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Hospital reserves more rooms to treat virus patients

Sentara Albemarle Medical Center has identified additional space at its hospital that can be used to treat patients who contract the coronavirus virus, hospital officials told City Council Monday.

Sentara Albemarle and Albemarle Regional Health Services officials briefed Elizabeth City officials during Monday’s council meeting on how they plan to cope “when, and not if,” people become infected with COVID-19.

As of Monday, no confirmed COVID-19 patients were being treated at the hospital. One Pasquotank resident has tested positive for the highly contagious respiratory disease but is believed to be in isolation at home.

The hospital has identified an additional 63 rooms that can be used to treat patients, including 26 intensive care rooms that brings the hospital’s ICU room count to 36. If needed, the hospital’s capacity can be expanded to 173 rooms from its normal capacity of 110 rooms. On average, the hospital has around 60 patients in rooms.

ARHS officials stressed that 80 percent of patients that contract COVID-19 will be able to be treated at home.

“We are doing everything we can to expand our capabilities,” said Sentara Albemarle Vice-President of Patient Services Jaime Carroll.

Sentara Albemarle Chief Medical Officer Dr. Donald Bowling said all 36 ICU rooms will be equipped with ventilators. The hospital has also been cross-training nurses to provide additional ICU care if needed.

Sentara Albemarle has postponed most elective surgeries in an effort to not only free up hospital space but to also conserve blood supplies, personal protective equipment for staff and to keep the “most vulnerable” patients out of the hospital. The hospital is still performing emergency surgeries and some surgeries where a delay could adversely impact patient health.

“Our medical staff has taken several steps to try and mitigate the risk to the community where they could contract the flu or COVID-19,” Bowling said. “This includes elective procedures that do not have to be done in the next two or three weeks. There is a national shortage of blood, and this allows us to save that precious resource.”

The hospital has an adequate supply of personal protection equipment for staff but Carroll said the hospital is in PPE “conservation mode” to help preserve that inventory. PPE includes gowns, facemasks and gloves.

“We are very strict for when we use it so that we have no wastage,” Carroll said.

The hospital has also greatly restricted visitor access to the hospital to help stop the spread of COVID-19. During the week, the only entrances to the hospital are the main entrance and the emergency room entrance while the ER entrance is the only access point at night and on weekends.

Only patients who are giving birth and patients receiving end-of-life care can have visitors. Expectant mothers are allowed their partner and a support person and patients with “an end-of-life issue” are allowed two visitors. Patients not allowed visitation rights are encouraged to maintain contact with family and friends through social media.

“The reason we are restricting access is because we are screening every person that comes in the door with questions to try and determine if there is a risk,” Carroll said. “There are a couple of instances where visitors are allowed, but besides that there are no visitors for most of our patients in the hospitals.”

Sentara Albemarle opened its incident command center in the city almost two weeks ago and Sentra’s COVID-19 task force has been working on the outbreak for more than a month. The hospital also recently set up a triage tent outside the hospital that can be used to screen patients who may have contracted COVID-19.

“That is intended to be proactive in case we need to use that for screening in case our volume increases in the emergency department,” Carroll said.

Sentara Albemarle has ER volumes slightly lower than average over the last couple of weeks. Officials state this is likely due to social distancing in the community, which has inhibited the spread of other illnesses.

Service cut: Order closes barbershops, hair salons

Sammy’s barbershop on Elizabeth City’s Colonial Avenue is usually closed on Wednesdays.

It won’t be closed today, however. At least not until 4:30 p.m.

That’s 30 minutes before the time Gov. Roy Cooper has ordered all barbershops, hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors and movie theaters across the state to close as part of North Carolina’s continuing efforts to impose social distancing measures in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

Owner Sammy Boyd said he decided to open up Sammy’s today to help his longtime customers get what could be their last professional haircut for some time.

“It’s been busy since the governor made that proclamation that we have to close by 5 p.m. Wednesday,” he said Tuesday.

Boyd, who’s been cutting hair for 54 years, the last 44 in Elizabeth City, said he’s never seen anything like what’s gone on across the country over the past few weeks.

A large chunk of the national economy has rapidly shut down in response to health officials’ dire warnings that not reducing large gatherings of people will spread COVID-19, the highly contagious respiratory disease responsible, as of Tuesday evening, for infecting more than 417,582 people worldwide and causing 18,612 deaths. As of Tuesday evening, the disease had infected 53,660 Americans and killed 703 of them.

