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Update: Covid cases spike among younger, unvaccinated

The Delta variant of the SARS-COVID-19 virus is spreading “exponentially,” doubling since last week, and about 92 percent of all new cases in Buncombe County are among individuals who are not fully vaccinated, Buncombe County Public Health Director Stacie Saunders said Wednesday. The average age of newly infected individuals is 39, Saunders said.

Even so, Gov. Roy Cooper said his executive order mandating facial masks at schools, camps, and child care facilities will expire next week and will not be renewed. However, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said Wednesday she and Cooper “strongly recommend” masks for all students, teachers, and staff inside elementary and middle school facilities even if adults or students 12 and older have been fully vaccinated.

Three-fourths of North Carolina’s children 12 and older have not been vaccinated, according to Cohen and Cooper, leaving most schools vulnerable to the Delta variant of COVID-19. — P.L.

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COVID-19 cases rise sharply a month before schools open

New COVID-19 cases are rising sharply in Buncombe County in the past two weeks, but public schools in Asheville and Buncombe County will resume in-person classes a month from now without requiring students, faculty or staff to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Most of the average 18 new cases a day — triple the number of early July but far fewer than at the height of the pandemic in January —are among people who have not been vaccinated for the coronavirus, doctors tell The Watchdog.

All children age 12 and older are eligible for free COVID-19 vaccinations — adults too — and Asheville and Buncombe County schools hosted free immunization clinics this summer. But COVID-19 vaccinations are voluntary, and any decision to make them mandatory for students, faculty, and staff ahead of the scheduled Aug. 23 opening would have to come from the state health department and the Department of Public Instruction, school officials said.  

Health officials say current vaccines are effective against the Delta variant, but only 51 percent of Buncombe County adults are fully vaccinated, according to figures updated Tuesday by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

As of Tuesday, “Asheville City Schools is NOT requiring our students or staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccine prior to the start of the 2021-2022 school year,” Ashley-Michelle Thublin, the system’s executive director of communications, told Asheville Watchdog via email.

“We will return to school in person, five days a week in August,” Stacia Harris, director of communications for Buncombe County Schools, emailed The Watchdog, adding, “BCS is not requiring COVID-19 vaccines for students or staff to begin school in August.” 

All students will still be required to have been vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, rubella, mumps, flu, chickenpox, hepatitis B, and meningitis. By state law, school principals are required to deny admittance to any student who has not been vaccinated for these diseases.

One-hundred years ago, before an effective vaccine against diphtheria was developed, the disease killed 1,864 North Carolinians in the period 1920-24. The North Carolina General Assembly made the diphtheria vaccine mandatory for schoolchildren in 1939. The disease is now rare.

North Carolina was the first state to make a polio vaccine mandatory for schoolchildren, in 1959. A decade earlier, in 1948, polio killed 143 children and adults in the state and crippled thousands more. Today the disease is virtually eliminated. — P.L.

Cawthorn opposes removing statues of white supremacists

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC11) voted by proxy Tuesday against a House bill to remove statues of white supremacists and pro-slavery Confederate sympathizers from the halls of Congress. The resolution passed with bipartisan support, 285 to 120, with three North Carolina Republicans joining the Democrats in voting to replace the statues.

The bill now goes to the Senate. A similar resolution passed the House last year, 305-113, but then-majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did not allow it to come up for a Senate vote.

The bill opposed by Cawthorn calls for the removal of “all Confederate statues and Confederate busts from any area of the United States Capitol which is accessible to the public.” It also specifically calls for removing a statue honoring former North Carolina Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, who was a key figure in fomenting the Wilmington massacre of 1898, in which a mob of some 2,000 whites attacked and killed at least 60 and possibly more than 300 Black residents.

Charles B. Aycock

As governor, Aycock wrote that North Carolina had “solved the negro problem” by “as far as possible under the Fifteenth Amendment to disfranchise him.” “He is unfit to vote,” Aycock wrote.

In 2018 the state of North Carolina voted to replace the Aycock statue — on display in the Crypt of the U.S. Capitol — with one of the Rev. Billy Graham, the Christian evangelist from Montreat, who died earlier that year, but the replacement has not yet happened. Each state has two statues in the Capitol’s National Statuary collection; North Carolina’s other statue is of Zebulon B. Vance, a Confederate officer, two-time governor, U.S. senator, slaveholder, and avowed white supremacist whose monument in downtown Asheville was demolished this year.

The bill Cawthorn opposed also specifically calls for replacing a bust honoring former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, a white supremacist who delivered the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, with one of Thurgood Marshall, the court’s first African-American justice and a champion of the civil rights movement.

In Scott, Taney wrote that Blacks were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race.” His landmark decision argued that “any person descended from Africans,” whether enslaved or free, would never be eligible for citizenship in the United States and that the federal government had no right to forbid or abolish slavery in expansion states.

Asheville Watchdog requested comment from Cawthorn’s office about his opposition to removing the statues and busts, but has not yet received a response. Cawthorn was traveling to Texas for a media event at the Mexican border with former President Donald Trump.

