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Board of ed votes 3-2 to make masks optional for students, reserves right to make mandatory
Goes against recommendations from NCDHHS, CDC

WATAUGA — In a 3-2 vote on July 26, the Watauga County Board of Education is making masks optional for all students, but reserves the right to change that decision. Masks are still required for all students riding on a school bus, per federal guidelines.

Board members Jay Fenwick and Marshall Ashcraft voted against making masks optional for students while Steve Combs, Gary Childers and Jason Cornett voted for it. The vote to make masks optional for students goes against recommendations from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The board also voted unanimously that masks are required for all employees while in any Watauga County School owned facilities or vehicles, but they can be exempt from wearing a mask if they voluntarily provide proof of vaccination or otherwise qualify for a legal or medical exemption.

For indoor extracurricular events, the board did not take any action, but strongly encourages masking for those who are not vaccinated. Visitors or volunteers who will have close contact with students will be expected to wear a mask unless they provide verification of their vaccine status. In essence, visitors and volunteers close to students will be treated like employees.

The motion to make masks optional for students passed despite almost every board member agreeing that they thought — while hoping it wouldn’t — COVID-19 cases and transmission would rise in the county in the future.

While masks are optional for WCS students, the quarantining requirements from NCDHHS will remain enforced. This includes that if an unvaccinated student is found to be in close contact with a COVID-19 positive person and both were not wearing a mask, they will have to quarantine. If an unvaccinated student is wearing a mask and comes in contact with a COVID-19 positive student not wearing a mask, they still have to quarantine.

Those quarantine requirements are lessened for students who are vaccinated. Those requirements can be found at covid19.ncdhhs.gov/media/164/open.

Quarantining for students who do not wear masks and are not vaccinated is longer and more comprehensive than for students who wear masks or are vaccinated.

As of July 26, NCDHHS reports that 811 people between 12-17 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Watauga County.

Before they voted, the board members deliberated for more than three-and-a-half hours and heard from WCS head nurse Shelly Klutz as well as AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene.

“The board did not make this decision lightly and took into consideration balancing the risks with protection of students, while also giving parents the flexibility of making masking decisions,” WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott said. “The board also made clear that they are willing to revisit this and reinstate a mask requirement if community conditions deteriorate and that masking is necessary to prevent outbreaks and the spread of the virus in school.”

Elliott said that he strongly encourages anyone who is unvaccinated to wear a mask, and those who are eligible to be vaccinated, to get vaccinated. According to Elliott, more than 85 percent of all employees are vaccinated and more than 90 percent of WCS teachers are vaccinated.

While Greene was speaking, she mentioned that the county has seen an increase of cases and hospitalizations just in the past few weeks. Greene said that part of the reason the county is seeing more cases is due to the Delta variant, which is 80 percent of all cases in the southeast region of the United States.

Most cases the health department has seen has been in those who are unvaccinated, but there has been breakthrough cases — meaning people who are fully vaccinated tested positive for COVID-19.

Greene said that it’s important that the community understands the vaccine may not prevent all infections, but it is intended to prevent severe illness and death.

Greene said she could not recommend anything to the board but to follow the school toolkit recommended by NCDHHS, which recommends masks for K-8 and for those who are unvaccinated in 9-12.

“That is what the CDC is telling us based on science,” Greene said. “That is what NCDHHS is telling us. I know that even in my own family I’ve got some people who are not a fan of wearing masks so I realized that it’s quite unpopular.”

Greene said she thinks the reason there was not a lot of COVID-19 spread in the school system last year was because of the due diligence of contact tracing, but also because of mask wearing. According to Klutz, the school system had 263 students test positive for COVID-19 from Aug. 12 to July 2 and 99 employees test positive.

Already, Klutz said the school nurses have started to see an uptick in case investigations to find close contacts from someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Last year — when masks were required for everyone — nurses conducted more than 2,524 contact tracing investigations and more than 500 staff contact investigations. More than 1,150 students were quarantined in the school system at least once during the school year, while more than 364 staff were quarantined.

