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Community supports neighbors in crisis through food distribution

NEWLAND — In these times of uncertainty, many Avery residents have questions related to their basic necessities. With unemployment increasing and many people living paycheck to paycheck, the circumstances can seem overwhelming. Yet the response from the community comes with a resounding clarity: help is on the way.

All across the county, government organizations, nonprofits, charities, private businesses and individuals alike are stepping up, reaching out and extending a hand—or elbow, rather—to those most impacted by the sweeping effects of COVID-19.

Ever since the state mandated that restaurants close their dining rooms and ordered schools to shut down for two weeks, as well as banned gatherings of large groups of people, food distribution and security has been a top priority locally.

On Thursday, March 19, Feeding Avery Families received its regular food drop off from MANNA FoodBank as part of its Community Market. FAF Director Larson expected there to be an increase in demand due to the response of the virus, and he was not wrong. Volunteers set up a drive through system at the community swimming pool parking lot and by go-time at midday, cars were lined up, stretching around the Rock Gym and backed up all the way to Linville Street.

“We average about 75 meals a month, and I think we tripled it today,” Larson said. “[MANNA] brought a lot more food, they traditionally bring six to seven pallets, I think we had 10 pallets today. We had about three times as many families as we generally have.”

FAF managed to deliver a box of food to 223 families with the help of a bevy of volunteers, including staff from the YMCA and the Avery County Sheriff’s Office. Boxes were full of whole-family meals and fresh produce such as sweet potatoes, cabbage, boxes of cereal and the occasional delicacy such as a pack of popular chocolate marshmallow pies.

Amongst the line of families were people like Brenda and Julie Puckett, who picked up a total of five boxes to be delivered to the elderly and others who are unable to leave their homes.

“I just want to say that I hope God blesses each and every person who is out here trying to help other people. I don’t care who it is, I want to thank them. It’s wonderful,” Brenda Puckett said.

The mother and daughter duo have both been too close for comfort to the Coronavirus pandemic that has been gradually spreading throughout North Carolina and Tennessee. Julie has a daughter who works at Labcorp in Johnson City, where she tests blood samples for COVID-19.

“It’s scary because she’s out there on the front lines every day. We worry about her. She finally got a mask yesterday,” Julie said.

“The thing is that we babysit her little boy and she is worried about bringing [the virus] in on us and bringing it on her son and her husband, but she has to work. [The job] won’t let her do anything different,” Brenda said.

The following day, on Friday, March 20, FAF was at it again, distributing a total of 161 boxes of food to cars lined up around the Newland Shopping Center. The nonprofit also distributed another 21 emergency boxes to families during the same week.

Meanwhile, Reaching Avery Ministries was hopping on the school buses with boxes of their own, and sheriff’s deputies were out and about delivering food to the elderly.

“We just want to be servants and help everybody,” Deputy Sheriff Lee Buchanan said. “It’s going to take a little while to adjust [to the changes], but the sheriff wants us to do more serving, and we are going to help in any way we can. It takes everybody out here to help do this, and it just shows the strength of good ‘ol mountain folk. Everybody’s family. It don’t matter if you were born here or moved here. You’re family, and you’re worth helping.”

On Thursday and Friday, March 19 and 20, RAM delivered food boxes to 92 families and eight elderly. Once buses were loaded at Newland Elementary they stopped by the food pantry and added on toilet tissue, diapers and baby formula along with an assortment of other supplies. Teachers, who have been making phone calls to their students at least twice a week, have also been asking the kids if their families are in need of food or anything else.

“I’m very proud of our county and how we’ve pulled together to meet the need,” RAM Director Janet Millsaps said. “The YMCA employees volunteered, and teachers and principals were on these school buses that were handing out this extra food. Everybody is working together to get it out.”

Apart from being the only food pantry in the county that is open five days a week, RAM distributes on average 140 food boxes a month in addition to providing financial assistance to those in need.

“We are going to be hit really hard. As of this time, we’ve helped people who are [already] out of work. We had waitresses today; the restaurants are closed down. People who don’t normally ask for help are feeling the crunch already,” Millsaps said.

By the end of the day on Friday, March 20, the school system had distributed more than 2,800 breakfasts and lunches for the students, averaging around 600 meals delivered per day. The delivery system had to be quickly put in place after Gov. Roy Cooper issued his executive order on March 14 to close schools. Avery County Schools began its first day of distribution on Monday, March 16, and delivered 515 meals. Additionally, study packets were delivered on Wednesday, March 18.

“It’s just definitely a demonstration of an outstanding community. We’re so blessed to be a part of it. To see the care being expressed for everyone throughout the county and the support offered from multiple agencies is just a heart-warming experience to see such a loving community that we’re blessed to call home. We live in a great place with great people,” ACS Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman said.

COVID-19 positive cases rise statewide

RALEIGH — As the cases of COVID-19 continue to increase on a national level, the number of positive cases continues to follow suit within the borders of North Carolina.

COVID-19 positive cases reported for the state has continued its rising trend of recent days, as the number increased to at least 458 cases as of noon on Tuesday, March 24, according to reports from the Raleigh News & Observer.

This number varies from reports provided by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, as the agency reports 398 positive cases, with its reporting process occurring as a single daily update by 11 a.m.

