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Health officials monitoring Wilkes County outbreak

WILKESBORO — As officials monitor an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in neighboring Wilkes County involving a Tyson Foods processing plant, AppHealthCare stated it is working closely with the Wilkes County Health Department to monitor impacts to counties like Watauga and Ashe.

“Increasing counts in neighboring counties, including Wilkes, can potentially affect our local case counts and cause it to increase in the coming days and weeks,” said Melissa Bracey, AppHealthCare’s director of communications and compliance. “As restrictions are being eased and people begin to move about more, the virus has more opportunity to spread across county lines.”

AppHealthCare is the public health department serving Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties.

According to Tyson Foods Inc., the company has plants located throughout North Carolina — including in Harmony, Monroe, Sanford, Tarboro and Wilkesboro. According to media reports, the Wilkesboro location consists of two plants — a fresh meat facility and a cooked meat facility. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is currently no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food.

As of 6:45 a.m. on May 12, the Wilkes Health Department reported 242 confirmed cases with 158 recovered, one death and 11 confirmed hospitalizations (nine that were currently hospitalized).

Wilkes Health Director Rachel Willard said that Tyson employs roughly 3,000 team members in Wilkesboro. She added that due to North Carolina communicable disease law, the health department was not able to release the number of the county’s positive COVID-19 cases that were linked to the processing plant.

Willard was unable to answer how many of the Tyson employees live outside of Wilkes County and deferred to the company. Request for comment from Tyson Foods was unreturned as of presstime.

AppHealthCare stated on May 6 that a ninth Watauga County resident had tested positive for COVID-19, and that the case was linked to an “ongoing investigation with a known outbreak in a food processing facility in another county.” It was not confirmed, however, if the newest Watauga case was linked to the outbreak at the Wilkesboro Tyson plant.

The next day, the health department announced that it had three more confirmed cases in Ashe County, bringing the total to eight at that time. Two of the three new cases that day were also linked to an ongoing investigation with an outbreak in a food processing facility in another county. Ashe County had 13 cases overall as of May 10.

Bracey said AppHealthCare has regular communication with the Wilkes County Health Department so that AppHealthCare’s response is coordinated and decisions are made based on data.

“Our health departments collaborate regionally and routinely communicate with each other,” Bracey said. “In addition, the public health data system allows us to transfer cases to their home county if they are best managed elsewhere — better equipping us to coordinate when someone lives in one county and works in another.”

As of May 9, all Tyson employees had been administered the COVID-19 test. Willard said health department staff tested 200 of the employees, and Matrix Medical — a contracted medical group for Tyson — completed the remaining team members. Wilkes Health Department was able to receive test results back within 24 to 36 hours, she said.

According to Willard, if a Tyson team member is asymptomatic, they have been allowed to continue to work until the result comes back. For those who are symptomatic, they are were instructed to return home and to self-isolate.

“Wilkes Health understands that organizations that process meat are critical front line workers just like health care workers, first responders, grocery store employees and truck drivers,” Willard said.

Willard noted that the Wilkes Health team has ensured that the meat processing plant has been given necessary guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Along with this guidance, Willard said Wilkes Health staff speak daily with Tyson plant officials regarding employee health and any new recommendations that have been developed.

Additionally, Willard said Wilkes Health has worked with Tyson to identify a process for how to manage confirmed cases and close contacts to those cases. If a case is confirmed positive, she said the employee is told to self-isolate for 10 days or 72 hours post fever — whichever is longer. Tyson would also send home those who are considered close contacts to a positive case with instructions to self-monitor symptoms and to call a medical professional if symptoms develop, according to Willard.

Tyson has also taken measures to protect employees and decrease the chance of person-to-person transmission throughout the facility, Willard said. The company first issued a press release on March 17 stating ways employees could protect themselves, as well as changes the company was implementing. Some of these changes include relaxing attendance policies in its plants by eliminating any punitive effect for missing work due to illness and waiving the co-pay, co-insurance and deductible for doctor visits or telemedicine for COVID-19 testing.

The company on April 17 announced additional measures it would be taking to ensure worker safety, such as taking employee temperatures by use of a walk-through temperature scanner, requiring face coverings and conducting additional cleaning and sanitizing. The company also implemented social distancing measures, such as installing workstation dividers. According to media reports, Tyson’s fresh meat plant was recently closed for two days for a deep cleaning and sanitizing, and was to reopen May 12.

Bracey said AppHealthCare realizes there are many people who live in one county and then work in another. She urged individuals to practice the three Ws — wearing a cloth face covering, washing hands frequently with soap and water or use hand sanitizer and waiting six feet from others. Additionally, if someone is sick, the agency encourages them not to go to work.

“Stay home so you do not risk exposing others and call your health care provider or AppHealthCare to determine if COVID-19 testing is appropriate,” Bracey said.

ApphealthCare also encourages businesses to frequently clean and disinfect high touch areas such as doorknobs, light switches, tables and handles. Employers can also implement other strategies to slow the spread of this virus such as teleworking, temperature/health checks and implementing policies and practices for social distancing in the workplace.

NCDHHS has a compiled resource list for businesses and employers, which can be found at If a business has a specific questions, contact AppHealthCare at (828) 264-4995 or at

Watauga Democrat archives document 1918 flu pandemic

As the world is in the throes of the worst virus outbreak of this century, the Watauga Democrat looks into its archives to remember another pandemic — the 1918 Spanish flu.

