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Durham ICU nurse reflects on COVID: ‘Definitely not out of the woods’

KC Cherveny, a Duke Regional Hospital ICU nurse, knows it’s time to intubate critical COVID-19 patients long before medical test results say so. 

“You can see it in their face, and you can see it in their whole body,” she said.

A year into the pandemic, Cherveny has learned all too much. She started speaking louder to be heard through astronaut-like protective hoods, heeded advice to take time for herself and found a way to handle so much death. 

But among the many lessons and traumas, the moments before intubation linger most in her mind. She can’t count the number of times she’s assisted with this last-ditch step to try to save people from COVID-19. 

Patients frequently ask if they really need a tube inserted into their airway so a ventilator can breath for them.

“The answer is always yes,” she said. 

Often Cherveny’s next step is connecting with their family, on an iPad. 

“It’s hard when they’re basically saying goodbye to their loved ones and sometimes they may not know that,” she said.

As people getting vaccines makes things start to feel more normal, Cherveny has a message for those who can’t see inside a hospital ICU: “We’re definitely not out of the woods yet.”

KC Cherveny, right, with fellow Duke Regional Hospital nurses Claudette Suiter, middle, and Melanie Campbell. To help nurses cope with the many deaths they’ve witnessed during the pandemic, Cherveny started a support group in Duke Regional’s intensive care unit. Photo courtesy of Duke Health

Inside the ICU 

COVID-19 has killed 12,224 North Carolinians. In Durham County, the virus has taken 215 lives. 

Duke Regional had 12 COVID-19 patients on March 30, including four in intensive care, according to Duke Health spokesperson Sarah Avery. The hospital’s coronavirus cases gradually decreased over the last few weeks. Still, the severity of illness and level of attention patients need in the hospital’s 22-bed intensive care unit remains at an all-time high, Cherveny said. 

As the unit’s palliative care liaison, Cherveny keeps track of sobering metrics. Her unit faced a COVID mortality rate around 80% in January, she said. On a single day that month, she said, seven patients died.

“It’s astonishing. I mean, we have never seen this level of death, and the amount that we’ll have in one day is sometimes unbearable,” she said. 

The pandemic has physically altered her unit. Drips hang in the hallway, connected to patients inside rooms via tubes threaded through holes in the wall. That allows nurses to more easily manage medication and risk less exposure. 

The environment that intubations occur in has changed too. The procedures take place behind closed doors now, Cherveny said. A downsized team inside the patient’s room coordinates medication and supplies with supporting staff in the hallway via walkie-talkies, one of many innovating steps, she said, that Duke Health took to make patients and medical workers safer. 

Of course, the challenges ICU nurses face has also changed. It’s hard to not feel hopeless sometimes, she said. 

“We deal with critical patients all the time. I think this is such a different level of critical,” Cherveny said. “We want so badly to be able to fix it and be able to tell these patients that everything’s gonna be okay.”

In response, Cherveny started a nurse support group in her unit, where she is a charge nurse in addition to caring for patients.

At the meetings she and other nurses, especially those new to the work, discuss the death and damage they see and how they’re coping. 

“We’re the only ones that get it and understand what each other is going through,” Cherveny said. She relies on family too, and is trying to take more personal time. “We’re caretakers and we go into it for that reason. A lot of times it’s very easy to lose sight of ourselves,” she said. 

In her role leading palliative care, she also preps fellow nurses for COVID-19 deaths. The patient will have air hunger, she tells them. 

“It’s something that’s so difficult to watch. And it’s so sad. But it’s a humbling experience for me to be able to provide that level of care for somebody in those final moments,” Cherveny said.

Just being there is a service, she says.

Cherveny dims the lights and plays music in dying patients’ rooms. She gets loved ones who can’t be there on the iPad. 

“It can be hard to shift that mindset when you’re in ICU and you’re used to treating, treating, treating,” she said. “We tried everything we could, we know that we did, but now we are the ones that can provide comfort for these patients and give them a death with dignity.”

At the start of a morning shift at Duke Regional, a mix of people stream in and out. Despite the growing availability of vaccines, some patients within remain afflicted with COVID-19. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Talk of the end 

Cherveny’s fellow nurses have helped her get through these many months. Every morning, Duke Regional ICU nurses huddle up. Each shares two good things and something funny, an early injection of positivity. 

“The capacity that nurses have to take care of such a severely sick population is just amazing to me,” she said. 

She recently created a “dove award” for compassionate end-of-life care in her unit. There’s been so much of it this year, and it too often goes unrecognized, she said.

It hasn’t escaped her notice that community gestures of gratitude for the “front-line worker” have faded away. Maybe people have forgotten, she said. Or maybe they’re just not paying attention. 

“It’s not that we’re seeking that, but when we do get it we feel a little more valued,” she said, “and know that that recognition is there that we’re still fighting this virus.”

Signs urging people to protect themselves from the coronavirus line a walkway on the grounds of Duke Regional. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

In the last month, the Duke Regional ICU has seen more success saving people afflicted with COVID-19 than it did in the pandemic’s worst moments, Cherveny said. The improvement fits a national trend: hard-earned experience, demographic changes and reduced strain on ICU caregivers are leading to lower death rates.

Still, “as hospitalizations continue to be the rate that they are, I won’t be able to say it’s getting better for a while,” she said. 

For this reason, Cherveny is discouraged by what she sees outside her hospital, where people are returning to more normal lives, traveling, going unmasked, not social distancing. 

Vaccination and adherence to coronavirus safety guidelines will eventually bring rates down enough, she said. But we’re just not there yet. 

“More than anybody, I am so ready for this to be over,” she said. “We’re a lot more used to doing this, but it doesn’t make it any easier. I wish people understood that more.”

