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More prison inmates test positive for COVID-19, Pasquotank's cases jump to 32

The number of lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pasquotank County jumped to 32 on Monday, largely as a result of more inmates at Pasquotank Correctional Institution testing positive for the highly contagious virus that causes the respiratory disease.

The eight-county region served by Albemarle Regional Health Services has now reported 85 cases of COVID-19 and two virus-related deaths.

ARHS Director Battle Betts said in a press release Monday that the region could expect to see more COVID-19 cases over the next several weeks, especially as more testing becomes available and as more cases are identified at “congregate” facilities like prisons and nursing homes.

Betts said when COVID-19 outbreaks are identified at congregate sites, additional “contact tracing” — measures to determine who has had contact with an infected patient — and more testing are needed to manage exposures and protect those not infected. He said that usually results in more positive tests for COVID-19, including by those who haven’t shown any symptoms of the disease.

Betts also said the eight-county region is likely “behind” other areas of the state in its incidence of cases, suggesting more will be reported here.

“Based on statewide, regional, and local trends, we do anticipate that we are slightly behind other areas,” Betts said. “We will continue to see a rise in cases over the next couple of weeks.”

Bertie and Hertford counties — two other counties in ARHS’ service territory — also reported increases in their lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Monday. Betts noted ARHS is currently working with officials in both counties to address outbreaks of the virus at Rivers Correctional Institution, a private prison near Winton, and a long-term care facility in Bertie. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services defines an outbreak as two or more cases of a disease.

Statewide, the number of COVID-19 cases rose Monday to 6,764, an increase of 271 from Sunday. The number of COVID-19-related deaths rose to 179, an increase of seven.

Nineteen inmates at PCI have now tested positive for COVID-19, Pasquotank-Camden Emergency Management Coordinator Christy Saunders said Monday. That’s up from seven inmates who had tested positive for the virus early last week.

Saunders noted the number of COVID-19 cases at PCI only reflects the number of inmates who’ve tested positive, suggesting the number could increase.

“This number does not reflect the number of offenders currently infected with COVID-19, but rather is a total of the number of tests performed that have been positive to date,” she said.

The N.C. Department of Pubic Safety’s website indicated Monday afternoon that 45 inmates at PCI have been tested for COVID-19. Nineteen of those tests have come back positive; 26 have come back negative.

John Bull, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety, said he did not know how many of the 19 PCI inmates who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 have been “declared medically recovered” from the virus.

So far, no PCI staff members have self-reported testing positive for COVID-19, Bull said.

Both ARHS and Saunders said in their press releases the increase in COVID-19 cases at PCI had resulted from a transfer of inmates from Neuse Correctional Institution prior to April 7. Located in Goldsboro, the Neuse prison has been hard hit by COVID-19, reporting nearly 250 inmates and 13 staff members who’ve tested positive for the disease.

Asked about the transfer Monday, Bull said 36 inmates from Neuse Correctional Institution were transferred to PCI April 2 following an incident at the Goldsboro prison earlier that day.

According to a press release DPS released at the time, top staff at Neuse attempted to explain to a group of inmates outside their dormitories why the prison was implementing Centers of Disease Control guidelines after an inmate at the prison had tested positive for COVID-19.

The press release states inmates from different dorms then came outside and would not return to their housing areas when ordered to do so by prison staff.

Characterizing the incident as an “organized offender protest,” Neuse prison staff used “appropriate levels of force” to restore order, the press release states. No injuries were reported in the incident.

Bull indicated prison staff took a number of measures to prevent the 36 Neuse inmates from spreading the novel coronavirus to inmates at PCI.

All 36 received medical screenings that included temperature checks both before they were transferred and upon their arrival at PCI, he said. The vehicles used to transport the inmates were also disinfected both before and after the trip, he said.

Upon arriving at PCI, all 36 Neuse inmates were placed in medical quarantine for 14 days, Bull said. They were housed in individual cells “suitable for COVID-19 isolation protocols” in a vacant wing at PCI, he added.

“They did not mix with the general population of offenders who were already at Pasquotank,” Bull said.

He said the 36 Neuse inmates remain in the vacant wing, separated from the rest of the prison population at PCI.

Bull also noted that every inmate and staff member at PCI has been issued a face mask.

The distribution of masks to staff and inmates is one the measures prison officials say they’ve taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. The prisons’ Correctional Enterprise unit produced 40,000 washable cloth masks the week of April 12 and expected to produce an additional 30,000 last week.

The prisons have also purchased 265 machines capable of large-scale distribution of disinfectant in prison facilities. They’ve also distributed 70 Power Breezers to prisons. The devices are capable of spraying disinfectant in a 65-degree cone to kill the virus.

Responding to the growing COVID-19 outbreak at Neuse, DPS announced Monday it had temporarily closed Johnston Correctional Institution and transferred its inmates to another correctional facility. Staff at Johnston have been resigned to help out at Neuse, DPS said.