After both Klutz and Greene gave their presentations and answered any questions from the board, the board’s attorney — Chris Campbell — provided an update on what the board could do based on the recommendations in the NCDHHS toolkit released on July 21.

He said that the board had plenty of options regarding the recommendations including not taking any action, which would have made it so masks were not required in schools since the statewide mask mandate ends on July 30. He also advised the board they were immune from lawsuits as they were making good faith decisions for the district.

After the board heard from the health officials, they began to debate on what to do about the upcoming school year, which begins on Aug. 16.

Ashcraft started the discussion saying he was not comfortable requiring masks or not requiring masks for everyone. He said that if they made masks optional, there should be clear standards for when the board should tighten up on mask wearing if cases begin to tick up in the community.

Combs and Cornett both were clear from the beginning of the discussion about their intentions of wanting to make mask wearing optional. Combs said he thought it should be optional because it would be easier to ask people to go back to wearing masks fully if they already knew that could happen if cases begin to rise.

Cornett also liked the optional plan because he thought that people should have the choice, especially since they have the choice right now to get the vaccine.

“I like choices,” Cornett said. “I like it when people do what they feel comfortable doing and not try to put everyone in a box. Let them have a choice because if in the future, we do have to make a more difficult decision, we tried being reasonable.”

Cornett and Combs both said that they also felt that students wearing a mask again in school would be difficult, especially in a school with no air conditioning.

Fenwick was in favor of following the NCDHHS and CDC recommendations of requiring masks.

“I think that we were very successful last year,” Fenwick said. “We took a cautious yet conservative approach ourselves. I would like to see us sort of follow that.”

Fenwick added that he would rather the board start in a more safe setting and relax restrictions more after seeing what the data shows when students go back rather than start off relaxed.

“Bottomline, I just want to follow the advice of the medical professionals,” Fenwick said.

Childers said he had three major areas in how he came to the conclusion that he wanted to make masks optional for students. He said he wanted to follow the science, pay attention to the local data and then put those together to see what the common sense decision would be. In this case, he thought Watauga County data — which show 20 cases as of July 23 — meant they could make masks optional.

While the current numbers are low, Fenwick said that the board needs to think about where it will be in a month. Fenwick said the majority of the board agreed that they thought cases would increase in the coming months.

After Childers asked about COVID-19 transmission, Greene told the board that it’s accurate to say that transmission is low right now, the Delta variant — which is more transmissible — makes up a lot of the new cases.

“We have seen an uptick just in the last couple of weeks,” Greene said. “I hope that we will stay low.”

Before any motions were made, the board also discussed making it so if there was a need to require masks, the health department or Elliott would recommend it. The general consensus of the board, however, was that the decision should be one from the board and not be put on someone else.

Combs made the first motion to go optional with mask wearing while adding that Elliott, the health department and school nurses would notify the board of COVID-19 trends and and if the board should reconvene. That failed as no one seconded it, as the board wanted the decision to be solely on their shoulders.

The board then discussed the wording of making masks optional for students, which — after working through the exact wording — passed 3-2 with the understanding that the board would carefully follow the COVID-19 trends and look for Elliott’s COVID-19 updates each week. Childers made the motion, which was seconded by Combs.

The next scheduled meeting of the Watauga County Board of Education is on Aug. 9.

Boone mayor retiring after 18 years of local government service

BOONE — After 18 years of public service, Boone Mayor Rennie Brantz is retiring.

“I think the goal that I had was to try and make life better for everyone in the community,” Brantz said. “Boone’s a beautiful, wonderful place. It’s been good to us and our family. It’s offered opportunities that we could probably not have gotten anyplace else.”

Brantz served on the Boone Town Council for 10 years and then as Boone mayor since 2015 and is retiring due to health issues.

“Mayor Brantz has provided exceptional, stabilizing support and dedicated service for the Town of Boone during unprecedented times,” said Boone Town Manager John Ward. “His leadership has resulted in multiple improvements throughout the town — making it a better place for residents, students take and visitors. I personally want to thank Mayor Brantz for his service and for always looking for the positive side of any situation. It has been an honor to serve with such a dedicated public servant.”