9th Street reporter Jake Sheridan can be reached at jacob.sheridan@duke.edu

At top: Nurse KC Cherveny has a message for those who can’t see inside the Duke Regional ICU: “We’re definitely not out of the woods yet.” Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

COVID hits black, Latinx Durham residents hardest

New data paints a bleak picture of health disparity growing in Durham amid the coronavirus pandemic. Latinx and black people have tested positive for COVID-19 at rates that outsize their population numbers.

Latinx residents, who account for 14% of the county’s population, made up 34% of its COVID-19 cases as of May 25, the county Department of Public Health says. Black people, 37% of the population, make up 42% of confirmed cases. White people, 54% of the population, total 26% of cases. 

This comes into focus as Durham and the country are grappling with the harms of racial disparities, including police brutality. 

The unequal infection rate is linked to where people work or are confined, the data shows. Nursing care facilities, correctional facilities and construction sites were the most common settings linked to positive cases, county data shows. In Durham, black and Latinx people make up a majority of workers and residents that have tested positive in each of those settings. 

Black people make up 67% of the cases associated with nursing care facilities and 53% of the cases associated with correctional facilities. Some of Durham’s largest outbreaks have occurred at such organizations. At Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where at least 111 people were sick with COVID-19, and at Butner’s Federal Correctional Complex, which is partly located in Durham County, at least 424 inmates and staff there have tested positive. 

Some nursing homes in Durham County, including Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, have been hotspots for COVID-19. Black people make up 67% of cases associated with nursing care facilities, according to current county data. 9th Street Journal photo by Henry Haggart

Latinx people account for 91% of the cases associated with construction work, the county data shows. Outdoor construction has been continuously exempted from Durham’s aggressive stay-at-home orders.

The over-representation of minorities among people diagnosed with the illness has emerged and increased since coronavirus first reached Durham.

The fact that racial minorities are disproportionately made sick by the coronavirus in Durham does not surprise people working to reduce health disparities, including Delmonte Jefferson, executive director of NAATPN, a Durham-based organization that advocates for the health of black people nationally.

“In Durham, just like other places across the country, and most of your service industry workers, those that are on the front line that have been deemed essential, are people of color,” Jefferson said. “These are the folks that have to go into work every day. And so if they have to go into work every day, then that means they’re front facing their face to the public and they’re exposed to this virus.”

Deepening disparities

The unequal impact of the coronavirus on black and Latinx Americans has grown amidst existing health disparities, Jefferson said.

“There are two primary reasons for it. One is the chronic health conditions that are already there disproportionately impacting these populations… the other is the social determinants of health coming into play,” he said. 

Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, CEO and President of El Centro Hispano, also sees the coronavirus exacerbating pre-existing disparities. 

“We had gaps before,” Rocha-Goldberg said. “A lot of them don’t have a primary doctor to go to if they feel sick, or lack knowing how to navigate the system.”

El Centro Hispano, which supports the education, health and economic well being of Latinx communities across the Triangle,  is sharing educational resources on COVID-19 with community members and guiding them to low-cost health care, she said. But some people who might be sick are too afraid to get treated. 

“People always fear giving information because of their political status,” Rocha-Goldberg said, referring to people living here without legal immigration status. During this outbreak, some worry that using publicly provided services could negatively affect their immigration status, she added.

The Latinx community’s contributions to essential work highlights the value of the group of people, Rocha-Goldberg said. 

“You have to see how much our community members contribute to the community,” she said. “We are seeing it in essential jobs. Who is there and who is working?”

Reports from the early phase of the outbreak misled some people in the community to think they wouldn’t be affected by COVID-19 because they are Latinx, Rocha-Goldberg said. 

White people were overrepresented among positive tests in Durham at the onset of the virus. They made up 58% of cases in March. 

Source: Durham County Department of Public Health

As testing has become more available and the virus has spread within the community, white people have made up an increasingly small share of positive cases. The proportion dropped to 27% in April, then 16% in May. Meanwhile, the rate of positive tests among people of color has skyrocketed. 

In March, Latinx people accounted for 7% of cases. Black people made up 25% of cases then. In April, black people accounted for 57% of new cases. And in May, Latinx people accounted for 58% of new cases.

Jefferson applauded local efforts to support Durhamites who are vulnerable to the health and economic consequences of COVID-19. Racial and ethnic COVID-19 data recording, eviction prevention and support for businesses have helped address inequities, he said. 

“In Durham, they’re doing the best they can,” said Jefferson, whose organization reaches out to elected officials at all levels to advocate for a focus on health disparity.

After obtaining data on COVID-19 diagnoses among racial and ethnic groups in Durham, the 9th Street Journal followed up with the county health department on Friday to request additional data involving COVID-19 deaths and testing access. The 9th Street Journal also requested information about the origins of the disparity and what the county is doing to address it. The department did not respond before publishing.  

In a document detailing the COVID-19 data, the county health department does note the importance of data noting people’s racial and ethnic identities to promote health equity. “A history of structural racism (e.g. residential and job segregation) creates inequitable access to health care and risk of disease exposure,” it reads. 

According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, black people make up 34% percent of reported deaths across the state. They make up 23% of the state population. Latinx people have been slightly underrepresented in deaths reported statewide. 

The state’s racial and ethnic data on death is incomplete. Racial identification is missing in 5% of reported cases, and ethnic identification is missing in 16%. 

Durham’s racial and ethnic data on COVID-19 cases is incomplete too. Racial identification is missing in 4% of reported cases, and ethnic identification is missing in 17%. The race of 28% of positive cases is identified as “other”. Ethnicity is reported as either Hispanic or non-Hispanic in the data set. 

A new normal

Both Rocha-Goldberg and Jefferson said the communities they serve are also facing growing economic disparity during the coronavirus outbreak.

El Centro Hispano has adjusted its role in the community. It’s providing food and money to help cover utility and rent bills for more than 660 families, Rocha-Goldberg said.

