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Hoover Road residents want rats cleared from where children play

Residents at Hoover Road public housing knew much-needed repairs to their roofs would begin in June. 

But they didn’t expect the project, not yet finished, would bring rats to the space where children play near their front porches.

Since July, Hoover Road residents have been grappling with an outdoor rodent infestation under a storage trailer and a makeshift dumpster. The containers, full of materials and bags of waste from the renovations, were placed in the middle of a grassy corridor between two apartment buildings where multiple families with young children live.

Community activists and residents want Durham Housing Authority, which runs Hoover Road and other public housing complexes, to fix this problem. They want the trailer and a growing rodent colony underneath removed.

The container sits in the middle of a narrow space where children play between two rows of apartments. Photo by Henry Haggart

In a brief phone conversation Friday morning within earshot of a 9th Street reporter, Emanuel Foster, DHA’s director of housing operations, reassured community organizer Ajax Woolley that the agency was aware of the problem. He said the roofing contractor would be moving the trailer, which workers were still opening and taking materials out of on Friday, and the agency would retain another company to fill in the rodent burrows.

When pressed on if it would happen soon, Foster wouldn’t say. “I can’t give a timeline,” he said.

He promised to update Woolley, part of a team of activists working on housing issues at Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods, a community group, by noon Friday. Woolley at 5 p.m. said that he has not yet heard back from Foster and that he plans to raise the matter with the joint city-county Environmental Affairs Board and City Council members.

Some Hoover Road residents say their complaints have long been brushed aside.

Shaneeka Marrow, who has lived at Hoover Road since 2015, said that maintenance workers first alerted Cheryle Roberts, a long-time DHA employee who is property manager for multiple complexes including Hoover Road, to the rodent infestation in mid-July.

Marrow, whose front porch is a few feet from the trailer, said DHA employees told her in July that they would handle the situation when they could.

“They’re not doing their job,” Marrow said. She described a host of long-standing complaints, including black mold in bathrooms, possible lead exposure, insects in her home, and a screen door that has been falling off its hinges for three years.

Residents say rats dug holes, including this one, beneath the structure stored outside apartments at the Hoover Road public housing community. Photo by Henry Haggart

Multiple calls and emails to Durham Housing Authority and its CEO, Anthony Scott, went unanswered on Friday. A prerecorded message informed callers to the Hoover Road property manager’s office that only emergency maintenance requests would be considered at this time. The voicemail inbox was full. 

Hoover Road is one of Durham’s oldest public housing complexes, built in 1968. After hundreds of people living at McDougald Terrace, another DHA property, were evacuated last year due to unsafe conditions there, city officials blamed inadequate federal funding.

But housing authorities elsewhere in North Carolina manage to keep their properties in better shape than Durham does in the same tough funding environment.

Public housing in Durham has failed significantly more federal Housing and Urban Development inspections than has public housing in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greensboro.

In 2019, Hoover Road was the only DHA complex to score lower than McDougald Terrace in the annual HUD public housing inspection. This year, Hoover Road was rated 60 out of 100, the lowest passing score.

Marrow said she would like to allow her four children living with her at Hoover Road, ages 5 to 15, to play outside more often. But she’s worried for their safety. “I’m not letting them anywhere near the rats,” she said.

Sasha Pass, Marrow’s next-door neighbor, said some residents have largely given up voicing concerns. “A lot of us speak up, and it feels like we’re wasting our breath,” said Pass, who lives with seven children, ages 1 to 11. “Why do I say anything when nobody does anything?”

Pass said Scott, the DHA CEO, visited her apartment last year and she showed him mold and other problems, which she said have not been fixed.

Pass said the problems families and children face in public housing are far greater than rats or even deteriorating homes. She said the threat of violence from outsiders who gather at Hoover Road to sell drugs, as well as a lack of safe outdoor activities, create an environment where she feels she has to forbid her kids from playing outside at all.

“What are they gonna do?” she said, gesturing at a tiny playground at the end of the path. “It’s hard to accept that this is where you and your kids have got to be for a while until things get better,” she added, cradling her youngest son as her children ran across the patchy grass.

9th Street Journal reporter Charlie Zong can be reached at

At top: Children who live at in the Hoover Road community play near a storage container sitting outside apartments. Photo by Henry Haggart

Correction: This article was corrected to note that Sasha Pass lives with seven children, ages 1 to 11.

Another COVID death linked to Durham County jail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at

Renovated Durham main library closer to reopening, but no date set yet

After more than three years of renovations, Durham Main Library was slated to reopen in April. 

But the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in those plans, and now a library official says it’s still uncertain when the library will be open to the public again.

Library director Tammy Baggett said construction is complete. However, not all of the library’s technology was connected before the malware attack in March affected Durham city and county operations just as COVID-19 spread in the U.S. The library still needs to set up computers and other equipment in accordance with social distancing guidelines, she added.

This renovation has been years in the making, and many people are anxiously awaiting for the doors to open. Though she does not directly work on any library boards, Durham Board of County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs said it is vital the library reopens by the time schools start up virtually in August and resume in-person classes in October.

“The libraries are going to be very important resources for our families, for students and families to study and work,” she said. “The Main Library, all the libraries, will be a very big part of prioritizing our kids and education.”

Baggett wouldn’t release any specific details about reopening plans, but said she is eager for it to happen — with social distancing rules in place, of course. 

“Once we get to a point of opening, it will be with what is always done,” Baggett said. “Anyone is allowed in the library. We are the great equalizer. Everyone is always available through our doors.”

Libraries are hubs for the Durham community. They bring in thousands of people every day, including those seeking books, internet access and shelter.