Brantz grew up in Nebraska and Kansas. In Kansas, Brantz met his wife of 58 years, Lana, in high school. Brantz then went to college at Doane University in Nebraska where he earned his bachelor’s degree and then traveled to Europe for a year with his wife. Once he came back, Brantz went to Ohio State where he earned his Ph.D.

Brantz started looking for jobs and a position at Appalachian State University came up in 1974, which he accepted.

“It was the best opportunity I could have,” Brantz said. “It’s the kind of school that I’m most comfortable with. The students are outstanding. It was good luck.”

At App State, Brantz was one of the founders and director of the freshman seminar program. He also founded and coordinated the Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies. Brantz also directed a summer study abroad program to Europe for 17 years.

After he retired in 2003, he got into local politics as a member of the Boone Town Council. Growing up, Brantz’s father was a minister and they frequently moved around, but his father was always involved in local school boards.

“I think he, in my memory, exemplifies the kind of service attitude,” Brantz said. “It seemed the right thing to do. I thought I could make a difference. And sometimes I did, sometimes not.”

Brantz said he’s noticed that the town council has changed a lot since even before his time when he first came to Boone.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that political decisions are no longer made by the old guard,” Brantz said. “It’s younger people, even students now. That was not always the case. It was like the old boys made the decisions. And now it’s opened up, I think, to the whole wider community. I think that’s been healthy. Because younger people raise questions, sometimes older folks don’t want to ask.”

Brantz said that the younger generation coming into politics is helpful for the growth and development of the town. One of his biggest and fondest achievements on the town council was helping to create the Historic Preservation Commission.

“My background and professional orientation was history,” Brantz said. “So that kind of led me to push for us to look more carefully at the history of Boone. We have all the wrinkles and achievements that you can imagine.”

Brantz said he is proud of the fact that the committee has established a historic district in Boone and that it helped save the downtown Boone Post Office, which he thinks is a symbol of past accomplishments.

Brantz also said one of his prouder achievements is helping to hire the town staff, especially Ward.

“(Ward is) just an outstanding person,” Brantz said. “I was involved in his recruitment so I take pleasure in that. It’s really, I think, a joy to be able to work with a group like that.”

Brantz said there are also some memories from his time in politics that he remembers struggling with, including when a policy came to the council regarding building on steep slopes. He said that many people wanted a ban on building on steep slopes while others did not and it was a point of contention in the town.

The Watauga Democrat previously reported that that ordinance addressed development on steep slopes, which was prompted by the apartment development that were being built above Walmart and a landslide at White Laurel.

Even though Brantz is retiring, he said he still wants to be involved in the community. He hopes to get a position on the Historic Preservation Commission after he retires. He will also be looking at what the town council will do. Currently, there are 10 people running for four seats on the Boone Town Council in the November election.

“I hope that the new members of the new council would be thoughtful, they would be careful in their decision making and listen to the community,” Brantz said. “It’s not easy, I think, to balance your activities and your decisions in a way that benefits everyone. And sometimes you can’t.”

Brantz did say he thought retiring would be a great relief to him, but he said he’s been thinking about how he will miss the late-night meetings and those “long oratorical presentations” that some members make.

“I will miss it a little bit,” Brantz said.

But now that he no longer has to be at those late-night meetings, Brantz said he plans to read more and hopefully travel more with his wife.

AG Stein announces $26B agreement with opioid distributors, manufacturer
County attorney: good will come to Watauga citizens from agreement

RALEIGH — North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced July 21 a $26 billion agreement with opioid distributors and manufacturers that resolves the claims of both states and local governments across the country, including the nearly 4,000 that have filed lawsuits in federal and state courts.

According to Watauga County Attorney Anthony di Santi, the agreement will create additional resources for the community.

This settlement comes as a result of investigations by state attorneys general into whether the three distributors fulfilled their legal duty to refuse to ship opioids to pharmacies that submitted suspicious drug orders and whether Johnson and Johnson misled patients and doctors about the addictive nature of opioid drugs.