Food for one family costs $50 to $150, and utilities and rent support is around $800 to $2000, she estimated.

“It’s only a drop, but at least we are able to do something,” she said. Still, she sees many in the community with large, looming unmet needs. 

Jefferson fears the broad impact of the coronavirus will haunt the health and economic wellbeing of communities of color for decades.

“We’re looking at at least 20 or 30 years before our communities can start to recover. It is going to devastate our communities,” he said. 

He worries that protests ignited by the killing of George Floyd by police will amplify the damage COVID-19 causes in black communities by potentially increasing the spread of the disease. 

“Yes, we’re mad. Yes, we’re hurt. Yes, we want justice,” Jefferson said. “But we really can’t be distracted. We’ve got to continue practicing social distancing.”

At top: Outdoor construction has been continuously exempted from Durham’s aggressive stay-at-home orders. 9th Street Journal photo by Henry Haggart.

 

Durham lightens stay-at-home order but sticks with stricter response

A new amendment loosens Durham’s stay-at-home order, but keeps local coronavirus-related limits stricter than rules imposed by the state. 

The update, in effect at 5 p.m. today, is the fifth version of the city and county’s joint order since the coronavirus outbreak struck.

The latest changes attempt to clarify how rules apply in Durham, Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Commision, told 9th Street. “We’re trying to simplify things and make this less confusing for people,” Jacobs said. 

One simplification made to Durham’s stay-at-home order is the removal of its expiration date. The order’s previous four versions included deadlines compelling the county and city government to reinstate an order every few weeks.

With the due date gone, an emergency order will remain in place until it is rescinded or modified.  

What’s looser?

In many ways, this update eases the Durham stay-at-home order’s strictest regulations. 

In line with Gov. Roy Cooper’s May 8 executive order, Durham leaders have raised the number of people who may gather to 10. The previous versions of the order limited gatherings to five. 

Durham’s new update also follows Cooper’s lead by allowing for larger religious gatherings or protests to take place outside so long as those participating socially distance. 

The amendment ends the local classification of businesses as “essential” or “non-essential.” While some previously non-essential businesses may be able to re-open, many are still closed by the state’s order, which still shutters bars, concerts and other live performances, and more.

Friday’s update also allows potential home buyers to view occupied houses in person and permits businesses to provide employees with boxed lunches.

What’s stricter than the state limits? 

Durhamites incapable of social distancing, such as those shopping or working in a store, are still required to wear protective face masks. And business owners must continue to conduct basic health screenings at the beginning of every employee’s shift. 

Funerals in Durham will be limited to 25 people, while the state  order allows up to 50 people to attend funerals. 

The amendment also creates new regulations for child care. Child care facilities in Durham are now required to keep supervised children in consistent groups that are isolated from other children.

The state’s order preempts Durham’s in regulating retail stores. Cooper’s May 8 order allows retail stores to open with restrictions, requiring them to ensure space for social distancing and setting maximum occupancy at 50 percent. The city and county cannot raise or lower that limit. 

Why and What’s Next? 

“What this indicates is that what we’re doing works,” Jacobs said, pointing to low community spread rates in Durham, where most lethal cases of COVID-19 have been detected in sites where people are confined in close quarters, including  living sites such as the Butner Federal Correctional Complex and longterm living facilities. Such facilities accounted for 33 of Durham County’s 37 coronavirus-related deaths as of Friday morning. 

Going forward, the county and city will follow the state’s lead on reopening, Jacobs said. Durham will look to North Carolina’s guidance on best practices for testing, tracing and PPE.

Durham will also seek direction from the city and county’s joint “Recovery and Renewal” task force, which includes  local health professionals, religious leaders, business owners and other community members.

“We’re looking to the work of the task force to guide our next steps,” Jacobs said. 

The task force had its first meeting Friday morning, remotely of course. As he and Jacobs opened up the conversation, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, who sported the city’s flag as his Zoom meeting background, announced that Durham’s rate of doubling for COVID-19 cases is now greater than 50 days.  

“That’s good. We’re doing well. But we have to continue to do well,” Schewel said. 

There’s one downside to success, the mayor said. Many Durhamites don’t have immunity, he pointed out, so an outbreak could still spread quickly in Durham. 

Durhamites can go to more places and see more people when they must. But they’d be wise to voluntarily stick with the practice that has helped this community, Jacobs said.

“We still need people to stay at home whenever they can,” she said. 

At top: Duke Health continues to offer drive-up coronavirus virus testing near Duke University Hospital. Photo by Corey Pilson

Pregnant woman, fiancé forced out of apartment just before evictions freeze

Three hours before a court order froze evictions across North Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Durham couple was forced into homelessness. 

On March 19, the couple — Abriel Harris, who said she is three months pregnant, and her fiancé DeAngelo Reddick — were ordered to leave their place at Foxfire Apartments. The eviction occurred just before North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley extended deadlines for legal filings and gave North Carolina sheriffs the ability to stop serving evictions. 

“There’s a lot of feelings, having to deal with the stress of being high risk of catching the virus and of having to deal with the stress of being put out of my apartment,” Harris told the 9th Street Journal. 

According to the CDC, pregnant people are at an increased risk of COVID-19 complications. Homeless people are also at high risk because they don’t have quick access to healthcare or hygiene and sanitation facilities. 

Harris said the couple lived out of a car for several days before moving in with family. “When you’re living in your car and have to go to the gas station to wash, you can’t get a good scrub,” she said. “I’m worried about germs, about trying to keep myself clean… it’s hard to close your eyes and go to sleep when you don’t know if you’re safe.” 

Sarah D’Amato, a Legal Aid attorney who is handling Reddick and Harris’s case, told the 9th Street Journal she was surprised Foxfire went forward with the eviction.

“The landlord is the one who gives the last thumbs up or down,” D’Amato said. “They had the ultimate power to say, ‘You know what, we’ll work it out, we’ll deal with it later.’” 