But in an interview with The Washington Examiner a year ago, then-candidate Cawthorn spoke in favor of removing public monuments to Confederate leaders. “Gen. Lee was a great man, an incredible man,” Cawthorn told the newspaper, “but I think he was on the wrong side of history, and I don’t think we should romanticize the side of history he was on.” — P.L.

[Editor’s note: This story was updated to note that because he was traveling, Rep. Cawthorn instructed his “nay” vote to be cast by his proxy, Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX).]

City must pay legal fees to local media, judge rules

The city of Asheville must pay nearly $4,200 in legal fees to a coalition of local media organizations that sued the city for trying to bar news reporters from a public meeting in March. The coalition, including Asheville Watchdog, The Asheville Citizen Times, Mountain Xpress, Blue Ridge Public Radio, and Carolina Public Press, successfully sued the city, citing North Carolina’s open meetings law, and on Tuesday Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Steven Warren ruled that the city must pay the coalition’s legal fees.

“We are grateful that Judge Warren apparently agreed that it was important not only for the city of Asheville to comply with the open meetings law but to be accountable when they tried to sidestep it,” said Amanda Warren, the lawyer who represented the local media coalition. “A different ruling could have encouraged public bodies and public agencies to flout the law with little consequence.”

Brad R. Branham, Asheville’s city attorney, told Mountain Xpress that he disagreed with Judge Warren’s rulings and that “it is difficult to say that this particular ruling would have any bearing on Council meetings moving forward.” He declined to say how much the city spent on its legal defense.

Urban Renewal Impact website to be launched June 24

A new website that allows residents to tell their stories about the impact of the urban renewal program that uprooted the Black community from its traditional neighborhoods in Asheville will be launched Thursday, part of the first phase of city’s plan to implement its July 2020 resolution to provide reparations to the Black community.

The website, “Urban Renewal Impact,” was created by Priscilla Ndiaye Robinson, a former Southside resident and researcher on urban renewal. Robinson said her work, which was supported by funding in 2021 from the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, is expected to be “an important resource in the truth-and-reconciliation conversations on reparations in Asheville.”

A multiyear digital collaboration with local citizens and experts, the website focuses on urban renewal programs in the 1950s to 1980s that displaced Black communities from such areas as Valley Street (now South Charlotte St.) and Southside (also called East Riverside in the urban renewal program).  (See Asheville Watchdog’s stories on reparations here and Black home ownership here.)

Robinson unveils the website on in the evening of June 24th.  It can be accessed through this link:  after the 7 p.m. launch. — B.D.

Nurses to picket Mission Hospital, citing concerns about safety

The labor union representing Mission Hospital nurses said members will picket two hospital facilities in Asheville June 15 to highlight concerns about under-staffing that, they contend, has affected the safety of patient care. The labor action is the latest in a growing fusillade of complaints about the safety and quality of patient care made to regulators and to Asheville Watchdog since for-profit HCA Healthcare took over nonprofit Mission Health in 2019.

In announcing the picket, National Nurses Organizing Committee North Carolina said Mission and St. Joseph hospitals — both owned and operated by HCA — need to make improvements to retain experienced registered nurses (RNs) and recruit new ones. Working conditions at Mission make it hard to attract new recruits, the union committee said. 

Asked to comment on the union’s statement, Nancy Lindell, Director of Public and Media Relations for HCA Healthcare North Carolina Division and Mission Health, said in an emailed statement: “Since mid-February Mission Hospital has held roughly a dozen bargaining sessions with the union representatives and, in those sessions, the parties have reached more than 30 tentative agreements” on topics including health and safety.

“Despite this progress, we understand that this kind of picketing activity sometimes occurs when a union and an employer are engaged in negotiations for a contract, as we are with this union,” Lindell wrote. “This is merely a form of demonstration that the union is legally allowed to do. We want the public to be assured that Mission Hospital remains open and continues to provide the quality patient care that Mission Hospital has always provided.”

In calling for picketing, Mission nurses said hospital management has consistently failed to adhere to its own staffing standards, including nurse to patient ratios.  

“Since HCA purchased our hospital in 2019, the management has cut corners on safe patient care by cutting support staff and violating their own nurse staffing grids,” said Shelby Runkles, a cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit RN at Mission. “With each additional patient, nurses are more prone to make mistakes and the risk of serious complications increases.”

Registered nurses at HCA Mission voted overwhelmingly last September to join National Nurses Organizing Committee-North Carolina, an affiliate of National Nurses United (NNU), and are negotiating with HCA Mission on a first collective bargaining agreement. The pickets are scheduled to be at Mission Hospital at 509 Biltmore Avenue and Mission’s St. Joseph Campus at 428 Biltmore Avenue from 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. — Barbara Durr

Stein hints at second thoughts about Mission sale to HCA

Although he approved HCA’s purchase of Mission Health in 2018, Attorney General Josh Stein now appears to be having second thoughts about that sale.  In a June 2 statement regarding a different hospital merger, he said he had “real concerns” about hospital consolidations, and specifically named HCA and Mission. “Bigger doesn’t always mean better. In fact, it often means worse and more expensive,” Stein said in the statement.

