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Discord persists about and within Durham County’s leadership

The current and past leaders of the Durham County commissioners agree that board members need racial equity training. But getting started has been bumpy.

At a meeting on March 8, County Attorney Lowell Siler recommended The Robert Bobb Group as trainers. But after a tension filled discussion, most commissioners voted to require proposals from two more consultants instead, a move that angered the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and others. 

County Attorney Lowell Siler at the online March 8 commissioners meeting.

Siler was visibly exasperated. “I think you all know that you need something as soon as possible,” he said.

This was just one of a series of disputes involving commissioners, ranking county staff members and two local political actions groups over the past 14 months. Strife may surface again this Tuesday, during a planned virtual town hall event.

 The public got a first glimpse of allegations of racial discord within county leadership in February 2020. That’s when County Manager Wendell Davis, who is Black, wrote a letter to Commissioner Heidi Carter, a white woman, accusing her of “a consistent pattern of disparate behavior towards me and employees of color.” 

“I am now concerned that it is due to an inherent bias that you harbor not merely towards me, but people of color in general,” Davis wrote in the letter, which all commissioners received.

After INDY Week published the letter, commissioners hired Duke University law professor James Coleman to investigate. Coleman concluded that “none of the behavior about which Mr. Davis complained was motivated by racial bias on Commissioner Carter’s part.”

But Coleman called out the board for being in a “state of periodic dysfunction” and “a troubling lack of trust and meaningful communications” between the board and the county manager. Coleman recommended that the five-member commissioners find a constructive way to move forward.

Vice-chairwoman Wendy Jacobs at the meeting.

Both former chairwoman Wendy Jacobs and current chair Brenda Howerton have said  commissioners should receive racial equity training. A desire to do so with the School of Government at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill last fall didn’t work out, Jacobs said on March 8.

That night, representatives of the Bobb group presented a training strategy whose first step would be assessing the scale of the problem among commision members, Bobb team member Clara Axam said.

After the presentation, Jacobs said board members weren’t given a chance to craft a needed plan in advance, including the training’s timeline, its scope and what would be made public and kept confidential. On top of that, she said, the Bobb group’s almost $50,000 price tag was “astounding.”

After commissioner Carter made a motion to pursue training after county staff brought two more training proposals to review, only Howerton opposed that plan.

Commissioner Nimasheena Burns, who took her seat in December, said she voted for requiring more proposals to serve due diligence when making spending decisions. She stressed, however, that the county manager is not the only county employee who observes bias. “This is not about one particular employee, there is a sea of employees here who feel abused. That is why we are doing this training,”she  said.

Chairwoman Brenda Howerton at the meeting.

The Durham Committee issued a statement on March 22 saying commissioners should apologize for the “blatant disrespect shown” at the meeting. “The community witnessed first-hand how certain county commissioners treat Black county staff and a Black consultant seeking to provide much needed, individualized services,” the letter read.

Charges of disrespect are inaccurate, Jacobs, Carter and Allam stressed in written statements. Their reluctance to make a hire was rooted in favoring procurement practices that seek bids for sizable contracts, each stressed.

The influential People’s Alliance has weighed in on this strife too, but by taking aim at Davis. The left-leaning political action committee on March 8 urged commissioners not to renew Davis’ contract, which expires in June. Davis is too moderate and is paid too much, the group argued.

Commissioner Heidi Carter at the meeting.

Racial Equity Talks has organized a virtual town hall for Tuesday to discuss, among other things, whether Davis is being targeted for alleging that he perceived a white commissioner’s bias.

“Durham, North Carolina, self-professed and outwardly perceived  as one of the most diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities in America, is in a battle for its racial soul,” reads the dramatic description of the 6 pm event.

Leaders of the People’s Alliance initially declined to participate, but have changed their mind, Millicent Rogers, the alliance’s co-president said Wednesday. 

“After more thought, we decided that we had more to say and we are prepared to make those statements during the town hall,” she said.

Rogers, according to a poster promoting the event, is slated to participate in a segment titled: “Black Public Leadership and White Liberalism: The Case for or against Wendell Davis.”

9th Street Journal reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

Durham courtrooms made COVID-safe

Court officials separated by glass dividers, seats taped off to create additional distance, and jurors scattered in the courtroom gallery where the public sits. In the Durham County Courthouse, this is the new normal for jury trials. 