Foxfire Apartments, which is run by a company that claims to manage over 30,000 apartments in the Southeast, declined to comment on the eviction. The complex’s website states they are taking precautions regarding the spread of the coronavirus, including closing their office. 

“Our highest priority continues to be the health and well-being of everyone who visits or is a part of our community,” reads a message on Foxfire’s homepage.

Struggling to make rent

The couple missed their January rent payment while they were in and out of work, according to Harris. When their landlord brought them to small claims court for an eviction hearing, they lost. After appealing, a new court date was set for late March. 

D’Amato said the couple paid their rent bond in February. When the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. canceled new work opportunities, they couldn’t pay their next rent bond due March 5, Harris said. Foxfire filed for a writ of eviction a few days later, and the sheriff sent the couple a notice that they would be evicted on March 17. 

Then, Reddick, who D’Amato said is a marine reservist, got a job at Amazon. With new income, the couple thought they’d be able to pay the rent they owed and negotiate with Foxfire to stay. But the company wanted several months worth of rent, including rent they hadn’t paid: a total of $3,000, according to Harris. The couple told Foxfire they could pay by mid-April, Harris said, but couldn’t make it work in only a few days. Foxfire moved forward with the eviction. 

“We tried to come to them to make a payment,” Harris said. “I felt like they weren’t being very considerate of what was going on.” 

The sheriff’s office postponed for two days while trying to determine if they were still legally required to conduct evictions after a March 13 order from Chief Justice Beasley halted nonessential court proceedings, Durham County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer AnnMarie Breen told 9th Street Journal. 

Once the office received clarification that it was still required to evict, they rescheduled for March 19, said Breen. The couple was evicted at 9:30 a.m. By 12:30, Beasley announced an order giving sheriffs across the state power to stop serving evictions. 

D’Amato said she understood why the sheriff’s department felt legally obligated to carry out the eviction since Foxfire decided to go through with it. 

What she didn’t understand was why the sheriff claimed two business days later that no recent evictions resulted in homelessness when her clients had to live in their car. In a statement about pausing evictions, Durham Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said that he takes “the safety and wellbeing of every resident of Durham County very seriously.”

“No one has been evicted into a homeless situation as a result of recent orders,” the statement said.

Harris said the sheriff’s office never reached out to her or Reddick to see if they were evicted into a homeless situation. D’Amato said she wasn’t contacted, either. 

“At no time did Mr. Reddick [whose name was in the lease] indicate that he did not have any place to live,” Breen said, adding that Reddick told the deputy “he said he had just gotten a new job,” and that “he was reported to be pleasant and cooperative.”

An uncertain future

While evictions have temporarily come to a halt in Durham, delayed eviction hearings are being rescheduled and the city is still receiving eviction filings. Attorneys say the backlog may lead to a “tsunami of evictions” when courts reopen. Legal Aid NC is continuing to work with Durhamites facing eviction. 

D’Amato is trying to work with Foxfire and the courts to get her clients into their apartment. Harris said the company told them if they paid the past due rent along with some future rent — now a total of $4,000, she claims — by March 31, they could move back in. 

“That’s not grace,” Harris said of the company’s offer. “That’s highway robbery,” 

For now, the couple is living with Harris’s family. Harris said she’s grateful to have somewhere to stay, but would feel safer and better able to manage her pregnancy if she had her own place. She’s looking for a new spot, but it’s hard to find one.

“We went to different apartment complexes, but most of them are closed,” Harris said. 

That exact problem is one of the reasons D’Amato questions why Foxfire evicted Reddick and Harris. 

“What’s the urgency in clearing out an apartment which will likely sit empty until the time my clients are able to come up with all their past due money?” she said. “I don’t understand that.”

Top photo: A screenshot from Foxfire apartment complex’s website.

Duke Health shares some details on COVID-19 preparations 

Duke Health, Durham’s largest health care provider, is the Bull City’s front line for treating people who become seriously ill from coronavirus. 

As the threat of a surge in hospitalization looms, Duke University and Duke Regional hospitals will need enough beds, adequate supplies and effective strategies to limit spread and save lives.

System leaders have a plan, Duke Regional Hospital President Katie Galbraith told the 9th Street Journal in an interview.

“This is something that we have been preparing for and planning for — for this type of event — for years,” said Galbraith. 

So, how is Duke Health gearing up? 

Adding beds

A Harvard Global Health Institute study made in collaboration with ProPublica that compares available hospital beds to potential needs projects that the Durham area’s supply could fall well short of demand. 

In the study’s moderate scenario — where 40% of adults contract coronavirus over 12 months — the sickest coronavirus patients will take up 3,060 hospital beds. The study says the Durham hospital region typically has 1,130 beds available. 

Even under normal conditions, Duke Health’s hospitals operate near full capacity. So Duke Health, which has a third hospital in Raleigh, has been preparing to expand bed capacity if needed since news of the highly contagious coronavirus first emerged, Galbraith said. 

“As soon as we started getting reports out of China about coronavirus, we started really focusing on our planning specifically for this area,” she said.

Duke Health is prepared to add 500 beds to the just over 1,500 beds across the system’s three hospitals, according to Galbraith. Hospital systems across North Carolina can increase capacity because North Carolina is in a state of emergency. 

“We are looking at different locations for beds within our hospital,” Galbraith said, adding that out-patient locations such as the system’s Ambulatory Surgery Center are potential sites for Duke Health bed expansions. 

Duke Regional Hospital was treating two hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Friday morning, said Galbraith, who did not know how many COVID-19 patients were hospitalized across the system.

Other measures to ensure Duke Health has adequate capacity to accommodate COVID-19 patients include rescheduling non-critical surgeries, procedures and appointments; and scheduling virtual visits to free up space. 

