Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published by “Jake Sheridan”

Durham voters choose O’Neal as mayor and City Council incumbents by large margins; Leonardo Williams wins close race in Ward III

By Jake Sheridan, Julianna Rennie, Caroline Petrow-Cohen, and Olivia Olsher

Durham’s new mayor-elect Elaine O’Neal cruised to an easy victory in Tuesday’s municipal election.

The former judge soundly beat City Council Member Javiera Caballero, who suspended her campaign in early October. O’Neal announced she would enter the race in January and has been a favorite ever since. She will be the first Black woman to serve as the city’s mayor. 

Election Day saw big wins for the two City Council incumbents running to retain their seats. DeDreana Freeman won in Ward I, and Mark-Anthony Middleton won in Ward II. Both had decisive victories in the primary

The Ward III race — a contest with no primary and no incumbent — was the one to watch. Restaurant owner and former teacher Leonardo Williams jumped out to a strong lead when early in-person votes posted as polls closed, but the margin narrowed as Election Day results came in. 

Although community organizer AJ Williams trailed behind, Bill Withers’ hit “Lovely Day” still played at his Durham Central Park pavilion watch party. 

“We’re going to see what the people want tonight. I really believe that,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s me… I feel like there’s a lot at stake… and it will be good to see who bubbles to the top.”

Supporters of City Council candidate AJ Williams watched as election results trickled in. Photo by Olivia Olsher – The 9th Street Journal


Ultimately, however, the bubbles settled in his opponent’s favor. AJ brought in more votes cast on Election Day than Leonardo, but Leonardo ultimately won by more than 600 votes.

“Running for office is an exhausting, deeply gratifying experience,” AJ said while watching the election results Tuesday night.

Incumbents DeDreana Freeman and Mark Anthony Middleton held onto their City Council seats, winning with large margins. 

Turnout appeared to be considerably down in Durham this year. Only 30,231 ballots were cast in the mayoral race this year as of 10 p.m., a strong drop off from the city’s last two municipal general elections. 

Just under 36,000 voters cast ballots in the 2017 mayoral election, and nearly 35,000 did so in 2019.

O’Neal’s supporters at the Rickhouse in downtown Durham erupted into applause as former Durham mayor Bill Bell introduced the city’s newest leader. “This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for,” Bell said. “The young lady we’re going to be hearing from tonight is the epitome of style, esteem and intelligence.”

O’Neal, wearing a black dress and a huge smile, took the stage to greet her supporters. Not all the votes had been counted at that moment, but O’Neal’s victory was resounding. “I’m humbled by your support,” she said, “and grateful to be the next mayor of our fine city.”

O’Neal said her highest priority is public safety. That’s the issue many of her supporters care about most. “We need a police force,” one voter said. “A real one, not one with 20 empty slots.”

He trusts O’Neal to address Durham’s public safety needs because she understands policing and, more importantly, she understands the community. “Elaine knows the streets,” he said. 

O’Neal’s supporters also want to see her improve Durham’s affordable housing infrastructure and public school system.

Mayor Steve Schewel congratulated O’Neal on her victory. “She’s going to do a great job,” he said. “I know she’ll be able to really bring this city together.”

Things were more subdued at Durham Central Park, where AJ Williams supporters gathered.

When it was clear he narrowly lost, supporters offered empathetic embraces him. He then took to the dance floor to deliver a speech to the crowd of roughly 40 people.

“I think we can do this again!” he told the crowd, which erupted in cheers, and began chanting “We love you! We love you!”

The music started playing again, and AJ joined a group of supporters starting a shuffle on the dance floor.

“Leonardo is great,” said Pierce Freelon, the current Ward III member who had endorsed AJ. “I know Ward III will be in good hands regardless of the outcome…It’s important to have someone with roots in the community.”

At top: Elaine O’Neal gives a victory speech at her Election Day party. Photo by 9th Street Journal reporter Caroline Petrow-Cohen. 

The 9th Street Journal Guide to the Durham city election

Don’t let the headlines fool you. Although Durham’s election might look like a snooze – yes, the race for mayor is essentially uncontested – there are still three City Council races to be decided on Tuesday. 

The Nov. 2 municipal general election comes after a primary election in which just one in 10 Durham voters cast ballots. The Durham County Board of Elections reports that 6,190 voters – or, just 3.03% of registered voters – have already cast early in-person ballots in the general election as of Oct. 26.

While mayoral candidate Elaine O’Neal will likely coast to victory over Javiera Caballero, who suspended her campaign, there are three City Council seats to settle: Marion T. Johnson and incumbent DeDreana Freeman in Ward I, Sylvester Williams and incumbent Mark-Anthony Middleton in Ward II; and AJ Williams and Leonardo Williams for an open seat in Ward III. 