People drop off books at a Durham library. Photo by Henry Haggart

According to the library system website, 15% of Durham households do not have access to the internet and under 40% have access to a broadband connection. Just over a quarter of library computer users have searched for, applied for or secured a job using library resources.  

Durham libraries are also some of the few places in the city that offer programs and resources to community members free of charge. For those experiencing homelessness, libraries can be a place of refuge during extreme weather events or during the day when they need bathrooms or computers. 

According to Durham County’s website, the original building was too small to accommodate the city’s growing population and technological needs. In November 2016, a bond referendum passed to fund a major expansion and renovation of the 40-year old library, and it closed two months later. The renovated building — which cost the city $44 million — is nearly 20,000 square feet larger

Baggett said work is still ongoing throughout the county’s libraries to get them ready for visitors. County libraries are closed to the public except for book pick-ups, but offer many free online services like virtual story readings, book clubs, and games over Zoom. 

For now, employees are answering patron questions through an online service called LibChat and members can check out items like books and DVDs without going inside.  

Durham Main Library is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for book drop-offs Monday through Friday. Baggett said all books are placed into 72-hour quarantine when returned and then individually cleaned. 

“We are just making sure when we do open, the environment is as safe as possible, for community and staff,” Baggett said. “Safety is priority one.”

9th Street Journal Reporter Veronica Niamba can be reached at

Top photo: Durham library signs during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Henry Haggart. 

Battling barriers to protect Latinx residents from COVID-19

This summer, a Latinx family welcomed a newborn in the midst of a pandemic. As the baby girl lay in the nursery of Duke Regional Hospital, mother and father shared worries with Dr. Rushina Cholera, a pediatrician-epidemiologist.

Because the father works in construction — an industry with some of the highest rates of COVID-19 among Latinx men — they feared for the family’s health. 

The father said he wears a mask every day, but Cholera soon realized he did not know he was at risk because his coworkers do not.

“Wearing a mask protects the people around you,” she said. “You are not protected from getting it from them.”

More than four months into the coronavirus outbreak in Durham County, members of the Latinx community still don’t have all the information they need to protect themselves and their families. 

“We missed the boat on that early on,” Cholera said.

At highest risk

Latinx residents are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Despite representing only 14% of Durham County’s population, they make up 61% of reported cases in Durham. Statewide, Latinx people are 10% of the population and 42% of confirmed cases.

Doctors, community advocates and experts say there are still many misconceptions about the spread of COVID-19 in Latinx communities, as well as a lack of testing. That’s because people have not always received Spanish-language and culturally relevant messaging about the virus, they say. 

“There has to be factual, culturally appropriate messaging in Spanish,” said Cholera, who is in the National Clinician Scholars Program, a training program for clinicians working to address health disparities. 

Latinx residents are also vulnerable because they make up a large portion of essential workers in Durham. They often don’t receive paid-sick leave, and they can be wary of accepting government help when they aren’t yet citizens.

“Public services for safety net programs can essentially be used against you or your family members in immigration proceedings,” said Cholera, referring to immigration regulations. “Folks are nervous about seeking testing. They’re nervous about seeking care, because they’re worried that may lead to immigration enforcement, family separation or deportation.” 

In Durham there is now a more concerted effort to address this disparity through targeted testing and communication about immigration policies that may be preventing Latinx residents — especially those who are undocumented — from seeking care. But there is much to overcome. 

Addressing fears, misinformation 

In March, doctors Viviana Martinez-Bianchi and Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti, who are Latinx, started Latin-19 in Durham with a dozen people to address the disproportionate rate of COVID-19 among the Latinx community.

They now have 140 members, including volunteer doctors, professors of medicine, deans, lawyers, social health workers and community members, said Martinez-Bianchi, a Duke-based family medicine doctor and advisor to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

A patient held an umbrella for Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi while she administered a coronavirus test last Thursday. Martinez-Bianchi is a founder of Latin-19, a group responding to the high rate of COVID-19 among Durham’s Latinx residents. Photo by Henry Haggart

Along with local government officials, they are trying to educate Latinx residents about misconceptions regarding regulations that affect immigration decisions, such as Public Charge, associated with COVID-19. There is a need to ensure that “real information” is presented to the community, according to Martinez-Bianchi. 

Fearful of being deported or that accessing care will affect their likelihood of being granted permanent resident status, many Latinx residents in Durham are hesitant to get tested and give information to contact tracers, said Martinez-Bianchi.

The Trump administration has promoted hostile rhetoric against undocumented immigrants and expanded  restrictive immigration policies. Under the Obama administration, interior removals focused on people who posed a threat to national security and individuals with serious criminal convictions. Trump overturned these priorities by executive order and instituted policy that now targets any undocumented immigrant, regardless of social, economic or family ties to the U.S.

In February, the Trump administration expanded the federal public charge rule to consider an applicant’s receipt of federally funded benefits like Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and housing subsidies in determining whether to grant a green card. That has made people without legal immigration status more reluctant than ever to accept government services, said Cholera.

In March, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stated that it will not count COVID-19 testing, treatment or preventative care against immigrants seeking legal status.

“Number one, having to go to the hospital is not going to cost your citizenship,” Martinez-Bianchi said.

But too few people know that.  

Sharing expertise

Lawyers with Latin-19 are working to quell concerns about accepting care and resources. Doctors assure patients that they can go to the hospital without it being counted as a public charge. Community members translate important pandemic safety messages like the three Ws — wear a mask, wait six feet apart, and wash your hands — for public service announcements, videos and posters. 

Another issue is pandemic-related financial support that some immigrant families can’t access, including government stimulus checks under the CARES Act passed by the federal government on March 27. 