Stein approved the deal that ended more than 130 years of Mission’s legacy of putting quality of care over profits. But now, he said, his office has had more than 100 complaints from patients about quality of care and billing. “Consolidations drive up already inordinate health care costs,” Stein said. He urged hospital administrators, including those at HCA, to be transparent on their pricing. 

HCA raised prices 10 percent shortly after taking control of Mission in 2019. As reported in The Wall Street Journal in March, a number of HCA hospitals violated federal price transparency rules that required hospitals to post their prices starting in January 2021. HCA embedded coding in its website to hide prices from consumers trying to understand what their costs might be, The Journal found. After The Journal revealed the blocking links, HCA removed them.

State Treasurer Dale R. Folwell, reacting to the Journal article, criticized Stein in March for not taking action “to protect consumers.”

“I am disappointed by hospitals’ pattern of deceit,” Folwell wrote March 31. “Patients and taxpayers deserve to know what they’re paying for care. We must get rid of secret contracts and push the power down to the consumer. The attorney general needs to be involved.”

It is not the first time Stein has warned HCA about transparency. More than a year ago, the attorney general wrote to Greg Lowe, president of the North Carolina division of HCA Healthcare, to raise concerns including “a surge in complaints about quality of care” and about HCA’s transparency in billing patients.

In his latest letter to hospital administrators, Stein said obfuscation on pricing “layers needless anxiety and uncertainty on top of what are already some of the most stressful circumstances a person can face.” — B.D.

Abolish Department of Education, Cawthorn tells NC GOP leaders

Rep. Madison Cawthorn visits Trump Tower in New York City June 2 (PHOTO CREDIT DAILY MAIL)

U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC11), speaking at the North Carolina Republican Party’s Old North State Dinner on June 4 in Greenville, called for abolishing the federal Department of Education, The East Carolinian reported.

“We need to abolish the Department of Education because no Washington D.C. bureaucrat, no one who wants to push critical race theory, nobody who believes that they should indoctrinate our children at a young age and force politics upon them should be allowed to be in charge of our schools,” Cawthorn was quoted as saying.

Critical race theory is an academic discipline, primarily taught in law schools, that examines why racial inequality persists in the United States despite Constitutional guarantees and two centuries of laws enacted to codify equality and equal justice. It argues that racism is embedded in the American social system and enabled by the legal system.

“We need to allow the next generation to be raised in a nation where they’re not politicized from the age of five,” Cawthorn said. “When we have drag queens in our public libraries reading to our children, the libraries that we paid for … it is up to us to fight as hard as we possibly can for the next generation.”

Cawthorn, who was home-schooled and left college after one semester, sits on the House Committee of Education and Labor.

Cawthorn also called for abolishing the federal income tax and impeaching judges who “do not believe in our constitution.”

Former President Donald Trump spoke at the North Carolina dinner June 5. Cawthorn made an unannounced visit to New York City on June 2 and was photographed leaving Trump’s New York residence. — P.L.

HCA and Google partner to mine patient data

Mission Hospital (Photo credit: Bloomberg)

HCA and Google have agreed to work together to develop healthcare algorithms using patient records, The Wall Street Journal reported May 26. The patient records, including digital health records and data from internet-connected medical devices, would be extracted from HCA’s 186 hospitals and more than 2,000 clinics and facilities across the country, including Mission Hospital in Asheville and six other hospitals in Western North Carolina.

The new multi-year agreement expands a previous alliance between the two companies to share patient health data related to COVID-19. Google and HCA engineers will work to develop algorithms to “help improve operating efficiency, monitor patients, and guide doctors’ decisions,” according to the companies.

“Data are spun off of every patient in real time,” said Dr. Jonathan Perlin, chief medical officer of HCA, which is based in Nashville, Tenn. “Part of what we’re building is a central nervous system to help interpret the various signals.”

Some of Google’s earlier forays into the $3 trillion healthcare industry have raised concerns about data privacy. Dr. Perlin told The Journal that HCA patient records would be stripped of identifying information before being shared with Google data scientists and that the hospital system would control access to the data. — P.L.

Blue Ridge Public Radio’s Feingold to Retire in 2021

David Feingold (Photo credit: WLOS)

David Feingold, chief executive officer and general manager of Blue Ridge Public Radio, told staff this week that he plans to retire sometime before Thanksgiving, The Watchdog has learned. Feingold, 71, joined WCQS in July 2015 after a career in commercial radio and television broadcasting including six years as London bureau chief for CNN, and, for 16 years, as assistant general manager of NET, Nebraska’s statewide educational radio and television service. In Asheville, Feingold oversaw the creation of BPR News, a sister station to BPR Classic. A search committee has been formed by the BPR Board of Directors to find his replacement. Disclosure: Blue Ridge Public Radio is a publishing partner of Asheville Watchdog. — B.D.