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COVID-19 outbreak reported at Avery prison

INGALLS — On Sept. 4, the Toe River Health District reported a COVID-19 outbreak within the Avery/Mitchell Correctional Institute, with the number of cases reportedly up to 143 as recently as Monday, Sept 14, an increase of 72 cases since the outbreak was first reported.

While the TRHD initially reported the site of the outbreak as a “congregate setting,” it has since confirmed that the location was the correctional facility. The prison, which is operated by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, is able to house 816 inmates and is designed with three dormitory-style units, a central administration building and 40 segregation cells.

According to the NCDPS’s Offender-Related COVID-19 Data, 812 tests have been performed at the facility with 165 cumulative positive cases and 647 negative tests as of Monday, Sept. 14. TRHD reports that the cases are asymptomatic, and that these numbers are likely to change.

“These numbers will change quickly since they are mass testing. They will report test results to us, which we will report to the community,” TRHD Director Diane Creek said.

In prison facilities statewide, 33,743 tests have been completed with 2,374 cumulative positives, 31,369 negatives and 1,816 inmates who are presumed to have recovered. The state’s initiative to mass-test prison populations began on June 18 and has typically taken three to seven days for the state to receive the result of a test and update its database.

The Avery/Mitchell Correctional Institute first mass tested its inmates in July, which led to six positive cases being discovered. The current outbreak is the correctional institution’s second, as the prison has tested inmates continuously as cases arise.

“It’s mandatory for the prison staff to wear masks. Workers are not quarantined unless they test positive for COVID,” Creek said.

NCDPS Communications Officer John Bull said that NC Division of Prisons employees are urged to get tested whether or not they have symptoms or have been exposed.

“Co-pays are waived, testing is viable for all of them. Also the employees are told not to come to work if they’re not feeling well,” Bull said. “We certainly don’t want them in the prisons if they have a fever or if they think they may have been exposed to somebody who has COVID-19. We ask medical questions, and we temperature check them before they walk into the prison.”

Employees do not face any economic disincentive for stating if they have COVID-19, Bull said.

The correctional institute has kept inmates who tested positive within medical isolation, with inmates who were in proximity to the positive case also being quarantined. These inmates’ temperatures are taken twice each day and are under close medical observation, according to Bull.

“The idea is identify anyone who may have COVID-19 and remove them from the offender population. One of the things that prisons has been doing is to cohort the housing units to keep them in a group and not mix them with the other housing units in the prison. They go to pill call together, they go to rec. time together, they go to chow together... They stay together as one cohort per housing unit and they’re relatively small,” Bull said.

In March, the state prison system implemented a program that would allow inmates to reduce their sentences outside of correctional facilities. Under the Extending the Limits of Confinement program, selects inmates would serve the remainder of their sentences outside of a correctional institute and within the supervision of a community correctional officer.

In order to qualify for ECL, an offender cannot be serving a sentence for a crime committed against another person and must either be pregnant, be on home leave, be on work release, be aged 65 or older or have an underlying health condition that increases their risk to COVID-19. The inmate must also have a 2020 or 2021 release date.

Since the program began, 517 offenders have entered the ECL program statewide, while 341 offenders are currently in the program, meaning 176 offenders finished their sentences outside of prison facilities during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Bull, reports of the total number of inmates at AMCI have been reported inaccurately in some media outlets. Bull noted that the current inmate population is around 800, with a maximum capacity of 850.

TRHD reiterates that the cases at Avery/Mitchell Correctional Institute are not a threat to the outside community.

Vacant local properties show promise

NEWLAND — As many residents may have noticed, the parking lot around the old Lowe’s Foods property off Ash Street has been patched up as its owner, Wooten Enterprises, is renewing efforts to make the site attractive to a potential buyer.

The site has sat vacant since Lowe’s Foods moved out of the space in April 2017, and with a Lowe’s grocery store at Tynecastle as well as two additional grocery chains serving residents in Avery County, the site has proved difficult to sell. According to the website of Wooten Enterprises, the plot is listed at a price of $1.55 million after having already been reduced three times from $1.8 million.

While many residents would like to see a new business move into the site, the Town of Newland and Avery County government can only do so much until a business puts pen to paper and signs a deal. For now, the local governments are tasked with making the site appear as attractive as possible.

“We’ve tried to keep in touch with several different organizations to let them know what properties are available in Newland to bring something in for the citizens,” Newland Town Manager Keith Hoilman said.

The approximately 40 acres of retail space appears strategically positioned within downtown Newland for any business that may move into the site to succeed. The property is located in close proximity to Newland Elementary School, with housing units and a public park nearby. Additionally, the town’s low crime rate and improving economic prospects may serve as added benefits to the future owner.

Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier said that the county has reached out to several businesses and grocery chains to inform them of the property’s availability, including Aldi, Food Lion, Piggly Wiggly, Save Mart, Fair Value, Tractor Supply Co. and others.

“We’ve been sending everything we can to everybody we can. Hopefully, we can get something in there,” Barrier said. “Especially if house sales keep going the way they’re going, we’re going to definitely need another place (for people to shop for groceries),” Barrier said.

The county has had some success with getting business representatives interested, but the process has not been able to get to the final stages. Barrier said that once businesses began seriously considering the property, they became dismayed with the town’s population number and the likelihood of competing with three established grocery chains, as well as with the amount of money needed to renovate the property.

“What you’re looking at is somebody coming in and investing $3 million and then you have to pay staff, pay insurance, keep the lights on, pay taxes and make a profit. It’s a lot more than just coming in and opening up a grocery chain,” Barrier said.