Those without a social security number are ineligible for money from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund. Mixed-status families, where one member is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and another is not but pays taxes with an individual tax identification number to the IRS, are also prohibited from receiving money.

“Immigrant families were put in a position where they were extremely economically dependent on keeping jobs throughout this, and were not able to pay for basic needs like food and housing without a stimulus check,” said Cholera. 

Latinx flea market vendors protested downtown Friday after Durham planning department staff threatened food truck operators and others with fines and law enforcement for setting up a market on state-owned land. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Valladares

Latinx vendors recently protested their treatment at a local flea market, where some make income they depend on during the pandemic, said Italo Medelius, vice chair of the Durham Mayor’s Hispanic-Latino Committee. They alleged that City-County Planning Department staff threatened them with fines and law enforcement for doing business on a lot owned by the state Department of Transportation.

The City-County Planning Department issued a statement Friday saying the staff followed departmental procedures, but the situation could have been handled differently. Department members have offered to help find alternative locations for the vendors.

Making testing more accessible  

Commercial and hospital testing sites, in red, are mainly on the west side of Durham County. But Latinx residents are more likely to live on the east side, says Italo Medelius, vice chair of the Durham Mayor’s Hispanic-Latino Committee. Map by Bella Caracta with data from Durham County Department of Public Health

According to the Durham County Department of Public Health statistics,  the two zip codes in the county with the highest COVID-19 rates are 27704 and 27703 on the east side, with infection rates of 28.25 and 18.61 per 1000 persons respectively. These areas are where many Latinx residents live, according to Martinez-Bianchi. 

“Testing is a problem, especially when it is not present where the most vulnerable communities live,” Martinez-Bianchi said. 

Director Rodney Jenkins of the Department of Public Health said otherwise in his update about testing in Durham during the Recovery and Renewal Task Force meeting on July 17. 

“Durham continues to do a very good job with our testing,” said Jenkins, referring to the number of tests administered. 

The number of tests in Durham County is not the problem. It’s where testing sites are located, said Martinez-Bianchi.

On July 11, the county did set up a new three-day testing site in zip code 27703, located in the parking lot of Holton Wellness Center on North Driver Street.

Staff and volunteers there try to test from 50-75 people, by appointment only on Saturday from 9 am to 11:30 and on Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 to 7:30 pm to accommodate people who work, especially construction workers, Jenkins told the Recovery and Renewal Task Force on July 17. 

People seeking testing are given educational materials, in Spanish where needed, and enough food to support a family of four for about two weeks in case they test positive and must quarantine themselves, according to Jenkins. Jenkins also reported that the site had about a 50% success rate for testing on July 11, meaning nearly half the tests taken that day returned positive.

People getting coronavirus tests outside Holton Wellness Center last week received food too, in case they needed to remain home to reduce spread of the virus. Photo by Henry Haggart

Martinez-Bianchi said she would like to see mobile testing in Durham that targets neighborhoods with rising COVID-19 diagnoses, specifically in the Latinx community. That is happening in Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte, she said.

Jenkins said his department’s current plan is to replace testing at the Holton parking lot with testing at El Centro Hispano, a non-profit that supports the local Latinx community.

Spanish-language messaging 

At the beginning of the pandemic, none of the messaging from the local government was in Spanish, said Martinez-Bianchi.

In addition to inaccessible messaging, it was also not culturally appropriate, Cholera and Martinez-Bianchi said. 

Many Latinx households are multi-generational, with more than five people living in the home, Cholera said. Much of the guidance for social distancing was “not practical and not specific” to how these households should protect themselves and each other, she said.

“Togetherness is usually a big part of the resilience of the community. And in this case, it has actually acted against them. Because the virus loves that kind of environment,” said Martinez-Bianchi. 

Martinez-Bianchi also highlighted the lack of public and private resources to help people once a family member tests positive to move out of residences housing multiple generations. 

There has been hope that the state or organizations would fund hotel rooms to quarantine individuals who live in small homes with multiple people, said Cholera, though this program is not yet instituted in Durham County.

Some local organizations like the Immigrant Solidarity Fund and El Centro Hispano work to financially support immigrants regardless of documentation.

These advocacy groups cannot guarantee that ICE won’t seek information about undocumented residents from all who are trying to help them, said Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president of El Centro Hispano, in the Recovery and Renewal Task Force meeting on July 17. 

As officials continue to work on accessible testing, Martinez-Bianchi said it’s also important to give people peace of mind. 

“What has to be promised is that data is not going to be shared with those who can damage this community,” said Martinez-Bianchi.

9th Street Journal reporter Bella Caracta can be reached at

At top: Dr. Alex Cho administers a coronavirus test during a thunderstorm on Thursday outside Holton Wellness Center in Durham. Photo by Henry Haggart

Durham launches new mask campaign supporting local businesses

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, masks of many colors, patterns and materials have become ubiquitous — or at least, they’re supposed to be. 

In April, Mayor Steve Schewel mandated masks in public, making Durham the first city in North Carolina to do so. In early July, the city required all businesses to post signage telling their customers to wear masks in an effort to slow the rise of COVID-19 cases. 

Now, the city and county have jointly launched a campaign in an effort to promote local businesses and unify the city around wearing masks to protect each other, called Durham Has You Covered.

“Durham Has You Covered is one part of a larger strategy for helping residents comply with local face covering orders,” said Ryan Smith, Innovation Team Project manager for the city and a member of the Recovery and Renewal Task Force. “We want to make it easier for residents and small businesses to find face coverings and at the same time we also want to support our local producers.”

Smith added that there is a certain level of accountability and heightened quality of products when people are able to buy local. 