Boyd said while he understands the reason for the closing order, it doesn’t make it any easier for small businesspeople.

“It’s really going to be hard on small business men and women because many of them have no other income,” he said.

Boyd said his plan is to keep on cutting hair until it’s time to close.

“We have to close Wednesday but we’re going to send them out with good hair cuts,” he said.

Anthony Turner of Champion Kutz said he has the same plan.

“We’re going to serve customers right up to 5 p.m. Wednesday,” he said on Tuesday.

Interviewed late last week, Turner said he had already seen a reduction in the barbershop’s clientele. He also said the shop was trying to practice good social distancing.

For example, Champion Kutz employees carefully monitored the number of customers inside waiting for haircuts. If too many were waiting, some were asked to wait in their cars until barbers were ready for them. Also, one barber who wasn’t busy cutting hair walked around cleaning and sanitizing areas of the shop.

“Now, when we seat customers in our chairs, we spin them around to make sure they see how we clean clippers and other items used to service customers,” Turner said.

Several hair salon owners in Elizabeth City also said they planned to close their shops today in response to Cooper’s order.

“We are closing Wednesday effective at 9 a.m.,” said Cierra Sawyer of I’vy’s Touch of Class. “It’s an unfortunate situation for everybody. We’ve gotta wait it out.”

Amy Powell at Amy & Company said she planned to keep her salon’s regular hours Tuesday and Wednesday. But after 5 p.m. today the shop will be closed “until they say we can reopen,” she said.

Prior to Cooper’s order, Sawyer and other hair salon owners said they were taking a number of precautions to reduce the potential spread of coronavirus. For example, regularly scheduled customers who stylists knew and were familiar with were getting priority. Stylists also were asking customers to be honest about their health and any recent travel.

Any customer showing cold or flu-like symptoms was encouraged to delay coming to the salon for two weeks. Sawyer said while it’s not uncommon to have customers in the early spring who are sneezing or have a runny nose, it was important to delay their appointments.

“We are sanitizing before and after each client, taking extra precautions for everyone here,” she said when interviewed last week. “We’re frequently asking customers to wash their hands. Only customers who have an appointment can come inside the salon so we limit the number of people here.”

In order to maintain social distancing, Sawyer was also monitoring the blocks of time set aside for appointments. She noted that stylists can be in the company of a customer up to two hours.

Sawyer said she ended her salon’s pedicure and nail services the week before last. Some of her older customers were also canceling their appointments to stay close to home.

Also interviewed last week, Powell of Amy & Company said she had ended waxing customers’ eyebrows but was still performing other services.

“These are services they still want and it’s my income,” she said. “It’s just important for salons to continue their cleaning efforts and communicate with their clients.”

Sharonda Griffin, owner of Salon Sanjay & Co., said she was still providing manicures and pedicures, acrylic and gels nail services. Customers who were scheduled last weekend kept their appointments and remained optimistic about keeping future ones, she said.

Griffin said her shop was also practicing good social distancing measures.

“We offer fewer time blocks to prevent overbooking or to create situations where too many customers are here at a time,” she said. “We like to have time between serving customers to clean the salon area.”

Carol Rogers at SmartStyle Hair Salon, which is located inside Walmart, said customers were still requesting hair styling services but her staff had suspended eyebrow waxing and beard trimming. SmartStyle’s staff were also following proper cleaning and sanitizing procedures, she said.

Vinh Vui of D&T Nails said the shop’s owner decided to close the business after last Saturday. Customer traffic had been slower than usual for the past week, Vui said.

Also affected by the governor’s closing order is Julius Star, a Weeksville Road business that provides tattoos and body piercings.

Owner Horwitz Jeffrey said his shop has only been in business the past nine months. He said the shop’s hours — 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. — appeal to the schedules of his clients, many of whom select tattoos reflecting some part of their family history or their spiritual or religious beliefs.

After Cooper issued his executive order, Jeffrey said he and his staff of three tattooists had to shuffle their schedules to meet customers’ needs.

“We offer consultations first then we make appointments. We’ve had to condense appointments that were scheduled well into April into the next two days. With extended hours we’ve been able to help most of our customers,” he said.

Jeffrey said he’s not angry about the order to close.