On Jan. 27, Durham County Superior Court concluded its first in-person jury trial since last March, when former state Chief Justice Cheri Beasley closed courtrooms across North Carolina in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Her successor, Paul Newby, who defeated Beasley in the November election, made good on a campaign pledge in January, when he ordered the courts to reopen for in-person trials and other proceedings.

Court reporter Denise St. Clair works during a break in Durham Superior Court, where the judge and other court officials are isolated behind glass panels. Staff photo by Sho Hatakeyama

At the same time, Chief Justice Newby emphasized the continued importance of protecting the health of everyone in the courthouse. Face masks and social distancing are required, and anyone who has been exposed to the coronavirus or shows symptoms is not allowed to enter the building.

Court officials have made physical, technological and scheduling adjustments to prepare for the new in-person proceedings, while keeping COVID precautions in place.

‘Just at a slower pace’

In the past, Durham Superior Court typically held a few jury trials each month, but now there will be only about one each month. 

“Every courtroom has a new capacity that is 20% of its typical capacity, to make people space out,” said Sarah Willets, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Satana Deberry. “And because of that, we have to reduce the docket for each day. Everything is happening, it’s just happening at a slower pace.” 

Some courtroom seats are blocked off, to promote social distancing. Staff photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Although jury trials will be held in person, judges will conduct some proceedings online, including juvenile cases and first appearances. 

For first appearances, the judge and other court officials typically participate in person at the courthouse, while the defendant appears on video. This arrangement reduces the need to transport detainees between the Durham County Detention Facility and the courthouse, in order to cut the risk of spreading the coronavirus, Willets said. 

The courthouse is open to the public, but courtroom seating is limited to allow for social distancing. Parties involved in a court proceeding get priority. Journalists also can attend trials but should contact the presiding judge in advance for approval, Willets said.

The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts issued guidelines for selecting the order in which jury trials are held, but Deberry is ultimately responsible for setting the court calendar.

“Our priorities remain the same as they have always been, which is to focus on trying the most serious and most violent crimes,” Deberry said.

The docket is being selected by how essential each case is and whether it’s ready to go to trial, Willets said.

Deberry said she will work to clear court cases from the pandemic backlog this year.

“We are optimistic about continuing to move our District Court cases forward and adding more of those to the calendar,” she said. 

9th Street Journal reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

Top: In-person trials have resumed at the Durham County Courthouse – but with fewer trials than before the COVID-19 pandemic, and with fewer people in the courtroom. Some proceedings will still take place online. Staff photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Sheriff’s department hit a nerve on Twitter

When someone at the Durham County Sheriff’s Department hit send on a tweet showcasing a new “ghost car,” the reaction was likely the opposite of what was expected. 

A video embedded in the tweet showed lights that flash after the vehicle emerges from hiding engaged people from Durham to London. Almost 5,000 people commented, mostly with criticisms. Two critical comments generated over 20,000 likes.

“This ‘ghost’ car will be used by our #CommunityPolicing & traffic unit. W/ its low profile graphics you’ll never see it coming, especially at night. Make sure you’re not speeding, wear your seatbelt, and stay sober behind the wheel,” the Jan. 13 tweet read.

Department tweets typically spawn less than 10 responses. But outrage over police killings of George Floyd last May and many other unarmed Black people has greatly expanded critiques of U.S. policing on social media.

“if the mission is to serve and protect, why do you need to be invisible?” @man7186 asked. Others echoed this sentiment, arguing that visible cars are more effective at stopping speeding, drawing comparisons to the brightly marked police cars of Europe.

“Here’s what a UK police vehicle looks like. Intentionally visible and recognizable. Almost as if police are PUBLIC SERVANTS and should be immediately recognizable to said public. American police exists solely to prey and profit not protect nor serve,” read the top comment by @alsharptondurag, which amassed 25,800 likes.  Commentators also took issue with using taxpayer money in the middle of a pandemic while so many in Durham County are struggling financially. “…People are out here financially broken and I’m sure this 30k could’ve been allocated to an improvisational stimulus check for 15 random families within the community,” @CLtheCHEF wrote, attracting 5,300 likes.