The city and county are working with Cover Durham, a community health coalition, on the campaign. The initiative provides the latest federal and state recommendations on personal protective equipment and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Durham Has You Covered also provides contact information for 20 local mask suppliers, in order to help support businesses that may be struggling during the pandemic. 

Megan Eilenberger is one of those business owners. She enjoys sewing in her free time, and, like many others, began making masks for friends and family in March once the pandemic started getting worse. 

“We experienced job loss in our family due to COVID,” she said. “In order to somewhat replace some of that income, I started to charge.”

Megan Eilenberger is selling her homemade masks through Durham’s new campaign. Photo courtesy Megan Eilenberger

Eilenberger said she has already sold around 400 colorful, custom masks for $8 each and donated 50 others. She is hopeful this campaign will boost her business. 

Other companies in Durham have pivoted to making masks. Talib Graves-Manns’ luggage manufacturing company, Life on Autopilot, started losing business because of the pandemic.

“We’re not selling much luggage,” he said. “So we repurposed our sewers to do masks.”

He said they manufacture around 5,000 masks a week, which are being sold in bulk to medical suppliers and bodegas in Durham. He hopes to get a larger deal with the city to grow this new business, called the Masked Buddha. 

Another supplier is Ngozi Design, a 10-year-old African-inspired clothing and graphic design company run by Andrea Carter. Ngozi has sold over 3,000 custom face coverings in 23 states since the start of the pandemic. Although it’s too early to tell how Durham’s campaign has impacted her sales, she attributes her success to word-of-mouth, her website and this new initiative. Her team “can’t make them fast enough,” she said.

“I’m always encouraged that I can do something to help,” she added. “I’m just grateful that I can make the masks, and hopefully they help men, women and children.”

Some of Andrea Carter’s mask designs. Photo courtesy Andrea Carter

Smith, from the city, said the campaign has emphasized businesses owned by people of color. “I think that it is putting our equity values into action and into practice to lift those historically marginalized businesses up, and we feel that that is always important,” he said. 

The new campaign is one of many strategies the city is using to ensure residents and city staff stay safe during the pandemic. 

In conjunction with mandates, the city is printing posters in Spanish and English and distributing them to local businesses, along with mask sets that they can hand out to customers.

The city, county and Durham Public Schools have contributed $67,000 to Cover Durham to purchase and distribute about 4,000 masks. Duke University also matched that donation in mid-July, and the city hopes to use it to purchase additional masks in the next few weeks, said Smith. 

Eilenberger said initiatives like this have made her proud to be a Durhamite. 

“I see people who post outside of Durham in neighboring counties who complain about residents not wearing masks and I can always comment on social media and say, ‘well, you’re clearly not living in Durham because that’s not the case here,” she said.

If you’re in need of a mask, you can order through the Durham Has You Covered website. Local businesses or individuals interested in donating masks can contact The Scrap Exchange.

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at

Top photo: Andrea Carter, who runs mask supplier Ngozi Designs. Photo courtesy Andrea Carter

Mother, granddaughter and daughter left in the dark after COVID-19 hit nursing homes

Before the federal government banned most visitors from nursing homes on March 13, Sally Palmer and her daughter spent many hours by her disabled son’s side at Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. 

Once shut out, Palmer struggled to maintain contact with staff, a frightening time since she intended to remove her immunocompromised son if coronavirus reached the facility.

The virus did strike, but Palmer did not know until after her son was rushed to the hospital following seizures that two doctors later told her were likely linked to COVID-19 illness, she said.

Justin ended up on a ventilator at Duke Hospital for 11 days.  

Nursing homes have been the epicenter of Durham County’s lethal COVID-19 cases. Deaths at three facilities account for almost 72% of the 68 COVID-19 fatalities in Durham County to date. Statewide COVID-19 cases linked to nursing homes account for 46.3% of deaths.

That tragic statistic doesn’t convey all the suffering related to the outbreaks.

The 9th Street Journal talked to three women — a mother, a granddaughter, and a daughter — who said they were cut off from loved ones in Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation and Treyburn Rehabilitation Center after COVID-19 first struck these facilities.


Palmer’s 39-year-old son, Justin, is blind, immunocompromised and has cognitive impairments from a traumatic brain injury.

Palmer was ready to pull Justin from Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation if the coronavirus struck there because she was dissatisfied with his care before the pandemic, she said. Due to his medical conditions, he chokes very easily if he is not monitored during meals.

“He started being taken to the hospital every three weeks or so because no one was able to watch him,” said Palmer.

Immediately following the ban on visitors, Palmer and her daughter, Brooke, called the facility every day to check whether there were any signs that coronavirus had reached the home. In the week prior to Justin’s hospitalization, Palmer called four times to ask an administrator and nurses if there were any signs the virus was present. Both times employees told her all was well, she said. 

On April 9, Justin was rushed to Duke Hospital after suffering four seizures in 24 hours, his mother said. Five days later, Durham County Public Health Department reported 54 positive coronavirus cases at Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation.

A few days after Justin was admitted, he seemed to be improving despite testing positive for COVID-19. But then he started to struggle to breathe and was put on a ventilator for 11 days, his mother said. Two doctors told Palmer his seizures were a side effect of COVID-19, the coronavirus illness, she said.

“He couldn’t breathe on his own for a while and there were days there where I thought he wasn’t gonna make it but he did. He did, he did, he did,” she said.

Michelle Baldwin, the executive director of Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation, declined to comment about Palmer’s recounting of events when reached by phone. Maximus Healthcare Group, the owners of Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation, did not respond to multiple requests for comment by phone and email. 

As of July 10, 17 deaths and 111 coronavirus infections have been reported at Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation, which is licensed to 126 beds, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. The facility was taken off the list of ongoing outbreaks on June 30.