“The local community has been fantastic,” he said. “We’ll offer consultations while we’re closed. We are ready to get back to business as soon as we can.”

Raises for City Council added to budget proposal


A majority of Elizabeth City city councilors voted Monday night to award themselves and the mayor $500-a-month raises starting in July.

By a 4-2 vote, City Council directed City Manager Rich Olson to include the raises in his proposed budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year. Council usually approves the city’s annual fiscal budget each June.

Councilors Gabriel Adkins, Darius Horton, Johnnie Walton and Michael Brooks voted to includes the raises in the proposed budget while Councilors Billy Caudle and Jeannie Young voted no.

Councilor Chris Ruffieux was absent from Monday’s meeting while Councilor Kem Spence left the meeting before the vote.

After the vote, councilors, by the same 4-2 vote, approved a motion by Walton to not reconsider the issue directing Olson to include the raises in his proposed budget.

That means a final vote on the proposed raises for council and the mayor will come when City Council considers the city’s budget. Council could then vote to keep the raises in the budget or vote to remove them.

“I want to make a motion to the city manager that in the process of developing this year’s budget that it would be included to be presented to council a raise for the council and the mayor in the amount of $500 per month,” Horton stated in his motion. “I make that in a motion that we give you (Olson) a directive to put that in the budget to be presented to us.’’

An increase for $500 a month would bump council pay from $8,274 annually to $14,274 a year — a 73-percent increase — while the salary for the mayor would increase from $9,656 to $15,656 annually — a 62-percent increase.

If council votes for a $500-a-month raise it would make Elizabeth City City Council the highest paid city or town governing board among 14 cities that are comparable in size and that also own and operate their own water, sewer and electric utilities. Olson previously provided council a list of comparable cities that shows the average annual pay for council members and the mayor are $6,153 and $9,181, respectively

Council debated the issue and then unanimously voted at its March 9 meeting to take up the issue at a future meeting.

Young said at the March 9 meeting that she was opposed to giving council a raise under any circumstances. She said she was especially disappointed Monday that council would even consider the pay raise as the country faces uncertain economic times because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We are in the middle of a crisis and we sitting here talking about paying us $500 (more a month),” Young said. “I can’t believe we even bring this up. We don’t even know where we are going financially and we bring this back to pay ourselves $500 (more a month). I just hope we are better than this.”

Caudle, who also voiced opposition to the proposed raises earlier this month, criticized the timing of the request.

“This is a ridiculous time to bring this up,” Caudle said. “People are getting laid off right and left and we are talking about giving ourselves a raise. That is a slap in the face to all the restaurant workers, and everybody else.’’

Caudle was referring to the restaurant and bar employees across the state who’ve either lost hours or their jobs following Gov. Roy Cooper’s order last week requiring businesses to close their dine-in services. Another order Cooper issued earlier this week also closes all barbershops, hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors and movie theaters as of 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

UPDATE: Bertie County now has 3 COVID-19 cases

A total of three Bertie County residents have now tested positive for COVID-19, upping the total number of residents in the region diagnosed with the respiratory disease to five.

The first Bertie County case was reported early Tuesday morning. Shortly before 4 p.m. the same day, Albemarle Regional Health Services announced two additional Bertie residents had been diagnosed.

ARHS Director Battle Betts Jr. received notifications of the lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Bertie, ARHS said in separate press releases.

All three people who tested positive for COVID-19 are in isolation and ARHS officials are following N.C. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines on “contract tracing” to determine those who had close contact with the patient, ARHS said.

The agency defined close contact as having direct contact with or being within 6 feet of the person who tested positive for COVID-19 for at least 10 minutes while not wearing personal protective equipment. Caregivers and members of a household are considered persons who’ve had close contact.

ARHS’ confirmation of the Bertie cases of COVID-19 comes a day after the regional health agency announced a person had tested positive for the coronavirus in Hertford County, and five days after the agency announced a positive test in Pasquotank County.

As of 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, there were more than 400 cases of COVID-19 in 48 North Carolina counties and no deaths. Nationwide, there were 51,542 total cases of COVID-19 and more than 674 deaths.

Globally, there were 414,277 cases of COVID-19 and 18,557 deaths.

In North Carolina, health officials have performed 8,502 tests for the coronavirus.

An ARHS spokeswoman said it was impossible to say how many of tests for COVID-19 have been conducted in the region, given that private labs are only reporting positive results.