Not all comments were factual, with some alluding to the Durham city police budget instead of the Durham Sheriff’s Department. Clarence Birkhead, Durham’s first Black sheriff, was elected to run the department with a reform-minded platform in 2018, including a vow to reduce officers’ use of force in the community. After Floyd died, he shared mourning and outrage.

“As a law enforcement leader, I am embarrassed, and outraged, at the behavior of a few officers …,” the sheriff said in a statement. “No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot understand how these incidents continue to occur and those officers responsible seemingly go unpunished.”

Speeding at illegal road races is one issue his department deals with, Birkhead noted in a Jan. 29 statement. “A week does not go by when our deputies are responding to individual residents and local neighborhood groups calling us for service about reports of loud, late-night ‘car meet-ups’ across Durham County,” Birkhead wrote. “This activity is not only illegal but obviously dangerous. We are committed [to] getting a handle on this reckless behavior and will hold those individuals accountable.”

Experts counsel police forces today to take extra care with social media posts, reminding them that everything on Twitter and other social platforms is visible worldwide. They encourage messaging that reinforces positive relationships between citizens and law enforcement. 

Emily Tiry, a research associate at the Urban Institute, co-wrote the Social Media Guidebook for Law Enforcement Agencies. It lays out four steps for a more effective social media presence, including establishing a baseline for social media use. 

Tiry emphasized the importance of having a social media policy, which the Durham sheriff’s department has. “The Durham Sheriff’s Office endorses the secure use of social media to enhance communication, collaboration, and information exchange; streamline processes; and foster productivity,” it reads. 

When asked about repairing community confidence after a post receives backlash, Tiry said she knows of no research about that. But it would be important for the organization to ask themselves some key questions such as, “Was the tweet following the social media policy? If it was then, maybe, reassess the policy?” she said.

Five days after heralding the ghost car, Birkhead’s department posted another tweet to clarify its intentions.

“We never expected such a large response to this video. Its intent was to be a light-hearted look at a tool our traffic unit uses to keep roads safe but it was taken out of context for some. DCSO values your thoughtful feedback &will continue to be engaged w/the community it serves.”

Still users were unsatisfied. “This tone-deaf response to a tone-deaf post is why people are upset,” @sisson-darrell replied.

When asked about the negative response, department spokesman AnnMarie Breen suggested enough had been said already. “We don’t have anything more to say about this topic,” she responded.

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

Another COVID death linked to Durham County jail

When North Carolina prison officials announced the death of an inmate from COVID-19 last month, they did not name him. They referred only to a man in his late 50s who was assigned to a state prison that he never entered. 

That man, it turns out, was Darrell Kersey, a 59-year-old from High Point. Kersey got sick while detained in the Durham County Detention Facility.

Kersey’s death is the second COVID-19 fatality linked to the Durham jail not disclosed to the public. In April, senior detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr. died from COVID-19 after Sheriff Clarence Birkhead announced a coronavirus outbreak there.

Kersey became sick in the beginning of August, during a publicly disclosed outbreak among inmates and staff, sheriff department spokesman David Bowser said Thursday. Because he was a state detainee, county officials could not release news of his death, Bowser said.

Kersey died from COVID-19 complications at 3:30 pm on Sept. 16 at Duke University Hospital, his death certificate shows. That is precisely the same day and time noted in the vague state press release.

Kersey entered the Durham jail last December after officers arrested him for stalking and other crimes, court records show. After pleading guilty to some of these charges, Kersey was sentenced to a state prison term in July.

But he remained in the county jail, one of a group of inmates whose transfer to a state prison was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a press release, state prison officials said the unnamed inmate who died of COVID-19 had been admitted to the hospital on Aug. 20. That was soon after Sheriff Birkhead disclosed a COVID-19 outbreak had infected 21 inmates and five staff members. 

Birkhead on Sept. 8 asked county commissioners to pay for periodic testing to protect county jail inmates and staff from coronavirus. During a presentation in September, Birkhead noted that an unnamed state prisoner who was an inmate in the county jail was hospitalized with COVID-19 and had been on and off ventilators for weeks.

When asked for an update on that inmate on Oct. 7, Birkhead said he was unable to give one. “Since he is a state inmate I am not able to comment on that at this time,” the sheriff said.

Wendy Jacobs, chair of the county commissioners, said on Friday as far as she knows the sheriff’s department did not notify board members that a person who fell sick with COVID-19 in the county jail had died. But she was checking to confirm.