Supplies manageable, but concerning 

Duke researchers made headlines this week after developing a new method to decontaminate coveted N95 respirator masks so that they can be re-worn. The masks, an essential tool in protecting health care workers, are running low in hospitals across the country. 

The new method has helped Duke Health hospitals. “Right now we are managing well with what we have,” said Galbraith.  

But supplies might not last. 

“We are certainly concerned given the amount of supplies being used not only here locally, but across the country,” Galbraith said. “We’re concerned about the possibility of interruptions in the supply chain.”

According to Galbraith, Duke Health staff are working to secure more personal protective equipment. 

“They’re reaching out to suppliers and have been working since the pandemic was emerging,” said Galbraith. 

Supplies are coming from the community, too. Duke Health announced this week it would welcome donations of N95 masks, which are more protective than standard masks; surgical and looped masks; and unopened boxes of gloves. The donation site is open from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm at 100 Golden Drive, Durham.

Without proper supplies, health care workers everywhere are at greater risk of contracting coronavirus.

“The safety of our team members and our patients is our top priority,” said Galbraith.  

Changes to testing

Galbraith confirmed that Duke Health is now using it’s own COVID-19 test. The test, which has been under development throughout March, went into use this week.  

“We are running some tests in house and we still are using commercial labs for some tests as well, which gives us broader capacity,” she said. 

The combination of in-house and commercial testing allows the system to confirm which patients who have COVID-19 symptoms have coronavirus infection, Galbraith said. But in step with state guidance, Duke health care staff discourage people with mild symptoms from seeking testing.

New guidance to hospitals from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says patients with mild symptoms consistent with COVID-19 do not need testing for and should be instructed to stay home to recover. 

Widespread testing likely wouldn’t change treatment guidance and could unnecessarily expose health care workers and other patients, the department said. 

Duke Health is offering only limited testing, according to the system’s COVID-19 web page 

To inhibit spread, Duke Health has also banned visitors to its hospitals, with few exceptions. 

Stay at home

You’re a part of Duke Health’s strategy, too, Galbraith said. 

“I’m proud of our leadership role in this, but it’s not Duke alone,” Galbraith said. “We are going to need everyone to work together and to comply with a stay at home order, which is not easy for people, to get through this as a community.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Friday that a statewide stay-home order goes into effect on Monday. Durham’s stay-home order started Thursday. 

“Hospitals have been calling for the stay-at-home order,” Galbraith said. “We’re supportive of that and feel that order is supportive of us, as a healthcare system.”

Galbraith pointed out that “flattening the curve” — slowing the spread of coronavirus to prevent a surge in critically sick people — will prevent Duke Health from being “completely overwhelmed.”

Galbraith listed other ways Durhamites can help hospitals too. 

“Supporting first responders and health care workers. Offering to do chores for them, to make a meal for them, to help with child care,” she said.

Top photo: The novel coronavirus, called COVID-19. Photo from CDC.

Coronavirus concerns halt evictions in Durham

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead has stopped serving eviction notices and padlocking rental properties in Durham County to help slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Evictions stopped in Durham days after North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley issued a series of emergency orders pausing nonessential court proceedings and giving sheriffs across the state the ability to postpone some enforcement actions.

A Monday evening statement from Birkhead confirmed that his office has decided to halt eviction service.

“I am suspending the service of these judgments until further notice,” Birkhead said. “Although Chief Justice Beasley’s order does not specifically address this process, it has been interpreted that under that order a suspension would be allowable.”

Beasley’s issued the first order halting nonessential court proceedings in North Carolina on March 13. In a memo two days later, she clarified that her first order included eviction proceedings.

That effectively shut off the flow of new writs of possession — the court orders to evict tenants that have lost to landlords in court. But while new writs stopped coming more than a week ago, dozens already existed. The sheriff’s office estimates around 180 evictions occur in Durham every week.

As of last Wednesday, the sheriff’s office said it was still legally required to serve those pending eviction writs. But on Thursday, Beasley issued another order that ended up freezing those writs, too. It pushed back the due dates for many filings and “other acts” of the North Carolina courts, including evictions. Under this order, actions due on March 16 or later would now be on time if done by April 17.

Normally, tenants who lose in court have 10 days to file for an appeal. Under Beasley’s order, motions to appeal an eviction ruling are still timely if filed by April 17. That means all eviction cases with original final appeal dates on or after March 16 are postponed.

Last Friday, the office of the Clerk of Durham County Superior Court said it had stopped issuing writs for such cases and recalled all of the writs it had sent throughout that week involving those cases.

Several of the state’s largest counties had determined by Saturday that Beasley’s order also gave them discretion to halt eviction service. Peter Gilbert, a Legal Aid lawyer who focuses on eviction defense, said those included Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth and Cumberland.

On Thursday evening, the Durham sheriff’s office indicated it was working to interpret Beasley’s order hours after it came out that day. The office continued to consult with legal teams and the judiciary on Friday.

By the time the sheriff decided to stop serving writs, there may have been none left to serve. Gilbert, who works in the Eviction Diversion program run by Legal Aid and Duke Law’s Civil Justice Clinic, said the pending writs were likely all recalled by the clerk.

“It’s essentially moot,” Gilbert said Monday, before the sheriff issued his statement. “It’s not his authority, because the clerk has started recalling any writ from March 3 or after. That should be and almost certainly is all of the pending writs of possession.”

Clerk of Durham County Superior Court Archie Smith could not be reached Monday evening to clarify whether all pending writs had been recalled. But on Thursday, Smith told The 9th Street Journal he intended to follow the spirit of Beasley’s order.

“The lens from which I will interpret things where I have the option to interpret things will be through public safety, with a focus on limiting social contact for the purpose of limiting the spread of contagion,” Smith said.

Birkhead’s Monday statement said that “no one has been evicted into a homeless situation as a result of recent orders.”