The races

In the race for Mayor, former judge O’Neal will appear on the ballot next to City Council member Caballero. The race, however, has been all but decided. After O’Neal won more than 68% of votes cast in the primary, Caballero announced she was suspending her campaign. 

“I congratulate Judge O’Neal on her strong performance in the primary election. I know that we share many values. She has a long record of service to the community,” Caballero said in her statement. “It is my hope and expectation that she and I will work as partners to move our city forward.”

In the Ward I race, current City Council member DeDreana Freeman is running for re-election against community organizer Marion T. Johnson. 

The two progressive candidates split several key endorsements. Freeman found support from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, the Friends of Durham PAC and INDY Week. The People’s Alliance, the Durham Association of Educators, Durham for All and Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson are backing Johnson. 

Freeman collected 69% of the votes cast in the primary, but Johnson, who received 27% of the primary votes, has continued an energetic campaign. She spoke at a candidate forum covered by The Duke Chronicle last week, and one 9th Street Journal reporter even received a voter-aimed voicemail from her campaign soliciting support. 

The Ward II race features City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton, who brought in 86% of the vote in the primary against Sylvester Williams, who received 9% of primary votes. 

Middleton is a major proponent of the Community Safety Department and has backed progressive ideas like a guaranteed basic income pilot program. Williams, a pastor and former financial analyst who ran unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2017 and 2019, also supports efforts to fight poverty and build affordable housing, but has more conservative ideas, including adding more officers to Durham’s police force. He has opposed gay marriage and expressed other homophobic ideas.

The Ward III race is a battle of people named Williams. Community organizer AJ Williams faces small business owner and former educator Leanorado Williams. With no incumbent running and no primary results to signal a frontrunner, Ward III is the race to watch. 

Current Ward III City Council member Pierce Freelon, who was appointed in 2020 and isn’t running to remain in the seat, endorsed AJ Williams, a progressive who works as director of incubation and ideation labs for Southern Vision Alliance and is a member of Durham Beyond Policing and other abolitionist organizations. 

Leonardo Williams, co-owner of the Durham restaurant Zweli’s, is chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children and an executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators. Check back with The 9th Street Journal for an in-depth profile of the Ward III race coming later this week.

How to vote

Voters can cast ballots in-person on Election Day. Polls open at 6:30 am and close at 7:30 p.m. You can find your polling place by visiting Durham County’s election website here

You can also vote in-person before Election Day at five locations across the city, including the East, North and South regional libraries, the Main Library and the NCCU Turner Law Building. Hours and addresses for the early voting sites can be found here. Early in-person voting ends on Oct. 30, and early voting sites allow same day registration. 

The deadline to request a mail-in absentee ballot has already passed. Absentee ballots received after 5 p.m. on Election Day will only be counted if they are postmarked on or before Election Day and received by mail no later than 5 p.m. on the Friday after the election. Absentee ballots can also be returned in-person at the Durham County Board of Elections office or at any early voting site. 

Correction: The story was updated to clarify that Pierce Freelon was appointed and not elected to his seat in 2020


The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check with us Election Day for updates and results. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing or

At top: Signs promoting City Council and mayoral candidates stand in downtown Durham. 9th Street photo by Josie Vonk.

GOP lawmakers’ plan to probe Durham voting machines fits anti-democratic trend, experts say

The state legislators donned flashy bow ties and ceremoniously plucked the name of one North Carolina county from a sequined, light-up, red, white, and blue party hat. 

The lucky winner would be the subject of a probe into voting machines. Experts say the proposed investigation follows a troubling national trend: discrediting the 2020 election with no evidence.

The legislators, members of the House Republicans’ Freedom Caucus, chose to focus their effort on Durham County, a donjon of Democratic voters, via “random drawing.” They hope to investigate whether modems connect state voting machines to the internet, which they say would allow votes to be remotely altered. 

The state election board is unlikely to grant the Freedom Caucus members access to the voting machines. Laws prohibit random tampering with the equipment, and the Freedom Caucus members have failed to present substantive evidence of malpractice. As election authorities and Democratic legislators condemn the Freedom Caucus’s proposed investigation, North Carolina politics experts see similarities between what’s going on here and national efforts to discredit election results. 

“They fit certainly the Trump attack on election integrity,” Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer told The 9th Street Journal. “What proof do the Republicans have that the machines were hooked up?”

Republicans likely feel pressure to prove to election-doubting Trump supporters that they are looking into alleged fraud, he added. 

