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AVL Watchdog

COVID Surge: 51 Dead in August. ‘We’re running out of ambulances’

Record Number of Cases Reported at Mission

Jessica Vaughn, a 33-year-old mother of five, was found dead in her Asheville apartment. The cause: COVID-19.

Brianna Justus, a 31-year-old expectant mother, went from healthy to COVID intensive care patient at Mission Hospital in less than a week. Her baby, delivered by emergency cesarean section, survived. Brianna Justus did not.

Thomas Turner of West Asheville waited nearly two hours at an urgent care center without being seen before driving himself to Mission, his family said. He never made it inside. Turner, 59, died in the parking lot while his wife, who also had COVID, was being treated in the emergency room.

Their deaths are just a few from a current surge that is overwhelming Buncombe County’s health care system, taxing already exhausted doctors and nurses, and afflicting a large swath of Western North Carolina in numbers not seen since the pre-vaccine pandemic peak.

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“It’s going to lead to one place … bloodshed.” What Madison Cawthorn said to supporters

“We need to be storing up some ammunition,” Congressman says

Congressman Madison Cawthorn, Republican representing western North Carolina, spoke this week to Macon County Republicans in Franklin. The organizer estimated the crowd at more than 200 people. The Macon County Republican Party posted a 1-hour, 28-minute video on its Facebook page, but removed it after Cawthorn’s remarks attracted nationwide scrutiny. A copy of the video can be found on YouTube here.

During remarks that were frequently interrupted with applause and cheers from the overwhelmingly white, unmasked crowd, Cawthorn, holding a shotgun he was asked to sign, says the Second Amendment is not for hunting or target shooting but rather for fighting tyranny. He advises the crowd to begin stockpiling ammunition for what he says is likely American-versus-American “bloodshed” over unfavorable election results.

He repeats his claims that the American election system is “rigged” and that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Donald Trump,

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The Man Who Would Be Sheriff: Buncombe Candidate Vows to Make Everything Right

“The biggest terrorist organization right now is the United States government"

[This article has been modified since it was originally published. A correction notice has been added.]

Under a Carolina-blue sky, shaded by the oaks framing Pack Square, the small crowd formed a loose, attentive circle around a man speaking and gesticulating with the fervor of a revivalist. This was David Hurley, 37, a candidate to become the Buncombe county sheriff in 2022. 

But, he told the crowd, he wouldn’t be your typical sheriff. 

Hurley described a “constitutional sheriff,” a kind of super authority who would reign supreme over all law enforcement, more powerful than mayors, county commissioners, the governor and — when it came to local matters — even the president.

“The sheriff is the ultimate power in America,” Hurley declared, pacing inside the circle. “It’s been the best-kept secret that they didn’t want to get out.

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As Hospitals Elsewhere Mandate Vaccines for Staff, Mission and Others Resist

Despite "critical" need, administrators fear workers will quit

The largest healthcare providers in Western North Carolina, including Mission Hospital in Asheville, confirmed this week that they are not requiring doctors, nurses, volunteers, or other hospital staff to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus despite a resurgence of infections and hospitalizations.

Most of the other major hospital systems in the state have made full vaccinations mandatory, citing staff and patient safety as a highly contagious COVID-19 variant spreads nationwide, almost entirely among people who have not been vaccinated or are only partly vaccinated.

Hospital administrators and clinical leaders say they agree that vaccinations represent the most effective way to stop the pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans, including hundreds of people in Asheville and surrounding communities.

Few people are more familiar with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic than hospital workers. Even so, hospital administrators in Western North Carolina — where science and politics are not always compatible — said nurses,

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Quality of Care Concerns Rise at Mission Hospital

Patients, Staff Challenge HCA Management

[Editor’s Note: This story has been modified since its original publication. A correction and clarification was added at the bottom to explain the changes.]

Forrest Johnson fell in her garden on April 22 and broke her leg in two places. Her husband and stepdaughter rushed the 68-year-old former nurse to the Mission Hospital emergency room in Asheville from their home near Burnsville, about an hour’s drive. They arrived around 8 p.m.

Having spent 20 years in nursing, Johnson said, “I sort of knew what to expect.” But what she did not expect was that she would lie for nearly six hours in the emergency room without water, ice, a blanket, a pillow to elevate her leg, food, or pain medication. 

Forrest Johnson

“I just had a very busy nurse,” Johnson said.

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Profits are up at HCA. Ratings are down at Mission.

For executive pay, earnings matter more than quality of care

HCA Healthcare, which owns and operates Mission Hospital in Asheville, reported this month that it made $1.4 billion in profits for the first three months of 2021, more than double the amount for the same period last year. 

The new figures follow HCA’s report in February that annual profits rose to a record $3.8 billion in 2020, despite the pandemic, based on what the company called “solid cost management.”

In a proxy statement filed last month with the Securities and Exchange Commission, HCA stated its primary objective is “providing the highest quality health care to our patients, while making a positive impact on the communities in which we operate.” But the document shows that the company rewards top executives far more for taking care of shareholders than it does for taking care of patients. 

A year after announcing that its senior leaders would take up to 30 percent pay cuts during the pandemic,

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A Letter from the Publisher

Dear Watchdog Reader,

A year ago someone surfing the web might have come across this greeting:

“Hello Asheville! Welcome to AVL Watchdog … We’re here because of you, our friends and neighbors, who told us you want more thoughtful and explanatory journalism to help you stay abreast of the issues and challenges facing Asheville and Buncombe County.”

