will need approval from the school board — but varying scenarios are being crafted and put forth to the committee, all with the goal of keeping 55,000 students and thousands more faculty and staff members safe from COVID-19, which has infected more than 2 million Americans and killed 112,000 as of Friday. North Carolina had 1,768 more cases Friday, the single largest daily increase, pushing the state total past 40,000.

“Best-case scenario is that we will go to school as normal, or have some interruption,” Superintendent Angela Hairston told committee members Thursday. “The worst case is that everybody will go back to remote learning, and schools are closed. But we are planning based on different information we receive about our district.”

Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools in mid-March, and because the virus continued to spread, they never reopened. Remote learning proved to be a challenge for most teachers and students, most of whom downloaded assignments on computers, recorded videos or met in video conferences.

The school system said about 7,000 students did not regularly log on to computers, and it has plans to use nearly a $1 million in federal money to form teams that will go into communities where students did not engage in learning and encourage them to re-engage.

State guidelines, issued earlier this week and approved Thursday by the State Board of Education, call for local districts to prepare for three different plans: Plan A calls for minimal social distancing; Plan B calls for moderate social distancing; and Plan C calls for remote learning.

Each plan comes with requirements and recommendations. Hygiene, distancing and screening will be part of each plan.

The state will announce on July 1 which plan schools need to enact for the start of the school year, expected to be Aug. 17.

The district will launch a Virtual Academy for the 2020-21 school year, for students who do not want to return to a brick-and-mortar school. About 1,100 students have applied to the school.

One of the biggest issues is transportation and how the virus may spread on a bus that carries children to two or three locations. The school system’s bus transportation system is complex, with some buses carrying students to two or three different schools.

So one infected bus rider could unwittingly spread the virus to multiple schools, leading to a possible closure of those schools.

Eliminating cross-contamination is the driving reason behind a proposal to have children who ride buses attend their residential school. In Forsyth County, students can choose the school that they want to attend.

About 50% of the students in the system ride a bus.

“There are possibilities where a student rides a bus and two or three students go in different directions,” Hairston said. “Cross-contamination causes us angst when it comes to closing our schools when we have a positive. Because of the wave of positive reports in our county, that is highly likely.”

Students who have their own transportation could continue to attend the school of their choice.

Because buses may have to top out at 14 riders, transporting all the students to their school of choice becomes too expensive. The school system is trying to find government money to help pay for transportation for students who want to attend magnet schools or their school of choice.

Board member Dana Jones said she is worried about younger children who will attend new schools. These young children may not understand why they can’t go back to their old school, why they are getting screened and why people are wearing personal protective equipment.

“I’m thinking about the social, emotional piece more than the choice piece,” she said.

Malishai Woodbury, the chairman of the school board, said children will learn to adapt.

“I definitely understand where board member Jones comes from. Because the priority is safety there’s a lot of things we’re going to have to be resilient about,” she said.

Jan Atkinson, who co-chairs the committee with Bill Powell, said that because of social distancing guidelines, the schools will operate at 50% capacity. In order to do that, the system is considering dividing the student body into two cohorts, with each cohort going to school one week and back at home the other.

Children from pre-K to third grade would still go daily, as well as students in small-group situations such as those in Exceptional Children programs.

“There’s no wonderful solution to this but we’re doing our best,” Atkinson said. “The ideal situation is everyone is back in school but since it looks like we’re between Plan B and Plan C, we’re trying to make it work to the best of our ability and for all of our students.”

The school board is likely to vote on a reopening plan in late June.