But some evictions may have already occurred amid confusion. According to Gilbert, at least one padlocking occurred on Thursday before Beasley’s order, but after sheriffs in other counties had stopped serving evictions.

“Anyone being evicted during this time is at a great risk, not only to themselves, but as a vector carrying disease,” said Gilbert. “The governor is urging us to stay home. It’s impossible to stay home if you don’t have one.”

Durhamites struggling to pay rent will be able to stay in their homes for several weeks, but eviction still looms over them.

“These cases are delayed. They are not dismissed,” Gilbert said, adding that courts are still receiving new eviction filings.

“When this ends, there is going to be a tsunami of evictions,” Gilbert said. “That is going to be aggravated by the fact that so many people in Durham are cost burdened. They are already spending over half their income on rent, and with so many workers losing hours or being unable to work at all, I suspect that whenever this ends, we are going to have a real eviction crisis.”

At top: A sign posted by Durham County sheriffs deputies before a landlord changes the lock. Photo by Niharika Vattikonda

COVID-19 Q&A: Mayor asks residents to keep distance but help each other

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel talked with The 9th Street Journal on Thursday afternoon. This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

What is the most important challenge that Coronavirus is bringing to city government?

Well, I think it’s the same challenge that it’s bringing to our whole society, which is the critical need for social distancing so that we can slow the spread of the virus. That’s got to be the number one job of everything that the government and our community bends its mind to — we have to do that. 

What city services are down, modified and stable?

Most of the major functions of the city are definitely continuing. Fire, police, emergency response, water, sewer, garbage pickup and recycling — those kinds of things.  Some of our services that have to continue and are crucial do present more of a challenge — policing and fire, for example, emergency response, all those things have to continue. We have to try to modify people’s behaviors in order to get the work done as safely as possible. 

A lot of other services can be done online. For example, inspections obviously have to be done in person, but a lot of the prep for that can be done online. So we’ve moved a lot of our work in the city government online so that people can work from home. My assistant is working from home. All the city clerk staff who usually are right outside of my office, they’re working from home.

There are definitely services within the city that we are not performing right now because of the need to socially distance. We canceled our city council meeting that was supposed to be this past Monday. We cancelled our work session on Thursday. Our audit committee is not meeting because unless it’s essential, we’re not going to be gathering in groups.

We are working to find out what the legal basis is for having virtual council meetings. In April we are due to meet again and we would like to virtually if we can. But of course that presents issues of public access. It’s a public meeting, so anybody has the right to come. In terms of the planning, zoning, that area, I know that we’re slowed down. There are also other areas I’m sure, but I just don’t know what they are. 

Do you think that Durham is prepared to respond to this pandemic?

From the city government perspective, we’ll be able to do the things that we do. I do have emergency powers in this situation, and, because this is a true emergency, I had to issue an emergency declaration to close our city facilities including the DPAC, the Carolina Theater, and others for public health purposes. But the things that we do aren’t the most important aspects of this.

The county has the public health authority. They run the Department of Public Health and the public health issues are the most important issues. We have to work closely with the county. Another example is the public schools. That’s also not under the city’s purview. That’s the Board of Education. They made the right decision to close the schools, and then the governor followed up with the statewide school closing. Now there’s a huge effort to feed the schoolchildren. That’s the school system and the Durham Public Schools Foundation.

Duke Health has a huge role here and is very well prepared for this. They’re going to be very ready. So all that is just to say, yeah, we have a role. But there are a lot of other organizations outside of the single player role.

Has last week’s cyber attack affected the city’s response in any way?

Yes. It’s made it harder for people to telecommute because it knocked email out. The vast majority of people in the city have been able to get their email back up, but at the beginning it was a problem. We were exceptionally well backed up. All of our servers were restored within a few days, but the computer virus infected more than 1000 computers, so re-imaging those is taking time. So those things have definitely hindered our ability to have folks successfully telecommute to be able to do their work, but that’s all being worked through. We’re a long way down the road.

What is the city doing to communicate with the many city residents who speak Spanish?

I did a statement yesterday on video and now there’ll be a written version of it. We’re translating that into Spanish. For people without computers, I don’t think that we’re taking any special efforts to try to reach them because everyone is so slammed dealing with the basics of the coronavirus. I think that if you’re without a computer you’re probably missing a lot of the public health messages. 

There is a lot of outreach to homeless people. I’m on a phone call tonight with all the homeless service providers, including healthcare providers. One big concern: Suppose there are homeless people who have the virus and don’t need to be hospitalized but need to be quarantined. There needs to be housing for them. There’s a lot of thinking about how that might occur.

What are some of the big steps you’re taking or thinking about taking to attack this coronavirus and protect the city?

I already shut down the various city facilities, including our recreation centers. We were about to do the restaurant thing. I lobbied the governor really hard to do that, and I’m very glad that the governor made that decision. We would have made that decision locally. I issued an amendment to the emergency declaration that closes fitness clubs, gyms and theaters. 

There’s all the messaging, which is super important — getting it out to people that they need to social distance, and having that messaging be convincing. A lot of people, especially in the younger generation, aren’t doing it. We’re letting people know that that’s not responsible. Younger people can get sick and do get sick, and they do die from the virus. And also it’s not responsible because they can carry it and, even if they’re asymptomatic, pass it on to people in higher risk groups. Young people need to socially distance. It’s critically important. 

Where do you think volunteer help and community effort is most needed?

Feeding the schoolchildren. If I was to say the number one thing people could do right now would be get in touch with the Durham Public Schools Foundation and say that you want to help feed our school children. There’ll be other volunteer efforts needed as well: feeding our elderly, providing childcare for emergency health care workers. 

What do you want to tell Durhamites? 

Listen to my video. The main thing I want to say is that we can make a difference here. We have got to act now, before we look back and regret that we didn’t act soon enough and find out that this virus has ravaged our community. The earlier we act, the more power we have to stop the spread of the virus. Each of us have to act so all of us are safe. 