Justin did not return to Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation. After his hospitalization, he stayed with his sister until they found a new facility home for him, a specialized home for patients with traumatic brain injuries in Johnston County, about 60 miles from Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation. For now, he’s at his sister’s home. 


In mid March, Kayla Driver’s grandmother, Mary, checked into Treyburn Rehabilitation Center for what was supposed to be two weeks of physical and occupational therapy. One day, therapists stopped coming to her room, which she was not allowed to leave, her granddaughter said. Neither woman was told why, Driver told 9th Street.

Source: North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Graphic by Victoria Eavis

After the granddaughter called asking about coronavirus, her grandmother asked a staff member if the virus was in the facility. She was told people who tested positive were in rooms on a different hall, Driver said. 

Her expected two-week stay turned into three and a half weeks. “She was upset because she had wanted to come home and they weren’t helping her get where she needed to be,” said Driver.

Luckily, Driver’s grandmother left on April 10 without contracting the virus, just four days before Durham County reported Treyburn’s first four cases. 

Treyburn Rehabilitation Center reported 105 cases and 22 deaths at its 132 bed facility as of July 10, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Treyburn’s cases continued to rise this week: The number of resident cases increased by four from a July 7 state update. 

Since the start of the outbreak, staff at Treyburn took pains to keep residents informed about the ways coronavirus was changing operations inside the facility, said Susan Kaar, vice president of compliance and quality management at Southern Healthcare Management, which manages Treyburn. 

The facility was split up into three sections. They included an observation unit where new patients and suspected cases stay for two weeks in single rooms, a COVID-19 unit where people with confirmed infections  also stay in single rooms, and the rest of the residents, Kaar said. 

Staff are assigned to one wing only “so you don’t have staff going from one section of a building to another section of a building,” Karr said.


Rodney Lowe did not survive COVID-19 after the coronavirus reached Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

Lowe, 64, has been a resident of Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation since August 2017, following a stroke in which he lost mobility in his right side and the ability to speak well.

Lowe was one of the 54 people at Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation whose positive coronavirus test results were announced by Durham County on April 14, according to Lowe’s daughter, Wendy Lowe Bouda. But Lowe Bouda did not know, she said, until 10 days later when a staff member, she said, called to say he had a fever and was dehydrated. 

On April 24, Lowe Bouda, a pediatric nurse who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, called and asked a facility employee whether her father had the new coronavirus, she said. The staff member said she knew nothing about that, according to Lowe Bouda. At this point, Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation had reported 111 cases of coronavirus, according to Durham County.

A few hours later, a facility nurse practitioner called Lowe Bouda, she said, and said her father had tested positive for COVID-19. In fact, Lowe Bouda said, her father was among the 54 people from the facility who the county reported had tested positive on April 14.

Two days after Rodney’s family found out he was infected, he died at Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. 

“I could have made my dad more comfortable sooner if I had known it was not just a dehydration issue and it was COVID,” she said.

Lowe Bouda later learned from the family of her late father’s roommate at the facility that the roommate died of COVID-19 too, the day before Lowe Boutda was notified that her father tested positive with the virus.

9th Street asked to speak with Baldwin, the Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation executive director, about Rodney Lowe specifically when reaching out by phone and email. But Baldwin did not respond. 

Losing contact

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) did not direct nursing homes to report coronavirus cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, residents or families until May 6, 68 days after the first major nursing home outbreak occurred in the was confirmed inside a U.S. nursing home. 

In a memo that went into effect on May 6, the federal agency officially started requiring the facilities to report cases to the  Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and family members, in addition to the state and local health departments these facilities were already required to report to.

The memo noted that CMS did “not expect facilities to make individual telephone calls to each resident’s family or responsible party to inform them that a resident in the facility has laboratory-confirmed COVID-19.” It also stated: “However, we expect facilities to take reasonable efforts to make it easy for residents, their representatives, and families to obtain the information facilities are required to provide.” 

Not all long term health care facilities in Durham County have had coronavirus outbreaks, according to county records. Since the virus struck Durham, five out of 10 Medicare and Medicaid-certified homes here have reported them. Two had only one death between them. 

Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation and Treyburn, were the only homes among the five with outbreaks to receive the lowest possible ranking of  l out of five stars, during recent inspections by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services inspections, in June of 2019 and February 2020.

Treyburn has followed all federal guidance on required disclosures, including complying with the within-a-calendar-day deadline for disclosing to family members after a single virus infection was confirmed or three or more residents or staff developed respiratory symptoms within the same 72 hours, said Kaar, the Southern Healthcare Management vice president.

Changes in normal programming made within facilities to prevent or reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus must be disclosed to patients too, she said.

Being disconnected from family during a COVID-19 outbreak can have serious consequences for vulnerable residents in any long term care facility, said Lynn Friss Feinberg, a senior strategic policy advisor at AARP, the national nonprofit that advocates for older Americans.

She and a colleague published an article in the “Journal of Aging and Social Policy” in April noting how family members give the most practical support to older adults with serious health conditions.

“Family members of people living in nursing cares provide vital support for their loved ones in these nursing homes, ” Feinberg told 9th Street. “They’re really the eyes and ears of the comfort and safety of their loved ones.”

9th Street Journal reporter Victoria Eavis can be reached at

At top: The late Rodney Lowe,  a former Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation resident who died from COVID-19. Photo used with permission from Wendy Lowe Bouda

Contact tracers fight the pandemic, one phone call at a time

When someone is sick with COVID-19 or suspects they may be, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says they should isolate themselves in a single room at home. One Durham parent took it a step further.

Worried about infecting children under the same roof, the parent moved into a car parked outside, despite the North Carolina summer heat. The kids delivered food and drinks there.