9th Street was unable to learn much about Darrell Kersey, beyond criminal court records and a short obituary. Efforts to reach his family were unsuccessful.

Like many North Carolina county detention facilities, the Durham jail lately has kept inmates after they were sentenced to time in state prisons.

Last month, nine state inmates were in the downtown Durham jail due to a backlog in transfers to state facilities, Birkhead said. The delay is connected to staffing shortages linked to the coronavirus, according to John Bull, a North Carolina Department of Public Safety spokesman.

Coronavirus outbreaks have plagued county, state and federal correctional facilities for months. There have been at least 3,394 cases of coronavirus and at least 17 deaths among prisoners in North Carolina, according to the Marshall Project, which is logging cases nationwide.

Several organizations that advocate for prisoners rights filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina officials charging that incarcerated people in state prisons have not been adequately protected from infection.

In its death announcement, the state Department of Public Safety noted it was not sharing a name to protect “his family’s right to privacy and the confidentiality of prison offender records.” 

Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, a spokesperson for the ACLU, one plaintiff in the suit alleging inadequate inmate protections, expressed concern for the safety of all those in custody in North Carolina.  

“We have significant concerns about protecting the health of people who are incarcerated — be it in prisons or jails — during a global pandemic,” he said. “It’s clear that shared living spaces and densely populated facilities provide an environment in which this virus can spread quickly.”

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

Sheriff seeks pared-down testing to monitor coronavirus in county jail

After not landing funding for coronavirus testing at the Durham County Detention Facility last month, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead has a new proposal. 

The sheriff on Monday will ask county commissioners to pay for testing 20 randomly selected inmates every two weeks. A positive result would spark testing for all inmates.

“I am hopeful they will recognize that we’ve presented a very fair, affordable, and potentially life-saving recommendation,” said Birkhead, who lost a detention center staff member to COVID-19 in April.

With “creative funding” using money in his budget, Birkhead found a way to pay for testing for all inmates and employees in the past week. That turned up zero cases, he said. 

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead. Photo from sheriff’s office

But that doesn’t mean the pandemic threat there is over. All across the country coronavirus has posed a lethal risk to inmates and staff at local, state, and federal correctional facilities. To date, 17 people confined in state prisons have died from COVID-19 in North Carolina, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

Law enforcement across the country reduced the number of people confined in jails by making fewer arrests and releasing people not considered a risk to communities. Nationally there were about 200,000 fewer people in local jails in June than at the start of the outbreak in March, according to research by the Vera Institute of Justice. 

Durham reduced its census too. But senior detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr. died from coronavirus in April after an outbreak among detention center staff. In August, 21 inmates and five staff tested positive. 

The number of people held in the Durham County jail remains significantly lower than its capacity of 736. But the number held there has ticked up since March, according to the sheriff’s department. 

There were 311 people detained there on Wednesday, compared to March, when the population declined to the mid 200s. 

Two factors explain the increase: an increase in crime in Durham and a backlog of state prisoners the center continues to hold, Birkhead told commissioners last month.

There has been a 40% increase of shootings alone in the city of Durham, from 495 reported shootings last year between January and September to the 689 reports this year, according to a WRAL report.  

“Durham has a serious gun problem, certainly a serious gun violence problem. You overlay that with a gang issue we have had for years. Unfortunately in this environment, be it the pandemic and where we are nationally, all of it is contributing to an uptick in crime,” Birkhead said. 

Crime increased in the county, which the sheriff’s department patrols, as well from January to September 2019 to those nine months in 2020. For example: aggravated assaults, which includes shootings, rose 18%; larceny is up 11%; car thefts rose 38%; and burglaries increased 29%, according to the sheriff’s department.

Birkhead said he worries that as the election draws closer crime will continue to rise including, potentially, acts of voter intimidation and voter suppression.

 “Law enforcement all across the state of North Carolina is talking about what will need to be done to make sure everyone is safe not just from the virus, but safe from any voter suppression or voter intimidation,” said the sheriff.

Nine state offenders, people sentenced to stays in state prison, were still being held in the Durham Detention Center of Sept. 29. North Carolina pays the county detention center $40 a day for holding these people. That is not a major concern as it makes up a very small percentage of the total inmate population, the sheriff said.