The agreement includes Cardinal, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen – the nation’s three major pharmaceutical distributors – and Johnson & Johnson, which manufactured and marketed opioids. The agreement requires significant industry changes that will help prevent this type of crisis from ever happening again, according to Stein’s office.

The agreement would resolve investigations and litigation over the companies’ roles in creating and fueling the opioid epidemic.

“The opioid epidemic has torn families apart and killed thousands of North Carolinians,” said Attorney General Josh Stein. “Families across our state have shared with me their heart-wrenching stories about their loved ones who are struggling with the horrible disease of addiction or who overdosed and died. It has been my genuine honor on their behalf to lead these negotiations to hold accountable the companies that helped to create and fuel this crisis. While no amount of money will ever be enough, this settlement will force these drug companies to pay a historic amount of money to bring much-needed treatment and recovery services to North Carolina communities and to change their business practices so that something like this never happens again.”

States have 30 days to sign onto the deal and local governments in the participating states will have up to 150 days to join. States and their local governments will receive maximum payments if each state and its local governments join together in support of the agreement.

North Carolina has already signed the agreement, making North Carolina local governments eligible to participate, according to the North Carolina Department of Justice. North Carolina’s share will be distributed among the state and local governments pursuant to a Memorandum of Agreement, to which the state and more than 53 local governments have already agreed. The memorandum can be found at tinyurl.com/4yumxvm4.

Watauga County Attorney Anthony di Santi said he wants to emphasize the good this agreement will create for “the citizens of our county from these additional resources the county will receive to help eliminate the scourge of opioid addiction in the community.”

“I also want to praise the Watauga County Commissioners for taking the time to review the case in its infancy and making the tough decision to accept the responsibility for taking action by filing the suit on behalf of the county,” di Santi said. “Watauga did not depend on the state or federal governments to assign fault with the distributors where it should have been assigned. Without Watauga County and thousands of other local governments nationwide which undertook the case when there was skepticism about the case, there would be no settlement today.”

In April 2018, the Watauga Democrat previously reported that the Watauga County Board of Commissioners announced the filing of a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court against the manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids.

The county declared in 2018 that they had received information indicating manufacturers and distributors of opioids had distributed opioids in violation of law, thereby allowing the diversion of opioids for illicit purposes.

According to data obtained by the Washington Post in 2019, more than 3.4 billion prescription pain pills were supplied to North Carolina between 2006 and 2014. According to the data, there were 14,251,093 prescription pain pills, enough for 31 pills per person per year, supplied to Watauga County during that time period.

The Watauga Democrat also reported in March 2018 that the county commissioners voted unanimously to join approximately 26 other North Carolina counties in suing the distributors and manufacturers of opioid painkillers.

“The case is not over,” di Santi said. “This settlement is only with Johnson & Johnson and the three largest distributors. The team of lawyers with which we partnered were the ones who pushed the distributor cases when many other mass tort lawyers, including many state Attorney Generals, were skeptical.”

North Carolina stands to receive approximately $750 million with all local governments on board, according to the North Carolina Department of Justice.

Commissioner Charlie Wallin said the agreement is a huge step and mucg needed in the “ongoing battle” against the opioid pandemic.

“This will not bring back the many lost nor repair the damage to many families torn apart but it will give help to those seeking treatment and recovery and will help ensure that these companies are finally held accountable,” Wallin said.

The following information is courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Justice.

Funding Overview:

  • The three distributors collectively will pay up to $21 billion over 18 years.
  • Johnson and Johnson will pay up to $5 billion over nine years with up to $3.7 billion paid during the first three years.
  • The total funding distributed will be determined by the overall degree of participation by both litigating and non-litigating state and local governments.
  • The substantial majority of the money is to be spent on opioid treatment and prevention.
  • Each state’s share of the funding has been determined by agreement among the states using a formula that takes into account the impact of the crisis on the state – the number of overdose deaths, the number of residents with substance use disorder, and the number of opioids prescribed – and the population of the state.