Mayor Schewel will have a press conference today at 2:30 p.m. in front of City Hall regarding COVID-19 State of Emergency Declaration Amendment. Check for updates on the City of Durham’s response to COVID-19 here

At top: A screen grab from the Mayor Steve Schewel’s video address to Durham residents. 

 

Duke Health starting limited drive-up COVID-19 testing

By Jake Sheridan
and Cameron Beach

Duke Health will begin piloting drive-up coronavirus testing today, The 9th Street Journal confirmed.

This limited pilot will be available only to patients who were prescribed COVID-19 tests via Duke Health tele-health appointments, where patients meet with clinicians online. Health system officials hope to make drive-up testing open to the community soon. 

“A limited pilot of a drive-up testing approach will be conducted today for a small group of patients who will have already received a ‘prescription’ from a tele-health appointment to obtain the test,” according to a written statement from Duke Health. 

“This first-run is not broadly open to the community at this point, but we hope to expand capabilities moving ahead, and will notify the community when additional locations are available. People who believe they may have COVID are encouraged to speak with their health care provider to determine the advisability of testing.”

The statement did not disclose where drive-up pilot testing will occur.

One advantage of drive-through testing is that it can prevent some people infected with coronavirus from spreading the disease inside hospitals and clinics.

Duke Health placed restrictions on hospital and clinic visitors on Monday “to minimize the spread of both COVID-19 and seasonal flu.” Visitors aren’t allowed inside Duke hospitals between 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., except during emergencies, and all visitors will be screened for signs of illness before they enter.

Duke is also limiting how many people can accompany patients inside the hospital, including in delivery rooms.

North Carolina officials announced Saturday that testing is expanding across North Carolina. 

Hospitals in New York, California and elsewhere, including spots in North Carolina, have launched  drive-through testing efforts in recent days. This is the first confirmed in the Triangle.

Duke’s statement noted that Duke Health is continuing to develop its own in-house COVID-19 test. “We anticipate having our in-house testing available soon,” it said.

 

Pierce Freelon: Educator, community organizer, state Senate District 20 candidate

Pierce Freelon leaned on the lectern in front of North Carolina Central University’s Thursday evening “Black Women’s Activism” class. As he spoke, the state Senate District 20 candidate drifted between stump speech and lecture, connecting current politics and history.

As he lauded activism by black women, including the 1957 Royal Ice Cream Sit-in on Dowd Street, the class’s professor, Baiyina Muhammad, mentioned Takiyah Thompson was taking the course when she toppled a Confederate monument in Durham in August 2017.

“Of course she was,” said Freelon, a smile spreading across his face. “Doesn’t surprise me one bit.”

Freelon told the students about his 2017 Durham mayoral campaign. He lost, but his policy visions, like a jobs guarantee and support for a now-abandoned light rail plan helped give him momentum to enter a state race, he said. 

“When you come up and present ideas that are truly visionary, people are going to look at you funny,” Freelon said. “That’s what trailblazing is. It’s the person in the front with the machete, they’re getting all the scratches and the bruises.”

The 36-year-old candidate is an arts entrepreneur, community organizer, college lecturer and politician. He is the son of Nnenna Freelon, the Grammy-nominated jazz singer, and the late Philip Freelon, a renowned architect who designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. 

In a primary race against two Democrats — attorney Gray Ellis and Durham County’s Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor Natalie Murdock — Freelon has been endorsed by some of Durham politics’ biggest names and organizations: Mayor Steve Schewel, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Triangle Labor Council, Mayor Pro-Tempore Jillian Johnson and Bill Bell, Durham’s former longtime mayor.

The candidates are vying for a seat vacated by veteran state Sen. Floyd McKissick, who resigned in January to serve on the state’s public utilities commission. Whoever wins Tuesday’s vote is likely to become senator since voters in District 20, which includes Durham, are highly unlikely to send a Republican to Raleigh. John Tarantino, a former teacher who has lost several races for local seats, is the GOP candidate.

Pierce Freelon watches presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Durham rally in February. Photo by Jake Sheridan

The three Democrats share many views, Freelon said, like support for Medicaid expansion, teacher raises and environmental protection.  

But Freelon — who calls himself “the lefty of the bunch” — thinks he goes further, pointing to his stances for greater police accountability and marijuana decriminalization.

“My positions on criminal justice aren’t things that I see being adamantly pursued by the other candidates,” said Freelon, who recently opened for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Durham presidential campaign rally.

Some of his platform’s major goals include: reparations, which are payments or other amends for descendants of enslaved people or others treated unjustly; an end to gerrymandering in North Carolina through independent redistricting; a $15 minimum wage; abolishing the death penalty; automatic voter registration; and campaign finance reform.

The death of his father last July from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) had a major impact on his stances, particularly around healthcare. 

“You have principles — things you believe in — and then you have experiences that give you a front-row seat to how policy is relevant in people’s daily lives,” Freelon said. “That was a front-row seat in many ways: to health care, disability… the right to die.”

Freelon said he is passionate about education, and has long supported more funding for historically black colleges & universities and state-wide equity in public school spending. 

In 2013, he founded Blackspace, a digital makerspace that teaches local black and brown children about music, filmmaking and coding, and has developed alternative hip-hop high school curriculums. Freelon also is artistic director for  Northstar Church of the Arts, which he founded with his parents. 

He said he believes being the only Durham native candidate helps him stand out. 

“I have skin in the game that puts me in a unique position to lead in the city that produced me,” Freelon said. 

The ongoing crisis at Durham public housing complex McDougald Terrace, where 270 families were evacuated last month due to carbon monoxide leaks and other dangers, was “personal” for Freelon. He said he grew up with some residents and now mentors children there. McDougald Terrace Resident Council President Ashley Canady has endorsed him. 