Throughout the state of North Carolina 78 jails were holding at least one offender on backlog to the prison system as of last month. There were 792 offenders on the backlog then, although the number fluctuates daily, said to John Bull, communications officer for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

Bull attributed the backlog to a high systemwide correctional officer vacancy rate, exacerbated by the pandemic. While noting it’s not  the highest it’s been in recent years, the vacancy rate was 15.92%, Bull said.

Despite the rise in the number of people held in the Magnum Street detention center, the fact that it is below capacity still helps reduce the risk of another coronavirus outbreak, Birkhead said.

“It allows us to do extraordinary measures: placing detainees into single cells, creating as much social distancing as possible, skipping cells and spreading folks out,” he said.

The Sheriff expects to present a new version of his testing plan to county commissioners on Monday.

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

At top: People are barely visible peeking out of windows on the face of the Durham County Detention Facility downtown, but they are there. Photo by Henry Haggart

Catholic congregation stays connected in a campus parking garage

After worshippers climb stairs to the fourth floor of the Science Drive Garage, they arrange folding chairs six feet apart. Choir members sing “Create a Clean Heart” as people settle in. 

When the song ends, The Rev. Michael Martin approaches them from the far end of Level 4, passing five choir members standing by spaced-apart microphones. Ten musicians sit behind them. 

The priest continues to a table covered with a forest-green cloth, three candles, an open bible, an upright text with an angel on its cover, and three small bottles of hand sanitizer. Behind that, a smaller table holds a large golden cross. A Duke Catholic Center banner blocks the glare of sunlight outside. 

The Rev. Michael Martin of Duke Catholic Center speaks during Mass on Level 4 of Science Drive Garage. Photo by Henry Haggart

All over the country people of faith have altered their worship rituals to adapt to life in a pandemic. In Durham, Duke Catholic Center has gone almost open air, staging Mass every Sunday in a campus garage a short walk from Cameron Stadium. 

Father Mike pulls down his mask to welcome the people before him, a mix of ages and races. He invites all to greet each other, but not by shaking hands the way they used to.

“Why don’t we stand and wave to the people around us and begin our celebration,” he says.  

Mask back on, the priest signals the congregation to sit. A young woman approaches the altar to read a passage from Isaiah from a smartphone.

Live music is a hallmark of parking-deck Mass, where the sounds of instruments and singers reverberate through the concrete skeleton of the garage. Photo by Henry Haggart

As she moves to her seat, a baby begins to cry, a familiar sound in church that is amplified here by the acoustics of cement walls. A nun quickly wipes down the altar with disinfecting wipes.

As Father Mike began his sermon on humility and one’s role as “a rock,” helpers set up a portable screen on top of four plastic storage boxes. Short clips of students encouraging others to join small group discussions begins to play. 

Instead of lining up during the Holy Eucharist, worshippers stay put. After pouring sanitizer on their hands, altar servers carry bowls to them, offering communion with stretched arms. Once servers move past them, those participating pull down their masks to place consecrated hosts in their mouths. 

Altar servers bring Holy Eucharists to worshippers, a delivery executed with outstretched arms for safe distancing. Photo by Henry Haggart

As the service ends, congregants collect their chairs and blankets and proceed to take stairs to their cars, waving to friends as they leave. 

Not only those attending the Catholic Center service, which are recorded and posted online, are touched by what happens in the garage

“My wife and I were walking on the Duke Trail this morning.The music coming from your service was beautiful,” @CoachMinnick commented on one online video post. “The music and acoustics sounded as if we were in a cathedral.”

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

At top: The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted so much, including the ability to host religious services in houses of worship. To adapt, Duke Catholic Center offers Mass in a campus parking garage on Sundays. Park on level 3, worshippers are told. And attend Mass on Level 4. Video by 9th Street Journal journalist Henry Haggart

Durham sheriff requests more COVID-19 testing for county jail

Because exposure to the coronavirus remains a risk inside Durham County Detention Center, the sheriff wants funding to test inmates and staff more frequently.

One hospitalized inmate sick with COVID-19 has been on and off ventilators over the past four weeks, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead told county commissioners on Tuesday.

To keep staff, inmates and the wider community safe, Birkhead asked county commissioners for funding to have jail inmates and staff tested for the virus every two weeks.

