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'No joke:' In emotional and confrontational meeting, Guilford leaders impose broader mask mandate

GREENSBORO — Guilford County is now under a countywide mask mandate after the Board of Commissioners, acting as the Board of Health, voted 6-3 on Thursday night to immediately impose the order to slow the stunning spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

That means all residents over age 5 must cover their face while indoors in public spaces and private businesses. Businesses that fail to require face coverings at their operations are subject to fines and risk being declared a “public nuisance” if violations are frequent.

Guilford County has 15 restaurant inspectors and roughly 20 people who have been hired specifically to address complaints about companies that are not following the mandate.

There will also be a hotline where residents can call to report businesses that are not in compliance.

The commissioners will reconsider the mandate intermittently and as health guidelines change.

The controversial decision comes as the number of positive COVID-19 tests is around a staggering 30%. It was just two months ago that the board lifted the last mandate.

But that was a much different time then. The swift onslaught of the omicron variant has been a reminder that the pandemic can be forgotten, but only for so long.

Painting a picture of overcrowded emergency rooms, overtaxed hospital staffs and needless death, public and private health officials told the commissioners during a nearly 90-minute meeting that enacting a mask mandate would blunt the number of cases and hospitalizations overwhelming the health care system.

Still, the board’s three Republican members were unmoved as they voted against the directive.

“The public kind of, you know, thinks this board is a joke because ... we did not enforce it last,” said the board’s newest member, Republican James Upchurch.

Upchurch, who was elected as a Democrat in 2020 but became a Republican a year later, incurred the wrath of Chairman Melvin “Skip” Alston and drew an emotional response from Dr. Mary Jo Cagle, the CEO of Cone Health.

“Let me first of all take issue with Mr. Upchurch’s analysis that this board is a joke,” Alston said. “This is not a joke.”

Upchurch reiterated that he was speaking about the public’s perception.

“I never said this board was a joke. I never said that,” he clarified. “I said that is the perception of the public. I did not say that.”

Alston responded: “To the public, then, this board is not a joke. Our enforcement policies have been in place when we had the mask mandate. We did issue warnings, citations. It is not our desire to issue citations. We want the public to cooperate on their own.”

Upchurch asked several questions of Cagle and Dr. Cynthia Snyder, a Cone Health epidemiologist.

Upchurch pointed to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services data that shows the omicron variant is less severe than other strains of the virus.

“Have you seen a reduction of severity and things like that in your hospital?” Upchurch asked.

Cagle answered: “We have fewer in the ICU, but we’re being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the admissions.”

Her tone grew more somber as she spoke.

“We’ve had 41 deaths since Christmas. So I guess for us, 41 deaths is a lot of deaths from one disease. So we can talk about that it’s less severe, but to have 41 of our citizens die since Christmas? That doesn’t seem very mild to me.”

Cagle told commissioners about one death, a 43-year-old man who came to the hospital with signs of a heart attack. But doctors found no evidence of cardiac arrest — only blood clots resulting from a COVID-19 infection.

“And our doctors had to go tell that mom, and there were little kids involved,” Cagle continued. “This is a terrible disease. So I understand that most people who get this don’t have to go to the ICU. But when it’s bad, it’s really bad. We can’t predict for you guys how big or how bad it’s going to be on any given day. And it’s demoralizing.”

Upchurch said quickly, “there’s no denying that.” And then he moved on to other questions. One implied that staff shortages were, in part, caused when medical workers who refused the health system’s vaccine mandate were fired. He asked if the hospital had considered changing that policy.

At that point, Cagle seemed exasperated.

The six Democrats who voted to impose the mandate said after some research, they concluded that wearing masks would be an effective way of slowing the disease’s spread.

Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said a personal scare drove her to respect the coronavirus.

“I can tell you this is no joke,” she said. “When someone tells you that they tested positive for COVID and now you are wondering if you’re testing positive, that is one of the scariest feelings that I’ve ever had.

“Your constituents are my constituents. I don’t care where they live. If one person in Greensboro, one person in America, dies from this disease, it impacts all of us.”

Lured in

The nice weather earlier this week tempted some to cast their lures into local water spots, including a pond at Bur-Mil Park in Greensboro.

“Been doing this for about an hour, think it may just be too cold,” James McNeil said as he fished for bass with his girlfriend, Leshaun Peterkin. “I’m sure I’ll catch one sooner or later.”

Highs around 50 with lots of sun and little wind made the perfect day for being outside on Tuesday. But a wintry mix expected this weekend might temper any more fishing plans for now.

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Seeing red: A blood shortage across North Carolina has hit hospitals — hard

RALEIGH — At various points during the coronavirus pandemic, North Carolina hospitals have faced shortages of masks, intensive-care beds and staff.

Now it’s blood that has reached a critical level.

A decline in donations over the last year, coupled with a surge in demand, has hospital blood banks operating on thin margins.

The blood inventory at Duke University Hospital is lower than normal. Way lower. So low it means Durham’s Level 1 trauma center has a little more than a day’s supply on hand.