Pierce Freelon carries signs and campaign materials for the state senate race. Photo by Jake Sheridan

Longtime Democratic state Rep Mickey Michaux, who was temporarily appointed to fill McKissick’s senate seat after he resigned, has endorsed him.

But McKissick—who held the seat for 13 years—told 9th Street he has some concerns about Freelon’s lack of experience. 

“I think he’ll be at a serious disadvantage were he to be elected not having any of the city government experience or academic training,” he said. “I think it’s important to have other perspectives, but it’s really important to be able to read a law.”

Freelon served on the NC Arts Council and is vice chair of the Durham Human Relations Commission, but has no elected office or law experience.

McKissick’s criticism doesn’t deter Freelon. “I think that one of the unique skill sets I bring given my background as an artist as an ability to communicate with a fluency that I don’t see in a lot of people trained in law school,” he said. 

He added that his arts residencies throughout conservative rural North Carolina showcase his work to bridge ideological gaps.

Schewel told 9th Street in an interview that he thinks Freelon has “experience as a leader.” He praised him for his progressive agenda and good-natured 2017 campaign, calling Freelon an “exceptionally open person.”

“He extends his warmth and his amazing creative powers to really embrace so many people and so many communities,” Schewel said.

Freelon’s ability to lead and communicate seemed to work in the NCCU class. Towards the end of his mini-lecture, he made a plea to the room of all black women.

“We need you,” Freelon said. “And I will be your ally, because I’ve been trained and raised by radical black womanists who I carry with me.”  

When he finished, he pulled out a sign up sheet and offered the students an opportunity to work for his campaign. Nearly half put their names down. 

Top photo: State Senate District 20 candidate Pierce Freelon speaks at a forum at Duke University. Photo by Corey Pilson

In downtown Durham, overflow crowd greets Bernie Sanders

A thin, black folding wall cut U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Durham rally in half.

On one side was the Durham Convention Center’s main ballroom, filled wall to wall — and to capacity — with ardent supporters of the Democratic presidential candidate front-runner. On the other: a smaller, darker overflow room for latecomers to the Valentine’s Day rally.

Fresh off winning the New Hampshire primary, Sanders spent part of the week campaigning around North Carolina, a key Super Tuesday state. A reported 3,100 people showed up in Durham. 

Fifteen minutes before it started, Greg West hovered near the barrier. “I’m waiting for my wife, we got separated,” said West, who showed up to the event two hours early.

But no one, besides the brave few slipping past security, was getting in. It looked like his wife would have to miss this one.

“Nobody else can come into this ballroom at the time,” announced the assistant fire marshal, who said the temporary wall held back some 300 people — a diverse, young crowd united in their desire to make it into the main hall and their frustration with the capacity limit. 

As West explained why he planned to vote for Sanders — a track record of consistency, a strong vision of change — his phone screen lit up and a poppy, marimba-snare ringtone started playing. His wife was calling. She had made it back to the main room, where dozens of cameras were trained on a wide stage set for Sanders. He went to join her. 

Dozens of others ended up in the overflow room, where audio of the speeches played over loudspeakers. By 11:30 a.m., local progressive politicians like Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, Durham County Commissioner candidate Nida Allam and State Senate candidate Pierce Freelon, warmed up the mic. Each echoed Sanders’s calls for radical change and reminding people to support down ballot candidates. The packed crowd in the main ballroom hung to their words, tossing up “Bernie” signs, clapping on queue and quieting down to listen. 

Those scattered in the overflow room chatted among themselves, biding time as they waited to hear Sanders’s voice. For a few minutes, former Ohio state senator and Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner stopped by the small corner stage with locally beloved “Bull Durham” star Susan Sarandon, briefly firing up the crowd by telling them they had the power to change America.  

Sanders visits the overflow room at his Durham rally. 9th Street Journal photo by Jake Sheridan

Diana Lynn, a self-identified member of the “Yang Gang” — fans of technology entrepreneur and former candidate Andrew Yang — said she was looking for “a new ship to jump on” after he recently dropped out of the race. Lynn hadn’t been able to arrive on time because of work, she said, and wore her green Harris Teeter uniform shirt inside out. Still, she was happy to have a chance to hear Sanders. 

“People want a revolution,” Lynn said. “They’re beyond fed up. That’s how we got Trump.”

Fernando Bretos, who said he will vote for Sanders, also ended up in the overflow room after coming from work. 

“It’s kind of nice that there is an overflow room, but of course I want to be in there with them,” said Bretos, a marine biologist concerned about climate change. “I kind of regret not going with Bernie the first time. I’m just going with passion and ingenuity. He speaks to me.”

Then, Sanders really did speak to Bretos. To shock and excitement, the Democratic hopeful surprised supporters and took the overflow room stage. 

“The good news is we have a standing room crowd over there,” Sanders said, pointing to the wall separating them from the ballroom. “The bad news is you could not get in.”

He touted his victory in New Hampshire and promised wins to come. He listed a string of policies to cheers and the names of enemies — “the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, the whole damn one percent” — to boo’s. He summarized his platform into “two basic things”: beating Donald Trump, and transforming the government and economy “so it represents all of us.” 

After six minutes, Sanders left to go give a longer version of his stump speech to the main room. Most of the overflow crowd left, too. 

On the way out, Lynn said she appreciated Sanders’s appearance, but was still undecided between him and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

As he headed back to work, Bretos said Sanders’s quick stop gave him goosebumps. 

“It felt like a community. Like I’m not alone,” Bretos said. “Since I’ve gone to Bernie world, a lot of friends and Democrats have kind of been jabbing me, questioning me, so it’s nice to feel like I’m part of a community, to feel like I belong.” 

At top: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders visits with supporters before his rally in Durham on Feb. 14. 9th Street Journal photo by Jake Sheridan.