Injunctive Relief Overview:

  • The 10-year agreement will result in court orders requiring Cardinal, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen to:
  • Establish a centralized independent clearinghouse to provide all three distributors and state regulators with aggregated data and analytics about where drugs are going and how often, eliminating blind spots in the current systems used by distributors.
  • Use data-driven systems to detect suspicious opioid orders from customer pharmacies.
  • Terminate customer pharmacies’ ability to receive shipments, and report those companies to state regulators, when they show certain signs of diversion.
  • Prohibit shipping of and report suspicious opioid orders.
  • Prohibit sales staff from influencing decisions related to identifying suspicious opioid orders.
  • Require senior corporate officials to engage in regular oversight of anti-diversion efforts.
  • The 10-year agreement will result in court orders requiring Johnson & Johnson to:
  • Stop selling opioids.
  • Not fund or provide grants to third parties for promoting opioids.
  • Not lobby on activities related to opioids.
  • Share clinical trial data under the Yale University Open Data Access Project.

The first payments are expected to be received by participating states and subdivisions in April 2022.

Last year, opioid overdose deaths rose to a record 93,000, a nearly 30 percent increase over the prior year. In North Carolina, more than five people die of opioid overdose each day, according to the North Carolina Department of Justice.

From 2000 to 2019, more than 16,500 North Carolinians lost their lives to accidental opioid overdose. Many more have seen their lives torn apart by the disease of addiction. The damage also impacts their families and friends and their broader communities that suffer the consequences, according to the North Carolina Department of Justice.

A previous version of this deal in principle was announced in 2019 and included the opioid manufacturer Teva. Negotiations with Teva are ongoing and are no longer part of this agreement. The July 21 deal comes on the heels of previously announced opioid settlements with Purdue Pharma, McKinsey Consulting, Mallinckrodt and Insys Therauputics.

Combined these earlier matters will generate approximately $6.7 billion for opioid abatement, which in addition to today’s agreement brings the collective opioid efforts of the attorneys general to $32.7 billion. These opioid cases represent the largest attorney general multi-state enforcement actions in history other than the tobacco master settlement agreement.

State negotiations were led by Attorneys General Josh Stein (NC) and Herbert Slatery (TN) and the attorneys general from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

More information can be found at tinyurl.com/5zuvx39a. The full agreement can be found at tinyurl.com/fpchmxe6.

Humane society seeing a decrease in foster parents, increase in animals

WATAUGA — The Watauga Humane Society is seeing more animals come through its door and fewer foster parents as more people return to work in person.

Ashlee Yepez, the director of operations and animal welfare at the Watauga Humane Society, said the shelter has seen an “over pour” of animals come in during June and July.

“I don’t think it’s any different than previous years, but I do feel that you hear people talk about like, ‘this is my COVID puppy,’” Yepez said. “That puppy they adopted during COVID-19 that really got attached to them (while) being able to work from home. We are seeing that there are people bringing in their animals — not necessarily adopted from us — that they have that they just say they can’t care for anymore.”

Yepez said people returning to work in person sn’t necessarily the biggest reason people have returned animals, but more so the animal may not be the right fit. But before an owner comes in to return an animal, humane society staff will discuss ways the humane society may be able to help the owners keep their pets.

“I can remember some days where there’d be like 18 people lined up out the door waiting to bring in an animal and we just had to take them,” Yepez said. “That was the mentality back then. It was back in like 2017-18 that we said, ‘You know, we can take these animals in, but we could also tell people the realities of what happens when we take their animals.’”

Along with dogs, this time a year Yepez said the shelter also sees a lot of kittens brought in. During the early days of COVID-19, spay and neuter surgeries weren’t being offered as frequently if at all.

“A lot of people had started taking care of these outside cats during COVID-19 and then a lot of those outside cats couldn’t get fixed,” Yepez said. “So a lot of those outside cats had litters and so now these people who were giving a helping hand not bringing cats into us during those times, now have cats that have kittens.”

While the shelter has seen more animals, it is also seeing a decrease in foster parents for animals. During the first months of the COVID-19, Yepez said the shelter received a major outpouring of people volunteering to foster.