Katy Roys knows this because she is a contact tracer, a public health worker who finds and coaches people at risk of spreading the coronavirus. This time-tested outreach helped reduce deaths during the HIV/AIDs outbreak in the 1980s, SARS in 2003, swine flu in 2009 and now COVID-19.

Here in Durham and around the world, tracers have front-row seats to ways the new coronavirus disrupts lives. 

“You can read everything about coronavirus in the newspaper and reports, and it’s another thing to call people yourself and see how they’re doing,” said Edwin Lee, who like Roys became a county contact tracer while training to be a physician assistant at Duke University.

A dangerous illness

During Lee’s first week tracing in May, he called a Hispanic man who had recently tested positive for the virus. Like Lee, the man was in his twenties. “I feel horrendous,” was the first thing he said.   

On paper, the young man had no known chronic illnesses. During an interview the day before with another contact tracer, he reported a fever, cough and slight chest pain.

But on the phone with Lee and a Spanish interpreter, the man was struggling to speak, pausing mid sentence to catch his breath. In response to Lee’s scripted questions, he said he had significant chest pain, chills and fevers. 

“Hearing his voice and how sick he sounded, I just told him to hang up and call 911,” Lee said. 

It was only his second or third day on the job and Lee wondered whether he overreacted. When he asked a nurse on the county health department staff, she was more concerned with whether the man called 911. 

Contact tracers have observed that some Hispanic residents can be reluctant to do so, Lee said, even though new cases of the coronavirus recently were mostly detected among Latinx people in Durham County.

“If he didn’t call 911, this was certainly a person that we would have sent someone to do a welfare check on. But thankfully, he did,” said Lee, adding the man was admitted to the hospital.

Public health detectives

The county Health Department uses social media to brief residents on differences between contact tracers and phone scammers. This lesson was posted on Twitter.

On the the third floor of the Durham County Human Services Building downtown, tracers each day check a whiteboard for their duties, grab case files from a basket and get to work making calls, the students said.

Some on the job have medical backgrounds, some are health department employees pulled from jobs with lower demand during the pandemic, including restaurant inspectors.

Much like detective work, contact tracing requires creativity to fill in gaps. When Lee pulled a file that described a woman who fainted at a local business while trying to pay a bill, he had to figure out who else she may have exposed. 

“We had to make a lot of phone calls,” said Lee.

The first obstacle was finding the store’s telephone number. Despite having a physical location, the business did not have a listed phone number. So Lee dialed a restaurant in the same shopping plaza. 

A hostess answered but declined to walk only several yards to tell the store manager that the health department was trying to get in touch. When he called a nearby retail store, a helpful employee agreed to deliver the message.

But even after connecting, the situation was murky.

The first employee Lee spoke to said employees weren’t adhering to social distancing protocols that day, a payday, because it was busy. That suggested several people might have been nearby when the women dropped to the ground. Then a manager said the store was adhering to social distancing protocols and there were at most two or three customers in the store.

After six to seven hours and over a dozen calls, including four to the same person, Lee and coworkers determined none of the customers required their help. All of them, including the woman who fainted, were wearing surgical-grade masks, they learned. 

To protect people’s confidentiality, tracers do not publicly disclose names or any information that could identify individuals they work with. Contact tracing can get personal quickly.

Roys recently opened a case whose file listed an adult patient’s parent as a designated contact. When Roys called the parent, she learned patient and parent no longer lived together and no longer spoke. Still, the worried parent asked to be updated on the patient’s status.

When Roys reached the patient, she mentioned the parent’s concern. The patient told her not to talk to that parent again. 

“At the end of the day, if the patient says they don’t want us to contact their parents anymore, we don’t. We can’t,”  she said.

An expanding need

Local health departments collaborate with the state Department of Health and Human Services with contact tracing. More than 1,500 full-time and part-time staff support contact tracing efforts at the local level across North Carolina, 398 of which are contact tracers hired through Community Care of North Carolina, according to Kelly Haight Connor, communications manager at DHHS.

“As cases continue to increase we know we need more and continue to ramp up hiring,” she said in an email. 

Roys and Lee entered contract tracing after enrolling in a Community Health course created by Quincy Jones, an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. The Duke class is a service-learning elective that allows students to help with the COVID-19 response in Durham County. 

Had the pandemic not happened, Roys and Lee would have likely learned about this work through textbooks and in the classroom. Now they see the importance of what the health department and contact tracers do in a public health crisis, they said.

“They play a huge role in the control of communicable diseases and outbreaks like COVID, and their work is essential in guiding a safe transition into normal operations,” Lee wrote in a reflection assigned by Jones, his instructor.

And it’s likely they will be needed for the foreseeable future.

“I think it’s even more important now that things are opening up, that contact tracing is happening. Because there’s going to be a lot more exposures,” Roys said.

9th Street Journal reporter Bella Caracta can be reached at

At top: Katy Roys and Edwin Lee outside the downtown Durham County Human Services Building. Photo by Henry Haggart

Durham officials say they prioritize recycling amid budget shortfalls, pandemic

Since China banned imports of most plastics and other recycled materials from the U.S. in 2018, cities and towns have been scrambling to figure out how to process a massive amount of recyclables — and it’s costing them a lot of money. 

In North Carolina, cities like Lincolnton, Greensboro and Pinebluff have discontinued or limited their curbside recycling programs due to cost or contamination from food waste or trash. While Durham has lost money due to the ban, the city hasn’t changed what material it accepts or limited pick-ups and has weathered the changes relatively well. 

Recyclables are still picked up from residential curbsides, sorted, packaged and transported to Raleigh, where Sonoco Recycling — the company the city contracts with — processes and sells the materials to places like steel mills and glass processors.