John Hood, president of the John William Pope Foundation, a Raleigh-based conservative grant-making charity, echoed concerns that the proposed investigation is part of a broader movement to delegitimize elections. 

“It’s part of the national attempt by some to further the claim that the 2020 election was either stolen or rigged,” Hood said. “That claim is entirely without foundation.”

At the recent press conference, Rep. Jeff McNeely (R-Iredell) said the investigation was supported by “many, many millions of accusations… of machine tampering and votes being switched because of modems.” He threatened to use criminal charges and the General Assembly police to push the investigation, a warning WRAL reported he has since backed away from. 

After McNeely suggested he and the Freedom Caucus have a right to investigate the voting equipment, Durham Democrat Rep. Zack Hawkins took to the House floor to disagree. 

“You are not welcome in Durham County,” Hawkins said. Durham County elections director Derek Bowens and State Board of Elections director Karen Brinson Bell said they do not plan on granting the Freedom Caucus members access to Durham’s voting machines, The News & Observer reported.  

Damon Circosta, the state election board’s chair, told The 9th Street Journal that state laws passed by the now Republican-controlled General Assembly prohibit the board from complying with the Freedom Caucus’s demands. The state board already provides opportunities for the public to view voting machine certification, he added. 

“These extra processes that threaten criminal charges and use of the Capitol Police aren’t serious. If there’s a serious discussion to be had, that serious discussion needs to follow a process — a process they haven’t engaged in so far,” said Circosta, a registered Democrat appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper.

The regular inspections show that the state’s voting equipment doesn’t have modems, he said. State law prevents voting machines from being connected to the internet.

Circosta said unproven election fraud assertions help create a pretense to pass laws that prevent more people from voting.

“I believe this is a playbook for those who wish to discredit prior and, frankly, future elections,” he said. “It’s not part of our policy — nor should it be — to allow elected officials to start ad-hoc tampering with election equipment.” 

Circosta also noted that the Freedom Caucus representatives picked Durham County, one of the counties with the highest rate of participation among Black and Democratic voters, using a selection method lacking public verification: picking a scrap of paper out of a party hat.

The Durham County selection stuck out to Bitzer, too. 

“If they were going to pick one county to focus on, it would make sense to pick Durham County from a Republican point of view,” the political scientist said. 

Hood said the consequences of efforts to discredit the 2020 election have already been felt and that public opinion on the issue is hard-fixed. He shared doubts that any investigation into North Carolina’s voting equipment will follow the Freedom Caucus’s announcement. Fears about election fraud will fade over time, and discussion about it will, too, he predicted. 

Bitzer said he doesn’t know how the Freedom Caucus members could gain access to the voting equipment without bringing the Durham County Board of Elections into the Legislature for a hearing. 

The move is a dangerous part of a larger, ongoing battle between the Republican-controlled legislature and the Democrat-controlled state elections board, Bitzer said. Freedom Caucus members previously tried unsuccessfully to gain access to voting machines for inspection in July. 

“When there is no credible evidence attacking the election system, but you have such strong partisan tribalism going on, it’s a dangerous mix for the health and wellbeing of this experiment in popular democratic rule,” Bitzer said. 

Circosta said the calls for investigation come after the “most secure and most accurate election in our nation’s history.” He added there is “absolutely” no validity to the election fraud claims. 

“It’s disturbing. It’s hypocritical. And it’s fundamentally against the principles of the Constitution of the country,” Circosta said.

At the top: Jeff McNeely spoke at a Freedom Caucus press conference, where he “randomly” picked Durham County’s name for a planned voting machine investigation out of a sequined, light-up red-white-and-blue party hat. Screenshot taken from WRAL’s video stream. 

Durham elections: O’Neal, Caballero split endorsements. Who’s backing who?

The Durham mayoral race is heating up, and two candidates are emerging as front-runners after winning key endorsements. 

Former judge Elaine O’Neal has been backed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Friends of Durham, and former Mayor Bill Bell. 

City Council member Javiera Caballero has received support from Mayor Steve Schewel, the People’s Alliance, and the Durham Association of Educators. 

Durham’s political action committees (PACs) endorsed different candidates for City Council in Ward I and Ward III. The PACs act as trusted advisors for many Durham voters. Some also raise and spend money to promote candidates through ad buys, signs, and mailers.

Since 2017, the People’s Alliance PAC has spent nearly $240,000 to support chosen political candidates, according to watchdog database Transparency USA. The Durham Committee has dished out over $165,000, and Friends of Durham has expended nearly $20,000. 

Seven candidates are running for mayor, and three City Council seats are up for election. The primary election is Oct. 5. After that, the top two vote-getters in each race will face off in the Nov. 2 general election. 