Those words introduced Asheville and the surrounding region to the free, nonpartisan, nonprofit online news service you are reading now.

The idea for Asheville Watchdog was born several weeks earlier in a eureka moment at a pre-pandemic cocktail party. Several journalists and media executives who had retired to Asheville were lamenting the decline of local reporting and in-depth analysis all across the country. Unlike a lot of party talk, this turned out not to be idle chatter

Our original logo

The journalists decided to put their years of professional experience and passion for their work into enhancing Asheville’s news environment. They gathered several other retired newsies who felt the same way, and here we are celebrating our first anniversary.

Asheville Watchdog doesn’t attempt to compete with existing local news outlets, which because of sharp financial cutbacks are sometimes limited in their ability to provide the kind of investigative journalism that advances understanding of important civic issues. Nor do we compete with local media for advertising dollars.

The all-volunteer Watchdog staff, which includes three Pulitzer Prize winners, produces stories for our own website, on our own schedule, but we also make those stories available free of charge to other local media. We believe this approach complements what existing media in our area are doing, and advances our overall goal of providing accurate, trustworthy news to the community we all love. 

Our first story was about the financial slump in downtown Asheville during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown. We have continued to cover the pandemic and much more.

In our first year, some highlights of Asheville Watchdog’s work include:

  • Heartbreaking profiles of some of the more than 300 Buncombe County neighbors who died in the first year of the pandemic.
  • The challenges looming for Asheville, a relatively “safe city” in the growing climate crisis, from an expected influx of climate refugees from more vulnerable places.
  • The disparity in Asheville between Black and white home ownership and its effects on generational wealth.
  • Problems faced by racial equity officials who resigned their jobs because of resistance in government and other organizations to proposals for Black reparations in Asheville.
  • Efforts to reshape the Asheville Police Department in the aftermath of last summer’s confrontations over racial injustice.
  • The sale of the local nonprofit Mission Hospital system to profit-hungry HCA, and the sale’s impact on community healthcare.
  • The loud and hard-fought campaign for western North Carolina’s seat in Congress, and its aftermath, in which young, conservative Republican Madison Cawthorn beat Democrat Moe Davis, a career military prosecutor. Our stories were cited by national news organizations including The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and others.
  • A split in the family of the late evangelist Billy Graham, in which one side believes Graham’s son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, tarnishes his father’s legacy with extreme views on religion and politics. This story was published in newspapers all across the state.

And all this happened during a pandemic that has kept us from venturing out into the community to introduce ourselves to you in person. We intend to remedy that as soon as health and safety allow. We’re eager to hear your ideas on what issues are important to you, and how we can do a better job covering them.

The challenges facing local journalism are still severe. Misinformation is rampant, reliable resources are scarce, and the need for trustworthy, in-depth local reporting has never been greater. While our stories are free, the cost of producing them is not. I hope you’ll consider our efforts worthy of your tax-deductible financial support.

By the way, readers will notice something new in today’s Watchdog. We begin our second year with a redesign of our website, which we think will make it more attractive and accessible. We’ve added space for shorter news items — we call them “barks” — and also space for links to stories in other publications that we think might be of interest to the citizens of western North Carolina.

To all our readers and supporters, thank you. We couldn’t have made it this far without you. Special thanks go to Steve Keeble, whose vision and generous support helped bring AVL Watchdog to life; to David Bralow, Kay Murray, Alexander Papachristou and Cindy Moore of Lawyers for Reporters, a joint project of the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and the Press Freedom Defense Fund, and Amanda Martin and the legal team at Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, for their important work supporting local journalism and defending freedom of the press; to the many local writers and editors who initially contributed their talents and time to keep the Watchdog‘s virtual presses humming; and to the Asheville Citizen Times, Blue Ridge Public Radio, Mountain Xpress, AVLtoday, Asheville.com, Smoky Mountain News and The Mountaineer for unselfishly spreading our words to the community.

Bob Gremillion, Publisher

Covid-19: Those We’ve Lost

One year, 301 gone

They taught students in school, delivered the mail, advised Congress, and served the country in wartime and peace.

One led public affairs for NASA and became the voice of launch control for Apollo space missions. Another was a composer and pianist who played in the original Mickey Mouse Orchestra.

A year has passed since Buncombe County recorded its first Covid-19 death on March 28, 2020. Since then, another 300 people have died. In the official government record, they’ll be remembered as statistics of a pandemic that killed swiftly and indiscriminately, but to their families, friends and neighbors, they were so much more.

Asheville Watchdog combed public health reports, obituaries and death certificates listing Covid-19 as a cause of death to examine the virus’s march through Buncombe. The lives lost include the working and the retired, journalists and college professors,

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Come Hell or High Water, Asheville Is Climate “Winner”

Influx of “climate refugees” expected to exacerbate challenges

Back in 2006, when Scott Shuford was Asheville’s planning director, he reluctantly accepted a friend’s invitation to attend a meeting about the impact of climate change on local governments. 

“I didn’t see how a two-degree temperature change could affect the community,” he recalled, referring to the predicted rise in earth temperatures in years to come. “But I agreed to attend, thinking it would only be about 15 minutes. 

“After about an hour-and-a-half I came out of the meeting drenched in sweat.”

All the plans he had drafted up to that day suddenly seemed to have overlooked an unsettled future fraught with unanticipated challenges. Those two degrees of temperature change meant greater threats of weather extremes — of torrential rains, devastating floods, and landslides, and of their opposites, extended drought and wildfire. 

“We weren’t ready,” Shuford said of Asheville’s infrastructure at the time.

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