Forsyth County will impose a stay-at-home order, effective at 5 p.m. Friday, joining Winston-Salem and many other places that are passing restrictions in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Dave Plyler, the chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, said Thursday that he would sign a stay-home order similar to the one ordered in Winston-Salem. The county order, like the one in Winston-Salem, would be in effect until April 16.

It would apply to unincorporated parts of Forsyth County and any towns or villages that want to be included.

The county decision comes after strong pleas from local hospital officials to impose the stay-at-home regulations, which come with many exceptions allowing people to take care of necessary tasks.

Forsyth Medical Center has more than 50 patients who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are suspected to have the new coronavirus that causes it, an infectious-disease expert told commissioners Thursday afternoon. The hospital draws patients from around the area, but it wasn’t clear where the 50 people live.

Dr. David Priest, an infectious-diseases specialist with Novant, spoke to county commissioners as they discussed whether to issue a countywide stay-at-home order.

“We believe our most important ally in the prevention of spread is social distancing and sheltering in place,” Priest told commissioners. “It is a lot like compound interest: A very small number of individuals with the virus can exponentially spread to many hundreds or thousands if we don’t isolate those individuals.”

Such a rapid growth in cases would overwhelm the ability of hospitals — and critical- and intensive-care units in particular — to respond, Priest said.

All commissioners were in favor of the stay-at-home order. Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt said she opposes any penalties for violators, but was the only member of the board to say so.

The stay-at-home order being prepared for the county will include penalties such as those included in Winston-Salem’s orders, which include a class 2 misdemeanor charge for violators. Police say they will be enforcing the restrictions through citations.

County officials said Kernersville, Walkertown, Tobaccoville and Bethania leaders have all said they want their communities included. Clemmons has its own order so it won’t be joining the county order.

County Attorney Gordon Watkins said the county is still waiting for a final decision from Lewisville leaders.

Meanwhile, officials in Rural Hall and the Forsyth County part of the City of King don’t want to be included in the county order.

Winston-Salem officials hope to use persuasion more than tickets to enforce a new stay-at-home order that goes into effect at 5 p.m. Friday.

Assistant Winston-Salem City Manager Damon Dequenne said the stay-at-home order should be seen in the nature of a “social contract” with everyone using their best judgment and keeping their distance properly.

“This is not a police state,” Dequenne said, adding that writing citations won’t be the first step in an officer’s approach to a violation.

To reinforce that point, Winston-Salem police officers will enforce the new rules through “education, dialogue and seeking voluntary cooperation from all residents and businesses.”

What authorities don’t want you to do is call 911 to find out about the coronavirus orders: The county’s 911 system has been flooded with inquiries, which slows the ability to respond to actual emergencies, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.

Anyone with questions should call 311, or call 336-727-8000, or visit https://www.cityofws.org/2681/Stay-At-Home-Order-FAQs.

The city’s order, a 14-page document, tells city residents to stay at home unless carrying out essential activities.

Those can include taking care of health and safety, getting essential supplies and services, certain kinds of work, taking care of others and recreation.

Surry County officials reported that county’s first case of COVID-19 on Thursday.

With more than 630 cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina, and at least 49 in the Triad, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has issued new guidance, telling people with mild symptoms to stay home.

The updated guidance is intended to slow the spread of the virus. As people with mild cases of the new coronavirus leave their homes to get tested, they could expose others to the disease. The guidance also comes in the face of a national shortage of personal protective equipment and supplies for health-care professionals.

“Testing is most important for people who are seriously ill, in the hospital, people in high-risk settings like nursing homes or long-term care facilities, health-care workers and other first responders who are caring for those with COVID-19,” the state health department wrote in its new guidance.

The state health department says testing won’t change the treatment for the mildly ill because there is no treatment for COVID-19.

In the Triad, there are 24 known cases in Guilford County, 17 in Forsyth County, three in Davidson County, three in Randolph County and one each in Davie and Surry counties.

In addition to Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, the list of places that have declared or plan to declare stay-at-home orders include Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Durham, Buncombe, Gaston, Cabarrus, Madison, Pitt and Orange counties.

North Carolina reported its first COVID-19 related deaths Wednesday.

DHHS officials said the average age is 41 for N.C. individuals testing positive for the virus.

The primary warning from state and federal public health officials has been that those ages 60 and older, and those with immune issues, are the individuals most at risk from contracting COVID-19.

DHHS said about half of the state’s 10,000 in-patient hospital beds were unoccupied as of Thursday, and that there were 50 individuals statewide who have been hospitalized for treatment. The results from nearly 15,400 tests have been obtained with more than 15,000 pending.

wyoung@wsjournal.com

336-727-7369

@wyoungWSJ

Journal reporter Lee O. Sanderlin contributed to this story.

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