“Now that everyone’s kind of got back into the swing of businesses opening up and people going back to work, we just don’t have that many fosters anymore,” Yepez said. “We can put a plea out and I think some people will come forward, but it’s not the same as getting like 10 applications a day for fostering.”

While the current animal population is not as high as it’s been at some points in the past, the kennel is down 16 spaces due to construction in the kennels, which decreases the shelters capacity to house animals.

“We always need fosters,” Yepez said. “I would say the biggest thing for us is we’re looking for people who have experience — or want to learn and gain the experience and knowledge — to work with dogs that have behavior quirks or issues.”

Yepez said the age range of most dogs that come into the shelter is between one to two years old.

“People don’t realize that those dogs are still puppies,” Yepez said. “What they see is a full-grown dog that they assume is an adult dog that should have adult dog manners, but they’re still puppies. It’s really cute when a four-month old is nibbling on your shoe. It’s not cute when a two-year old nibbles on your shoe and before you know it, they’ve ingested the whole thing.”

To help with fostering, the shelter is launching a pilot program for people to virtually foster a dog at the shelter.

“The idea behind virtual fostering is that people who can’t actually bring animals into their homes can become a volunteer,” Yepez said. “(They) can kind of go through the steps of learning body language and things like that, and can actually be like an advocate or virtual foster for a dog or cat within the building.”

Yepez said the foster parent wouldn’t have to take the pet home, but they could come out to the shelter on a routine basis and help the dog with leash manners or help a cat be socialized.

The program allows people to have that option of being able to foster and be a spokesperson for an animal that they love without having the complications of a management company or the complications of having other animals. The program is still in its beginning stages for how it will work with the community.

Of the animals in the shelter, a few have been in there for quite some time. Hansen Dendinger, an animal caregiver for about three years, said some of the dogs that are there for long periods of time are ones that can be aggressive to other dogs.

“A lot of people (in Boone) want a dog park dog or a dog they can take to bars with them,” Dendinger said. “If you have a dog that’s reactive or just isn’t gonna want to hang out with your friends’ dogs, that’s a turnoff for a lot of people.”

Dendinger said the shelter typically has people who are willing to adopt older dogs or ones with medical needs, but younger dogs who have an intense energy level or don’t do well with other dogs stay there for a long time.

Dendinger said it isn’t uncommon for dogs that may act aggressive at the shelter will end up fine once they are at home and away from the anxiety of the shelter.

“A lot of dogs — once they get home and they get out on two walks a day or they go on a hike — they calm right down and they actually have really great manners,” Dendinger said. “A lot of the dogs here that we think of as being high energy sometimes are just anxious, and it kind of translates to being a lot.”

One dog that has been at the shelter for more than 100 days is Aria — a mixed breed three-year-old that is just under 95 pounds. Aria was surrendered by her owner because she was not doing so well with another, smaller dog at home. Dendinger said she has reacted super negatively to the shelter environment.

“She is really overwhelmed by strangers,” Dendinger said. “She doesn’t like the barrier of the kennel and she can have really big reactions. So people are kind of turned off by her. But she’s amazing outside of the kennel, but no one ever asks to meet with her because she’s really off-putting.”

To help with her anxiety, the shelter staff have put a blanket in front of her kennel spot so she doesn’t see people walking by.

Another dog that’s been at the shelter for a quite some time is Sherman, a 74-pound three-year-old mixed breed that has been in the shelter for 60 days. Dendinger said that he has a few problems with resource guarding his food or toys and can be “a little funky” around other dogs, which turns potential adopters away.

Johnny and Anne are both dogs that are a bonded pair and are encouraged to be adopted together since they have always been together. They have been in the shelter for nearly 70 days. Both are mixed breed females and Anne is 8 years old and Johnny is 7 years old.

The shelter also has a cat named Spinch that has been in the shelter for a long period of time. Spinch came into the shelter with pillow foot, which means the pads of his feet are puffed out and he can’t walk on hard surfaces. He also has allergies and skin sensitivities. Additionally, he’s started to break out with soars on his face and because of his conditions, has not been able to be spayed and neutered yet.

More information on becoming an animal foster parent and the Watauga Humane Society can be found at wataugahumane.org.