Recently, though, the coronavirus pandemic has strained Durham’s recycling system even more. Sonoco’s operations have slowed, and the city’s recycling budgets have taken a hit. 

Despite the challenges, and the expectations that next year could cost the city more money, Durham still plans to invest in its recycling program to keep it afloat. City officials say they’re also interested in more programs to reduce waste in general. 

“We want to encourage residents to be environmentally responsible,” said Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson.

Industry ebbs and flows 

Durham picks up an average of 1,450 tons of recycled items from curbsides each month. The recycling industry has its ups and downs every few years depending on who buys the materials, according to Wayne Fenton, assistant director of solid waste operations for the city of Durham.

In 2019, Johnson told 9th Street Journal that the city was able to foot the cost of recycling because of millions of dollars in budget surpluses from property taxes and tourism increases. “There’s definitely some wiggle room in the budget,” she said at the time. 

Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, tourism and sales taxes decreased and that wiggle room was lost. 

“We are anticipating revenue shortfalls now, due to COVID,” Johnson said in June. 

Durham has seen a net expense of about $472,000 from recycling so far this fiscal year — a loss that officials expect to worsen because China’s scrap import ban is expected to go into full effect by the end of 2020

Net revenues and losses from recycling in Durham. Image courtesy Jim Reingruber

Brian Risinger, director of corporate communications and investor relations at Sonoco, said that while Sonoco Recycling and Durham were losing money from recycling services before the pandemic, it has stressed the market even more.

“The business model across the United States has been built around selling collected material into some kind of aftermarket, with the idea that if the material was in demand and commanded a certain value it would offset the cost for municipalities to run recycling programs and cover the costs of operations for companies like Sonoco,” he said in an email. “Now you add COVID-19 into the mix.” 

Recyclables can be a form of profit for the city, depending on demand for certain materials like glass or plastic.

For instance, Jim Reingruber, assistant director for the budgeting side of Durham solid waste management, said the value of some materials has improved during the pandemic. Since people are ordering more deliveries instead of going out, cardboard has “really seen a big increase in value,” he said.

The National Waste and Recycling Association has stated that as waste piles up, recycled materials will need to be diverted into landfills. But Durham officials don’t want that to happen. Fenton said the city is incentivized to keep recycling because Durham pays $42.50 for every ton of trash thrown in the landfill. 

“I always remind everybody that we lose money when we put trash in the ground,” Fenton said. “So when it goes to the landfill, that’s not free.” 

The values by recycled material type. (OCC is Old Corrugated Containers, or cardboard). Image courtesy Jim Reingruber

Protecting sanitation workers

While their overall operations haven’t changed much during the pandemic, parts of Durham’s recycling system have felt the effects. The city and Sonoco say they are trying to keep workers safe. Sanitation workers are essential frontline workers during the pandemic and at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.  

Fenton said he is not aware of any reported COVID-19 cases within the curbside pick up crews in Durham. However, it has been an issue in the state: The NC Public Service Workers Union said in March that union members were concerned for their safety and health after a Raleigh sanitation worker died from complications related to COVID-19.

The city has taken some precautions, including restricting the size of materials picked up curbside to limit the number of sanitation workers in a truck at once. They’ve also limited the number of vehicles out collecting at a time and have provided masks and gloves to all employees, Fenton said. 

Risinger said that Sonoco has dedicated a significant amount of time, communication and training to employees to ensure hand washing, social distancing and consistent use of personal protective equipment. 

“Very early on as a company we adopted CDC and World Health Organization guidelines with respect to worker safety and operations across our entire global organization,” Risinger said. 

A waste-free vision for the future

Even with some economic losses for the city, Johnson said that “moving away from funding recycling services would be the wrong choice environmentally.” 

But she is open to supporting circular economy projects, which include reusable to-go containers or the redistribution of recyclable materials directly back to retailers. Johnson highlighted one pilot project, The ReCirculation Project with nonprofit Don’t Waste Durham, which, according to its website, hopes to prove “that an entirely new kind of recycling is possible” by running a system that sanitizes recyclable materials and reuses them as they are, rather than running them through a processing plant to repurpose them. 

The organization has also been working with restaurants and Durham schools to push “Green to Go” container systems that reduce waste by encouraging people to use plastic to-go containers when dining out. Duke University officially rolled out a similar program last year. 

Johnson noted that the next step would be additional research to figure out how something like this could be scaled city-wide. She also reiterated that the city plans to prioritize recycling for the foreseeable future.  

“I would say there are opportunities to look at circular economy initiatives that might help save some  money and some recyclables from going into the waste stream,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that will cancel our recycling program; I think that there would be a lot of other things on the chopping block before we get to that point.”

Top photo: A recycling bin in downtown Durham. Photo by Henry Haggart. 

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at 

77% of new Durham County COVID-19 cases are in Latinx community

Despite making up just 14% of Durham County’s population, over three-quarters of reported COVID-19 cases in June were among Latinx residents, Department of Public Health director Rodney Jenkins said on Friday.

This disparity continues to raise concerns among county officials, community leaders and public health officials, who say they are working hard to address the disparity.

“We look at race and ethnicity distribution in cases just to ensure that we are able to articulate overrepresentation and underrepresentation,” Jenkins told the Durham Recovery and Renewal Task Force in his weekly update. “Overrepresentation lets us know who’s at greater risk.” 

City officials and nonprofits have been mobilizing to better protect Latinx residents from the COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. This latest data shows a significant jump in COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks among Latinx communities.

But reducing exposure among these residents, some of whom lack legal immigration status, isn’t simple, said Italo Medelius, vice-chair of the Mayor’s Hispanic/Latino Committee. Some can’t stay home and still make enough money for food or rent.  