Aspects of online teaching here to stay



Local school officials say some of the ways teachers have worked with students during the coronavirus crisis are likely to continue once school bells start ringing again.

Yolanda Anderson, chief academic officer for the Camden County Schools, said Camden was like other school districts, navigating uncharted waters when Gov. Roy Cooper first ordered school buildings closed to students to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“This is something we have never experienced,” Anderson said.

But the experience has brought lessons about using online platforms that suggest new ways of teaching and learning once school buildings reopen.

“This is something that we see continuing in our classrooms,” Anderson said.

Officials at Grandy Primary School in Camden have already started talking about meeting to discuss the pluses and minuses of remote learning methods and looking for ways to incorporate the positive ones into everyday learning for students.

Catherine Edmonds, superintendent of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools, said she is proud of the way ECPPS has handled the switch to remote learning.

“Never before have I seen so many people in so many roles work so hard to achieve a single objective, making decisions within hours that normally would take months,” she said.

“Teachers have stepped up,” Edmonds added.

Those teachers who were less technology-savvy have learned and improved quickly, she said.

Access to broadband internet has been an issue. To ensure that all students have access to the online platforms the schools, along with support from the community, have set up WiFi hotspots for students to use. “Park and learn” areas have been set up in the parking lot at every school in the district to allow access to the school’s WiFi.

One use of remote learning going forward could be on “snow days” and other times when school buildings are closed due to weather, Edmonds said. That way students would not have to lose instructional time just because they are not physically at school, she said.

Anderson said the Camden district set up its remote learning plan to ensure access for all students. The plan was designed to be flexible, reflecting an understanding of the individual needs of staff and students and their families, she said.

Remote learning also presented teachers a unique opportunity to consider a “flipped classroom” model, Anderson said. The flipped classroom uses technology to deliver content from the teacher, which students listen to or view at home, and then focuses on putting the information to use during classroom activities.

The increased use of technology as a teaching tool is not entirely new. Some teachers in Camden were already using Google classroom even before the coronavirus crisis, and others were using Canvas or Zoom.

That was happening more at the middle school and high school level, but now teachers and administrators at the primary and intermediate schools are also using the online platforms.

“It wasn’t foreign to Camden but it wasn’t being used district-wide,” Anderson said.

The coronavirus crisis will spur changes to education, not just locally but across the country, Edmonds said.

“We just have to rethink what we do,” she said.

One possible result would be a blended curriculum in which students still come to school for instruction but also receive a significant part of their instruction through online platforms.

Edmonds said one ECPPS principal told her that they are now having much more one-on-one time with teachers because of remote learning.

Anderson said the experience with remote learning is helping the Camden district transform how instruction is delivered.

“I see it as a positive,” she said.

For instance, students can participate remotely when they are absent because of sickness or another reason, Anderson said.

It also can take pressure off a teacher to know that the information is available for students who are not present on a given day, she said.

“Our teachers in Camden have really risen to the occasion as they always do just to ensure that engaging learning was continuous — it didn’t stop,” Anderson said.

She predicted that students will be prepared when they’re finally able to return to school because of teachers’ dedication.

Anderson said she can definitely see the Camden district providing training opportunities for teachers to enhance their skills using online platforms.

Edmonds said one of the things ECPPS is focusing on right now is “social and emotional” learning for students, as well as mental wellness for staff. She said social and emotional learning is more of a challenge when students aren’t physically at school.

And as far as mental wellness for staff, some teachers would work around the clock every day, she said. So Edmonds is focusing on helping teachers find a healthy work-life balance. The coronavirus crisis has spurred a closer look at striking that balance, she said.

ECPPS will look at the flipped classroom model and consider how instruction can make the best use of available technology, Edmonds said.

“Instruction will not look the same after this,” she said.

Teachers, students and parents are becoming more comfortable with remote learning, she added.

“Communication among teachers, students and parents has been awesome,” Edmonds said.

The crisis has also prompted ECPPS to rethink food service and take a look at whether school meals should be available to students during breaks and teacher workdays, she said.

Edmonds said she believes the larger community has gained a new appreciation during the crisis for just how vital the schools are.

“It’s nice to see that our community sees the schools as a trusted hub in supporting students and families,” Edmonds said. “The community has been very supportive. It has taken everyone working together.”

City receives $46K to make facade grants

Some downtown businesses in Elizabeth City could be getting a face-lift in the coming months thanks to new federal grant funding.

The city was one of 12 communities across the country recently selected by the National Park Service to receive grant money that local downtown businesses can use to make façade improvements.

The Main Street America Façade Improvement Grant Program awarded the city $46,000 in grant money from a national pool of $746,900. The grants are targeted toward rural communities.

City downtown businesses can apply for grants ranging from $5,000 to $25,000.

“This is a pretty big deal to be selected to participate in this program on a state and national level,” said City Manager Rich Olson.