“Some cases reported by county health departments can take 24 to 48 hours before they are included in the number reported by the state,” the News & Observer reports. The News & Observer is compiling the numbers of cases announced by counties throughout the day in more of a real-time format.

On Monday, March 23, Gov. Roy Cooper issued Executive Order 120, which mandated that public schools continue to remain closed until at least May 15. Gov. Cooper also increased the restrictions on mass gatherings from 100 to 50 persons and ordered gyms, barber shops, tattoo parlors, spas, movie theaters and other businesses without a retail or dining component to close down by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 25.

Local government operations will continue as usual, and long-term-care facilities are ordered to restrict visitation and access except for essential personnel.

Mission Hospitals announced on Saturday, March 21, that it will suspend all non-essential surgeries and procedures in order to more effectively respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

On a statewide level, NCDHHS reported a total number of 8,502 tests have been conducted for the coronavirus as of March 24, which were conducted at the N.C. State Laboratory of Public Health and did not include tests at university and commercial laboratories.

According to the News & Observer, a little greater than half of the state’s 100 counties have reported confirmed cases of the virus. The latest increase on March 24 includes a third case reported from Watauga County, as well as cases reported in Mecklenburg, Jackson, Wayne, Vance, Hoke, Rowan, Pitt, Franklin, Orange, Cabarrus, Iredell, Guilford, Union and Transylvania counties, according to the News & Observer.

The counties with the highest total number of cases across the state include Mecklenburg County, with 127 reported cases, Durham County with 71 reported cases and Wake County with 66 reported cases, according to the newspaper.

Within the region of the High Country, Watauga County has reported three cases of COVID-19, the third of which was reported March 24 by AppHealthCare. Both Ashe and Avery counties have yet to report a positive case of the virus within its borders. Deb Gragg with the Avery County Health Department reported on March 23 that the department has conducted 23 tests, with nine coming back negative.

Johns Hopkins University and Medicine reports as of noon on Tuesday, March 24, a total of 46,548 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, a jump of more than 3,000 cases since the previous evening. The total represents the third-largest total of cases worldwide, trailing only China and Italy. The university reported that there had been a total of 592 deaths across the country to date related to COVID-19 as of Tuesday, March 24.

To date, no deaths within the state of North Carolina have been reported, according to NCDHHS.

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Avery County declares local state of emergency

NEWLAND — The Avery County Board of Commissioners officially declared a local state of emergency on Friday, March 20, in response to the COVID-19 virus outbreak.

The board passed the declaration in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus locally, of which there are three cases in Watauga County and more than 400 confirmed cases across the state.

The declaration reads, “COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that can result in serious illness or death by the SARS-CoC-2 virus, which is a new strain of coronavirus previously unidentified in humans and which can spread from person to person. In response to the global spread of the virus and the disease it causes, the World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned of the high public health threat posed by COVID-19 globally and in the United States and has deemed it necessary to prohibit and restrict travel to areas designated by the CDC; the United States Department of Health and Human Services Secretary declared a public health emergency for COVID-19 in the United States; and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services confirmed multiple cases of COVID-19 in North Carolina as of March 10, 2020.”

The declaration continues, “In consultation with health care professionals and based upon guidance from CDC and NCDHHS, arrangements must be made immediately to take such actions as are deemed necessary and appropriate to insure that COVID-19 remains controlled and that residents and visitors in Avery County remain safe and secure.

“It is further declared that the Emergency Management Plan adopted by Avery County, and that all applicable mutual assistance compacts and agreements are in effect and shall remain in effect until the declaration expires or is rescinded.”

The declaration applies within and in cooperation of the municipalities in Avery County, including Banner Elk, Beech Mountain, Crossnore, Elk Park, Newland, Seven Devils, Village of Grandfather and the Village of Sugar Mountain.

Avery County marked the 83rd county in North Carolina to declare a state of emergency in conjunction with the state. The declaration opens additional resources for the county, including state and federal funding, in order to prevent and combat the spread of the virus.

“We’re assisting Watauga County, so by declaring it helps us get some reimbursement,” Avery County Fire Marshal Paul Buchanan said. “They’ve actually called us to send some personnel over. We helped them set up a tent at Watauga Medical Center that is going to be for drive-through testing.”

The declaration also allows the county to implement its Emergency Operations Plan and exercise ordinances that are grandfathered in through NC state statute that authorizes evacuations, curfews, restrictions on alcoholic beverages, weapons, dangerous substances, access to certain areas, movement of people, operations of businesses, offices and other places where people congregate and allows other activities necessary to maintain order.

“The emergency operations plan lets emergency management flow smoother with the state, and if we receive [resources] from the state, it allows us to receive with no questions asked,” Buchanan said. “This is kind of an extraordinary event, so in a typical event like a flooding, we would receive money for infrastructure and roads and stuff like that. If we use a lot of resources like using fire trucks for decontamination, then we would get a reimbursement.”

Buchanan says the county has declared a state of emergency several times in the past, using the declaration to respond to the hurricanes of 2004, the ice storm in 2009 and other flooding events.

“We’ve declared it more than people actually know of,” Buchanan said.

Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier said the county will be updating the ordinance every five days as it sees fit and will be put in place as long as needed in order to respond to COVID-19.

“What I’m most proud of is that I think we’re doing our part to slow down the spread,” Barrier said.

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