The 1918 Spanish influenza was first confirmed to have made its way to North Carolina on Sept. 19, 1918, when an individual in the port city of Wilmington became sick from the illness, according to a report from the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

“Within a week the hard-struck city reported some 400 cases of the illness. It was a sign of the devastation yet to be wrought by the pandemic. At the height of the flu outbreak during the winter of 1918-1919 at least 20 percent of North Carolinians were infected by the disease. The so-called ‘Spanish Lady’ killed nearly 14,000 citizens of the state,” the NCDNCR stated.

The pandemic is mentioned by the Watauga Democrat — founded in 1888 — in an article titled “How to treat influenza” from the Oct. 10, 1918, edition of the paper, when reports revolved largely around the happenings of World War I.

“How to treat influenza” included guidance from the city health department from Charlotte regarding steps individuals could take to feel better from the Spanish flu.

“Go to bed. Take a putative medicine. Follow this in a few minutes with proper doses of quinine and aspirin, which may be repeated every two or three hours until several doses have been taken,” the article states.

Additionally, caregivers were encouraged to “wear a strip of cloth across (the) nose and mouth, which is moist with a germicide,” and readers were reminded that “all physicians will be very busy.”

The Oct. 17, 1918, Watauga Democrat article titled “The epidemic of grippe” detailed the intensity of the disease and the measures that were “failing” to keep the public healthy.

“Already, the disease has appeared over the entire state … The rapidity with which it travels and the larger percent of the population involved indicate the exceptionally contagious nature of the disease, and … public health measures have little influence.”

The article goes on to say “the disease is due to spit swapping,” which includes practices such as “coughing or sneezing into the air,” “soiling the hands with spit and transferring the spit to (other surfaces)” and “using common drinking dippers and cups.”

An additional article about the Spanish flu in the High Country, from Oct. 31, 1918, is titled, “Sulphur good influenza preventative.”

A doctor from Georgia called on his experiences using sulphur during the Yellow Fever, “an epidemic in 1897,” to “kill the germ” that caused the infection. This was done by “sprinkling sulphur in (his) shoes every morning during the epidemic.”

“I believe when the system is thoroughly saturated with the sulphur, as suggested, it will prevent any germs of any disease from attacking the system,” the article states.

WCS extends Valle Crucis site due diligence period a third time

BOONE — The Watauga County Board of Education voted May 11 to extend its due diligence period a third time for a property in Valle Crucis being eyed for a K-8 school.

The board voted on March 12 to approve a second extension of 45 days of its contract for a 14.4-acre tract of land — commonly referred to as the Hodges property — in Valle Crucis for the eventual replacement of the existing school in the area. The second extension ended on April 30, after which the board had 30 days to decide whether or not to purchase the property.

Throughout the due diligence period, studies have been conducted pertaining to wetland delineations, well drilling, surveying and other matters. According to Superintendent Scott Elliott, the school system is waiting for a recommendation to be made at the state level to the local health department regarding approval of the soils. He added that the two soil scientists who conducted the tests were “very positive about the results.”

Elliott said that as far as he knows, results for other tests conducted during the due diligence period have had positive results. State officials were initially concerned about the modeling with the septic system, and realized that a different analysis model was required that required additional tests to be completed, he said. The state referred project officials to a specific engineer who has now conducted the tests, provided the results back to the state and shared with the project’s architect that test results were positive, according to Elliott.

Elliott was not aware of any ways the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the due diligence process for the property. He said that perhaps the change in operations at the state level has slowed down the progress, but otherwise the process has remained on schedule.

Watauga County Schools also recently learned that the N.C. Department of Transportation requested to see revised site plan drawings to increase the length of the car rider pickup and drop-off line in the proposed design. Elliott said school officials had a conference call with the project’s civil engineer, and that officials believe they can roughly double the amount of on-site car queueing capacity compared to the current school site.

Based on these unresolved matters, Elliott said the school board authorized him to negotiate and sign an agreement with the property owners to extend the due diligence investigation period that would have expired on April 30. With the board’s formal approval on May 11, the new due diligence expiration is July 30 with closing to occur within 30 days after that date.

The first contract extension pushed the due diligence period to March 16, and required a a nonrefundable amount of $10,000 from the board to be credited toward the $1,105,000 purchase price for the property. The second contract extension required $5,000 of nonrefundable funding to be credited to the purchase. The third extension requires an additional $10,000 — for a total of $25,000 put toward the purchase of the property.

Elliott said the school board continues to be patient and thorough in the investigation of the property. He added that WCS remains hopeful that the school system can close on the property no later than the end of the summer, and thereafter can work on the detailed architectural plans.

“While this has taken far longer than anyone first thought, and there were some setbacks out of our control, we continue to be optimistic,” Elliott said. “We know this is a big decision, and the board wants to make sure it is the right decision for Valle Crucis School.”

WCS appreciates the patience of teachers, parents and the school community as officials work through the process, Elliott said. He added that the Watauga Board of Education is also grateful to the current owners of the property for their patience and flexibility.

“They have no reason to sell the property except that they wanted to help resolve the longstanding need for a new school,” Elliott said.

Lyle Schoenfeldt, the chair of The Steering Committee of Residents and Friends of Historic Valle Crucis, submitted a public comment for the school board’s April meeting. The statement was read aloud by a WCS representative and was posted to — a site maintained by those who oppose the placement of the school on the Hodges property.

Schoenfeldt’s statement listed a number of concerns that have previously been expressed to the school board and county commission by himself and other Valle Crucis residents, including potential impacts to the historic district, the price of the property, the portion of the property that lies in the floodplain, traffic impacts and environmental and aesthetic impacts.

His statement also referred to the COVID-19 pandemic, and said now doesn’t seem like a “favorable time” to move forward with a new Valle Crucis School. To read Schoenfeldt’s statement in full, visit