The grant program is administered by Main Street America but Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. will assist local businesses with the application process. Those eligible for the grants include building owners and business owner tenants of commercial and mixed-use buildings located within commercial districts that are either already listed or eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s pretty exciting, but I wish it could have come at a happier time for our community,” said ECDI Director Debbie Malenfant, who noted businesses are suffering from the COVID-19 crisis. “Any money that comes to our community either from the national or state level is great. It is geared toward historic buildings.”

Grant applicants must have “shovel ready” façade improvements. The grants are designed for rehabilitation and improvement projects, not for general repairs or maintenance work.

An applicant must provide a 30-percent match to a grant award and grantees will be given half the grant amount within 30 days of approval. The remaining 50 percent will be disbursed over the course of the project, which must be completed within two years after the grant is awarded.

Façade improvements eligible under the grant program include work on awnings, roofs, canopies, storefronts, doors, painting, window repairs, masonry work, landscaping and signage. Grantees must preserve and repair original historic materials when possible.

Malenfant said the application process “is pretty extensive.”

“We can give up to nine grants in varying amounts,” she said. “We can fund a couple of big ones, or we can fund several smaller ones.”

Grant recipients have to make improvements to the “face” or outside of their building, Malenfant said.

“It could be removing vinyl siding, and I’m hoping we get a couple of applications from folks that would like to do that,” she said.

North Carolina Commerce Secretary Anthony Copeland said revitalizing downtowns in rural North Carolina is key to economic development. Elkin and Lenior are other two North Carolina communities that also received façade grant money.

“The success of our downtown programs is a key component of returning prosperity to our rural communities,” Copeland said in a press release. “These façade awards showcase the collaboration among local, state and national partners that is crucial to North Carolina’s vision for Main Street vitality.”

For additional information about the facade grants, contact Malenfant at 252-338-4104 or email her at elizabethcitydowntown@embarqmail.com.

Morris: Kids at more risk with schools closed

As an advocate for children who’ve suffered sexual abuse, there’s a lot that keeps Rhonda Morris up at night.

But the thing keeping her up at night more than anything right now is the fact kids aren’t physically going to school.

“Kids have a safe place, and that safe place is school,” Morris said. “And right now kids don’t have that safe place.”

Morris, executive director of Kids First, was referring to the fact that children across North Carolina have not physically been in school for more than a month. Gov. Roy Cooper closed schools March 16 as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease.

While school districts like Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools have set up remote learning opportunities for school students to continue their classes, not all kids are participating, Morris said. As a result, some are having little or no face time with their teachers right now, she said.

“That’s a scary thought,” Morris said.

Teachers play a critical role in the reporting of child sexual abuse, she notes. Even though kids might not tell a teacher about abuse they are experiencing at home, they might mention it to a friend who then tells their own parents, and those parents will report the suspected child abuse, Morris explained. That’s how a lot of abuse ends up being reported.

In addition, teachers are trained to recognize signs of likely abuse and report it, Morris said. Obviously if teachers aren’t interacting directly with students, they are less likely to see signs of abuse.

In North Carolina everybody has a responsibility under the law to report suspected child abuse, Morris said. So adults who notice a child with unusual bruises, or see a child cowering or who is being abused in public, have a responsibility to report suspected child abuse, she said.

Morris noted that April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. Kids First has posted information related to child abuse prevention, including “red flags” to look for as possible signs of child abuse, on its Facebook page. Morris is encouraging people to take a look at the information and to post it on their own pages to spread the word as widely as possible.

Morris said Kids First is still open and people who suspect a child is being abused should report it to law enforcement or their county’s department of social services.

Kids First conducts forensic interviews with children in child abuse cases and also provides therapy services for children who have been abused. The agency is still available to conduct forensic interviews and is using a tele-health approach to continue providing therapy at this time.

And if people need help navigating the process of reporting suspected child abuse they can call Kids First for help with that, Morris said. The center can be reached at 338-5658.

One concerning thing for Morris is the current silence of Kids First’s office phones.

Two weeks ago, Kids First, which averages about six calls a week from people seeking its services, was seeing a normal call level. Then the calls slowed down.

“And this week the phone has not rung at all,” Morris said when interviewed late last week.

Morris said the agency has seen its calls stop completely during the run-up to a hurricane. There’s then a spike in calls after the storm is over.

“There’s even more stress now than during a hurricane,” Morris said of the coronavirus crisis. “There are so many stresses and so many unknowns.”

Even if kids are not being abused they are still absorbing all the stress around them, she said.

“This is a stressful time for everybody, not just adults,” Morris said.

Kids First’s staff are calling previous clients to see how they’re faring during the coronavirus crisis, she said.

“This is such a stressful time,” Morris said. “The crisis we are living in is testing the resilience of even the healthiest of families.”

Morris said Kids First can help parents with information about positive ways to handle stress.

“We are here,” she said.