“If this tightens down harder on us, we will have to operate on less than a day’s supply,” said Dr. Nicholas Bandarenko III, medical director for transfusion services. “Which means we have to choose who’s getting blood and who is going to have to wait.”

Dr. Lisa Pickett, the hospital’s chief medical officer, said every planned surgery and other procedure that requires blood is being scrutinized to make sure Duke has enough of each patient’s blood type on hand.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen in my 30-year career,” Pickett said.

The two nonprofits that provide blood to hospitals in the Raleigh-Durham area — The American Red Cross and The Blood Connection — made fresh pleas this week urging people to donate.

Blood donations typically decline around the holidays, as people get busy with family or travel. But this year’s dip is made worse by a drop in donations that goes back months.

Donations to the Red Cross are down 10% during the pandemic. Many businesses, churches and schools have stopped hosting blood drives to avoid gatherings.

The Red Cross likes to keep a five-day supply of blood on hand but finds itself with less than a day’s supply of some blood types, including Type O negative, which can be given to patients with any type.

“If something happens to one of our loved ones and they needed urgent, emergency surgery, we would want blood on the shelves for them when they needed it,” said Cally Edwards, a spokeswoman. “That blood is only available because donors arranged in the days and weeks ahead for that blood to be there for them.”

Blood donations kept up with demand during the first months of the pandemic, in part because people wanted to help in a time of national crisis, said Ellen Kirtner, a spokeswoman for The Blood Connection.

“We had a great response at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Kirtner, whose organization has branches throughout the South. “People stepped up and were coming out to donate at our center, and people were hosting blood drives.”

At the same time, demand for blood declined in 2020. Hospitals postponed many procedures to free up staff, beds and equipment for COVID-19 patients.

But trends changed in 2021. Demand for blood rebounded, as hospitals resumed normal operations and caught up with delayed procedures. Duke University Hospital used 20% more blood in November than it did the same month a year earlier.

At the same time, donations dropped, for reasons blood collection agencies can’t fully explain. There are fewer blood drives, and three spikes in COVID-19 cases since January 2021 probably kept some from donating. It may also be that the desire to pitch in has worn off as the pandemic has dragged on, Kirtner said.

“We’re not really sure what has caused this decrease in the last 10 months,” she said.

Neither The Blood Connection nor the Red Cross see an uptick in donations on the horizon. The Blood Connection, which provides blood to hospitals in the Carolinas and Georgia, expects to collect 40% less than what its hospitals need in the next 30 days, while the Red Cross reports more than half of its appointments for January in eastern North Carolina remain open.

Both groups are urging businesses, churches and schools to organize blood drives and for donors who may give occasionally to donate more often.

Duke University Hospital gets its blood from the Red Cross. Bandarenko said in the past when gunshot or car crash victims needed large amounts of blood, the hospital could order more during the day. Now it gets one allotment per day — and no more.

He said Duke ended a recent day with a third of its normal blood supply on hand.

“That was replaced the next morning with our next delivery,” he said. “Thankfully nothing bad happened overnight.”

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So much is still uncertain about this weekend's snow except this: It's coming

For millions across the South, this weekend’s winter storm is starting to be taken seriously. Will it bring snow or ice — and how much?

So much is still to be determined, but one thing is certain: It’s happening.

The latest projections from the National Weather Service call for 1.2 inches of snow by 7 a.m. on Sunday, with more precipitation expected to continue throughout the day and into the night.

The weather system, now over the west coast of Canada, is expected to dive through the U.S. Plains and into the South before turning north and barreling through the Carolinas.

According to the weather service, there is a slight chance of rain beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday, then a 50% probability of snow starting at 11 p.m. as the overnight low dips to about 23 degrees.

The snow chance increases to 90% all day Sunday and into Sunday night. The high Sunday will be around 30 degrees and the low overnight in the upper 20s, according to the weather service.

A major icing event could take shape across the Carolinas and Virginia, leaving millions without power and difficult travel conditions. Greensboro and Raleigh could be in for more ice than previously expected.

Across the state, Mecklenburg County can expect up to 7 inches of snow and sleet this weekend, and ice that will bring outages and make travel “nearly impossible” on roads across the region, National Weather Service meteorologists said.

According to the weather service, 6 to 8 inches of snow could fall over the northwest Piedmont, which includes Alexander, Catawba, Iredell, Cabarrus, Rowan and Davie counties.

Snow accumulations of 10 or 11 inches are expected in Hickory, western Burke and Caldwell counties and on Grandfather Mountain as well.

As the storm system quickly travels south, a wintry weekend will begin. Cities and towns in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi could all see snow.

Once the system gets into middle Tennessee and the Southeast, the uncertainty grows exponentially.

There could be wide ranges in snowfall accumulations for middle Tennessee, and the forecast there may not be fine-tuned until just before the system arrives.

The north Georgia mountains have the best chances for seeing the biggest snowfall totals, while areas closer to Atlanta could see more rain coupled with a little snow.

After the system bottoms out across the South, it will bounce back to the north just as fast, riding a fine line with the I-95 corridor.