The price for the renovation includes the point of sale, installation of refrigeration, electrical work and remodeling, and that is just the initial investment. One option that has been floated around would be to level the building and start anew. That has been the solution for the old Cannon Memorial Hospital property in Banner Elk, which is owned by developer Steve Cuff, who purchased the property from Wooten Enterprises.

“Cuff has been before the Planning Board and has a preliminary approval for a project on that property that he received just within the last year, but he’s got some more things he has to do. He had a plan related to a hotel and some retail spaces,” Banner Elk Town Manager Rick Owen said.

Cuff is looking at having the old hospital property torn down, and the town is looking at helping facilitate the process. However, a similar solution is unlikely to be reached with the old Lowe’s Foods property, as Family Dollar remains a tenant at the site and is frequented by shoppers.

Additionally, the former Cardinal Insurance property located next to the Newland Town Hall has changed hands as well, but plans for the property have yet to be made. Rumors have circulated that among potential businesses to set stakes at the property is a chain fast food restaurant, but officials state that no such business has been confirmed for the site.

Vaya Health expands telehealth services, WAMY to improve housing

The old Cannon Hospital site on Hwy. 184 in Banner Elk, which has sat vacant since the new Cannon Memorial Hospital opened in Linville in 1999, is set to be torn down and replaced with a new multi-use development.

NEWLAND — The Avery County Board of Commissioners held a rare Tuesday evening meeting in light of the Labor Day holiday on Sept. 8, in which Vaya Health Community Relations Regional Director Jessie Smathers gave a presentation on the mental health organization’s local efforts during the pandemic.

Smathers, who covers six counties including Avery, works as a county liaison for the organization, which manages Medicaid, state-funded mental health, disability and substance abuse services. Vaya Health works in partnership with Daymark Recovery Services to serve Avery County.

Over the last several months, Vaya Health purchased 500 cell phones to provide telehealth services to patients who do not have internet and provided additional assistance to therapeutic foster care homes, intellectual developmental disability group homes and alternative family living settings that were struggling financially due to the need for personal protective equipment.

“We’ve also worked with the department in NC Medicaid to create additional flexibility so that folks could receive services that historically couldn’t be provided through telephone or video in that manner,” Smathers said.

For the month of July, Vaya Health-funded providers in Avery County served 357 members, 38 members received complex care management and 91 complex care management contacts were made.

For Suicide Awareness Month from Sept. 9 to Oct. 15, Vaya Health will be offering crisis intervention training on the second Tuesday of every month from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. and on the fourth Tuesday from 9 to 11 a.m. Smathers said that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for individuals age 10 to 34.

Moreover, Vaya Health has partnered with the Avery County Sheriff’s Office to provide additional resources for deputies to better handle mental health crises.

“(One thing) that we’re pretty excited about is working with Sheriff Frye. We may have this up and running by October 1. (We’ve) equipped all of the sheriff’s deputies’ cars with an iPad so that they can access telehealth for mental health crises,” Smathers said.

Avery County is the only county in which all of its deputies have completed crisis intervention training, and its partnership with Vaya Health is the first of its kind in the state, according to Smathers.

After receiving a neighborhood revitalization program grant, Avery County has reached an agreement with W.A.M.Y. Community Action for the nonprofit to administer $49,500 in funds as part of the program.

WAMY will oversee activities associated with the Emergency Home Repairs project, which will identify eligible homes for repair services, verify homeowner’s eligibility, prepare bid notices, maintain files and documentations and submit invoices to Avery County for reimbursement.

The commissioners approved the agreement unanimously, as well as the tax collections total for August at $3,810,608. The county reported 144 total qualified sales for the month, an amount which impressed Tax Administrator Bruce Daniels, who said he has not seen this strong of a real estate market since the mid part of the 2000s.

“In my professional opinion, if you have property that you want to get rid of, put it on the market. Someone will buy it,” Daniels said.

In his monthly report, County Manager Phillip Barrier reassured the commissioners that a recent surge in COVID-19 cases are within a congregate living setting. Due to Gov. Roy Cooper easing restrictions as part of Phase 2.5, the county has reopened its playground and the Rock Gym. The county is asking for residents to make reservations for visiting the Rock Gym beforehand, and will allow 12 people at a time for basketball and pickleball and eight at a time for the workout room. With the pool closing, the recreation department will move cleaning efforts to the gym.

Agricultural Extension Director Jerry Moody and the Avery County Health Department are working with the Christmas Tree Association to prepare for the upcoming Christmas tree season. County officials are looking at implementing safety measures as people from out of town come in for choose-and-cut and other activities as part of the season.

The county will prioritize the following areas as it uses its COVID-19-related funding: personal protective equipment, emergency management storage space, virtual workplace/distance learning, public health measures at tax office and inspections, field response trailer for emergency services, field response trailer for public health, Emergency Medical Services COVID-19 training area, a message board, internet connectivity at fire departments without internet access and a refrigerator/generator for vaccines.

“We’re going to work with our fire departments to start some internet connectivity where there’s some hotspots for parents to go to where they don’t have service, and they can be within a five-mile radius,” Barrier said.

The commissioners approved a project ordinance to distribute the $976,403 in COVID-19 relief funding it had received through various sources. The funds will be dispersed as follows: medical expenses ($100,000), public health supplies ($200,000), payroll expenses ($150,000), facilities expenses ($307,302), Town of Banner Elk ($63,194), Town of Beech Mountain ($24,386), Town of Crossnore ($7,209), Town of Elk Park ($10,118), Town of Newland ($20,501), Town of Seven Devils ($14,003) and Village of Sugar Mountain ($79,690).

The board of commissioners will hold its next meeting at 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 21.