“We take this very seriously,” Birkhead said during a commissioners meeting.

On April 25, Durham County detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr. died from COVID-19. After an outbreak in August, testing confirmed 21 cases among 262 inmates and five among  staff.

Testing staff and inmates every two weeks would cost between $60,000 to $110,000 each time, depending on whether the county health department or Duke University handled the testing, Birkhead said. Alternatively, his department could test 20 employees every two weeks he said.

Commissioner Ellen Reckhow asked whether an approach that falls between those two options might be preferable. “One is the Cadillac at 200 and one seems quite low at 20, is there one in between?” she asked.

Birkhead agreed to return to the commissioners with more details about testing options as early as Monday. 

An important group to test are inmates getting released from center custody into the community, the sheriff said. The center releases 73 residents on average a month and they are not tested before departing, he said.

The sheriff also proposed requiring that each new detention center hire test negative for the virus within seven days before beginning work.

“Every employee and every person housed here can be infected with COVID-19,” said Anothony Prignano, chief deputy for detention said.

Beyond testing, department staff continue to take steps to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading at the facility, Birkhead said.

If a previously confined person leaves the detention center and returns, they are placed in quarantine for 14 days. That includes people in custody who go to the Durham County Courthouse, where multiple cases of coronavirus have been detected in the clerk of court’s, magistrate’s, and district attorney’s offices, the sheriff said.

For the 14-day quarantine, jail residents are housed in a part of the detention center separate from the rest of the population. People admitted to the center stay there too until it’s clear they are not carrying the virus, said department spokeswoman AnnMarie Breen. 

Center staff are sticking with cleaning protocols started in March. Using a disinfectant, staff clean every four hours and whenever residents leave and return to their cells.

Reckhow and board chairwoman Wendy Jacobs questioned why insurance would not cover county employee testing costs. A member of Birkhead’s  staff explained that current workers compensation insurance does not cover preventative COVID-19 tests. 

Commissioners also asked why the hospitalized inmate who was convicted of a felony remains in the Durham detention center. 

Typically such an inmate would have been transferred to a state prison within 20 to 25 days of their conviction, Birkhead said. The state, which is also working to reduce coronavirus exposure among its inmates, is paying the county detention center $40 a day to continue to hold these individuals, as well as covering their medical costs.

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

At top: People inside the Durham County Detention Center peer out to watch street protesters march by on Sept. 4. Protesters were demanding more information about why police officer approached youngsters with guns last month. Photo by Henry Haggart

From gin to clean hands: how a Durham distillery adapted to the pandemic

A few months ago, Durham’s Mystic Farm & Distillery decided to expand beyond its well-known line of gin and bourbon liqueur and make a completely new product: hand sanitizer.

When Jonathan Blitz’s partner Michael Sinclair first came to him with the idea, Blitz thought it would be a distraction to their whiskey production. Now, he is glad he went along. “It’s turned out to be an absolutely enormous business… it’s given us a new lifeline.”

Mystic has been distilling gin, whiskey bourbon, and bourbon liqueur since 2013, and added sanitizer at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. At first, the company sold to individuals, with so much demand that it backed up traffic down the street.  

“It was awesome,” said Sinclair.

The business has now shifted from individuals to larger contracts, including one from Duke University. 

Duke needed a dependable supplier after experiencing backorders with its usual vendors. “We had to find a plan B,” said John Noonan, Duke’s vice president of facilities. 

Mystic turned out to be that plan B. The company said it could meet Duke’s huge demand.

That demand has gone up because the number of hand sanitizers on campus has increased from 1,000 to about 1,700 to accommodate the return of students to campus. “When you get thousands of students and faculty who are taking four or more shots of hand sanitizer a day, it adds up,” Noonan said. 

Duke also is taking steps to ensure the sanitizing stations are environmentally friendly – refilling the bottles instead of replacing them.

What do the processes of making hand sanitizer and alcohol have in common? Not much. But the equipment to produce it is similar, which is why Mystic and other distilleries have gotten in the business. 

The equipment Mystic uses was bought from a pharmaceutical plant auction and then adapted to distill alcohol. This same equipment has now come full circle, being used to make medical-grade hand sanitizer.