The People’s Alliance

People’s Alliance PAC coordinator Milo Pyne said many members who attended a 400-person online endorsement meeting Sept. 1 wanted the organization to support O’Neal, but the group ultimately chose Caballero in part because of “continuity.” 

“We agree with a lot of what the current council has done and the initiatives they’ve taken,” Pyne told The 9th Street Journal, pointing out that Caballero would be Durham’s first Latina mayor if elected. 

The group set continuity aside in the competitive City Council Ward I race, however, endorsing community organizer Marion T. Johnson over incumbent DeDreana Freeman. Freeman received the People’s Alliance’s endorsement during her successful 2017 City Council campaign. 

“DeDreana has a good record of service, but our members just feel like it’s time for a change, and that Marion has a unique set of experiences working with the community,” Pyne said. 

The People’s Alliance also endorsed incumbent Mark-Anthony Middleton in the Ward II race, as well as community organizer AJ Williams in the Ward III race.

While major endorsements are split so far in Ward III, the two candidates — AJ Williams and entrepreneur and former Durham Public Schools teacher Leonardo Williams — won’t be squaring off in the Oct. 5 primary. Their names will appear on the ballot for the Nov. 2 general election.  

The Durham Association of Educators

The Durham Association of Educators, a local affiliate of major state and national level teachers’ unions, similarly endorsed Caballero for mayor and Johnson in Ward I. 

The association’s endorsement press release cited Caballero’s experience working with schools and uniquely specific education plans. It also praised Johnson’s “deep understanding of how white supremacy drives the educational outcome gap” and her advocacy for collective action in schools. 

The group backed AJ Williams for Ward III, but didn’t endorse a Ward II candidate after two of the three people running didn’t respond to questionnaires and interview requests. 

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People endorsed O’Neal in part because she was born and raised in the Bull City.

“She understands the history of Durham,” committee chair Antonio Jones told The 9th Street Journal. “She understands how Durham has grown. She understands who’s been left out of that growth.” 

Jones said the committee backed Freeman in Ward I because of her track record on equity and expertise in land use. 

The committee endorsed Middleton in Ward II and Leonardo Williams in Ward III.

Friends of Durham

The Friends of Durham — a bi-partisan, Durham-focused PAC made up of community members and business people — endorsed the same slate of candidates as the Durham Committee.

O’Neal’s experience sentencing and offering guidance to people who came through her courtroom qualify her for mayor, Friends of Durham Chair Alice Sharpe told The 9th Street Journal. The group endorsed Middleton for Ward II and Leonardo Williams for Ward III. 

For the contentious Ward I race, Friends of Durham is supporting Freeman.

“We think she has shown an ability to focus in on issues, and she has grown into her council position,” Sharpe said. 

Durham for All

Durham for All, a progressive group of multiracial organizers and activists, is backing Caballero for mayor. The group cited her efforts to expand access to local government by pushing for city materials to be in Spanish in its endorsement page

In Ward I, Durham for All endorsed Johnson. 

“As the current chair of the Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee, she has organized to expand democratic, grassroots decision making in Durham,” the group wrote. 

Durham for All endorsed AJ Williams for Ward III, crediting his work organizing for community-based alternatives to policing, as well as his willingness to fight for workers’ rights and against developers that contribute to gentrification. It did not make an endorsement in Ward II. 

Former Mayor Bill Bell and Mayor Steve Schewel

Durham’s two most recent mayors split their endorsements. Bill Bell, who served as mayor from 2001 to 2017, endorsed O’Neal. 

“She knows Durham and its people but, just as importantly the people of Durham also know Elaine,” he wrote in a statement posted on O’Neal’s Facebook page. 

Schewel called Caballero brave, kind, wise, whip-smart and collegial in his Facebook endorsement. 

“Her work ethic is daunting. Her care for the people of Durham is immense. Her vision for our city is radically inclusive, and she has shown that she knows how to make that vision real,” he said. 

Schewel also endorsed incumbent Middleton in the Ward II race. 

City Council member Charlie Reece told The 9th Street Journal he endorsed Javiera Caballero. 

“She is smart, she is strong, she is courageous, and she is ready to lead as mayor on day one,” he said. 

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson said she endorsed Caballero for mayor, Johnson in Ward I, and AJ Williams in Ward III, but is not making an endorsement in Ward II. Current Ward III City Council member Pierce Freelon endorsed AJ Williams in the Ward III race . 


For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for candidates profiles, campaign coverage, and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing or

At the top: A sign encourages Durhamites to vote in the 2019 city election. 9th Street Journal photo by Cameron Beach. 

This story was updated to include Durham for All’s endorsements.

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

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