You might think that alcohol from the whiskey and gin might somehow be used in the hand sanitizer. But they are different products. It is more efficient to buy the base alcohol in bulk for the sanitizer. 

Blitz says, “One of the reasons we’ve been able to get contracts from the large academic medical centers is that we are producing a high quality product and keeping that quality high. It’s not cheap or easy, but it has to be done.”

Blitz predicts they’ll be making the new product for a long time. “This generation for the next 15 to 20 years is going to use a lot of hand sanitizer.” Mystic is continuing to look at expansion options into over the counter drug opportunities now that they have the ingredients and equipment.

Blitz says hand sanitizer now outsells their spirits, but what matters is that the company is thriving. “We’ve been able to keep all our employees, which is what success means to me.”

Staff writer Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

In photo above: Mystic now sells hand sanitizer in a variety of sizes. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Duke germ doctor putting a microscope on COVID-19

When the NFL needed help to stop the spread of the MRSA bacteria in 2013, the league called Dr. Deverick Anderson, a Duke infectious disease specialist, who established new locker room protocols and disinfection routines. Now, Anderson is tackling a bigger problem, helping health care workers combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Anderson, the director of the Duke Center for Antimicrobial Stewardship and Prevention Program, said his primary concern is making sure that health workers who work with patients who have the virus don’t end up sick themselves. 

Deverick Anderson (Duke University photo)

Anderson received his undergraduate degree from University of North Carolina and later “stumbled down the path” of infection prevention while at the Duke School of Medicine, where he knew he wanted a specialty that focused on the body as a whole, rather than a single organ. He liked focusing on infections because they typically have a cure. He liked the idea of identifying and then eliminating a problem, which led him to infection prevention. 

His research on infection prevention has earned him grants to study infection control in community hospitals, multi-drug resistant organisms, and device-related infections. He led a study that compared four types of hospital cleaning protocols and found those that utilize ultraviolet machines are the most effective. In April, he studied the role of chest imaging in patients with the coronavirus. 

Doctors who have worked with him describe him as unflappable and a great mentor. 

“He’s got a remarkable ability not to show stress and to be fun to be around and work with, regardless of how the day or week is going,” said Dr. Arthur Baker, a Duke assistant professor of medicine who worked with Anderson on the early detection of infection outbreaks in surgical sites. “I think that combination of things has really made him a fantastic mentor for me.” 

Duke Assistant Professor of Medicine Dr. Sonali Advani, who recently published an article with Dr. Anderson titled “Universal masking in hospitals in the COVID19 era,” said, “I left a very good position at Yale to come here just to be mentored by him.” She spoke of how caring he is, setting aside 10 minutes at the end of each mentor session to discuss families, house remodeling, and other things outside of work.

He is nationally known and has been quoted by National Public Radio, The New York Times and The Washington Post. 

So what does the germ doctor advise about the coronavirus? 

He says the prevention measures you’ve heard about are still a good recipe: wearing face masks, practicing social distancing, and frequent hand washing. “I think it’s safe to say that all those together are certainly going to be much more effective than one of them individually,” he said. 

Along with that trifecta of things to protect yourself, Anderson also has a simple mindset for society’s overall approach for the virus: “It is all for one and one for all,” he said. “You’re not just wearing a mask for yourself. You’re wearing a mask for others in your community as well.”

He says you’re more likely to get the virus from another person than from picking it up from a surface. “It’s not a 50 one way and 50 the other. It’s probably much more weighted towards person-to-person.” So should we still be wiping everything down? He says that’s a good precaution, but in-person contact is the most likely way to get the virus.

As a consultant for the NFL, he feels the league has a good foundation for preventing the spread of infection. But the league needs to continue to build on that approach in this new age of the coronavirus. 

He says professional sports teams need to be asking themselves the same question as other businesses: “How can you be innovative about keeping people apart? How can you make sure that people wash their hands routinely or make it easy to do what’s right? And how can you get them to wear a mask? All of those same interventions are going to be useful in athletic training facilities as well.”

As lockdown regulations are loosened, it can be difficult to decide which situations are safe and which are not. Although Anderson can’t tell you which situations are worth the risk, he says, “In the end all of this is about risk-benefit. There is no such thing as a zero risk scenario in our society right now until there is an effective vaccine. . .It is a personal decision about what is considered to be an acceptable risk or the potential benefit that might be reaped.”