“They’re folks that don’t have hazard pay. There’s no sick leave. There’s no ability for folks that if you’ve been infected, you can go home and not work,” said Medelius. “You know a lot of folks are either not going to tell their employers that they’re sick or their employers just don’t ask.”

Efforts to reduce the spread

When the coronavirus started spreading in Durham, committee members started pushing for more public health messaging in Spanish. 

“We ask that both the City and County publish all COVID-19 notices in both English and Spanish, including electronic, social media, public notices,” read a March 27 letter committee members sent to Mayor Steven Schewel. 

Since then, committee members have worked with translating services to help Latinx residents get information they need. Now, the Durham County Department of Public Health website has 36 COVID-19 graphic and information sheets online, with all except four in English and Spanish. 

It quickly became clear that efforts to reduce COVID-19 diagnoses among Latinx residents had to involve more than messaging, Medelius said.

Handing out masks has been an important effort. Early last month, members of the Mayor’s Hispanic/Latino Committee helped Covering the Triangle, a group of doctors and organizers, hand out free face masks in public spaces, including supermarkets.

“FREE FACE COVERINGS / MASCARILLAS GRATIS” read signs outside Compare Foods in downtown Durham and La Superior on North Roxboro Street.

As grocery shoppers stood six feet apart waiting in line to enter, volunteers handed out 2,000 handmade face masks for free. Since most people said they live in households with five to eight people, Medelius said, volunteers gave out two per person in each household.

Source: Durham County Public Health

Medelius said that mask distributors noticed many people requesting them were construction workers. Outdoors services, including construction and lawn services, were exempted from Durham’s stay-at-home orders but encouraged to practice social distancing. 

Because of the close-contact nature of construction work, volunteers gave out packets of about 50 masks for residents to distribute to coworkers at their construction site. 

On Thursday, volunteers handed out free face masks to Latinx business owners, according to Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president and CEO of El Centro Hispano and member of the Recovery and Renewal Task Force. A flyer is attached to each mask with information on why it is important to wear a mask, how to wash it, and the three W’s: wash your hands, wait six-feet apart and wear a mask.

Support for communities

There are several programs in the works to support Latinx communities. El Centro Hispano and the Church World Service Durham, along with other organizations, are giving cash to local Latinx residents who are not eligible for federal stimulus checks, unemployment, paid-sick leave or are just short of money to support themselves and their families.

The CWS Durham Immigrant Solidarity Fund, started after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids increased in the Triangle area over a year ago, is now focused on the public health crisis. 

The money goes where it’s needed, said Kelly Chauvin, immigration services coordinator for the Durham chapter. Since its creation, the fund has assisted 125 local families and fundraised over $100,000 dollars, Chauvin said.

“Much of the money has been raised and distributed in the last four months to respond to requests involving housing and food security,” said Chauvin.

Both El Centro Hispano’s COVID-19 Crisis Response Fund and the CWS Immigrant Solidarity Fund are accepting donations to continue supporting the Latinx community during the pandemic. So far, El Centro’s donation website lists over 350 donations, most anonymous but some from people who leave comments. 

“I’m donating to redistribute the stimulus check I received for myself and my son to those who need it more and may not have received anything,” wrote Lillian Mindich, who donated $1,700. 

Mayor Steve Schewel donated $250. “So grateful for El Centro’s amazing work in the community,” he wrote. 

Medelius said more government funding and state-led initiatives will be needed to better help Latinx people in Durham County remain well. 

Medelius proposed a few ways he believes the state needs to support the Latinx community during this pandemic, including state-funded mobile health clinics, state-led videos and information campaigns in both English and Spanish and paid sick leave for the duration of the pandemic. 

He also said the North Carolina Department of Labor needs to set up a whistleblower program with Spanish-language options to allow workers to anonymously report any employers not following COVID-19 safety guidelines or not reporting cases.

With the new data showing the disparities in COVID-19 cases, county officials spoke of urgently addressing the problem. 

“This is a statewide issue. And we need help,” Durham County Board of Commissioners chair Wendy Jacobs said at the Friday meeting. “When Durham is only getting $5.48 million of CARES Act funding, and Wake County and Mecklenburg County are getting $194 million in CARES Act funding, we have a problem.” 

Top photo: A worker at a Durham construction site breaks for lunch. Construction work is considered an essential service during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Henry Haggart

Health report card: Durham gains ground, big gaps remain

A new State of the County Health Report is out and the message is clear. Durham is making progress on some major health priorities. But more work is needed.

Racial and ethnic disparities remain a systemic problem, this year’s Partnership for a Healthy Durham report stresses. “Racism is a public health crisis,” it reads, echoing recent statements by local elected officials. 

For one, Black babies here are more likely to die during their first year of life than white babies. From 2014 to 2018, Black infants died at three and a half times the rate that white infants died in Durham County. In addition, life expectancy among Black county residents was 5.3 years shorter than among white residents during 2016 to 2018, according to the report.

While the 2019-focused report doesn’t address the new coronavirus, recent data makes clear that Black and Latinx people living in Durham County are hardest hit by the pandemic. Where people work, construction projects, nursing homes and jails included, explains some of the risk. 

“Racial equity is being embedded in all the activities that we’re involved with,” said Angel Romero Ruiz, coordinator for a local community health program and co-chair of the Partnership for a Healthy Durham.

Three years ago, residents of Durham County ranked their top five health-related priorities, including affordable housing, access to healthcare and health insurance; poverty, mental health,  and links between obesity, diabetes and food access. 

The partnership, a group of 200 active members and dozens of organizations, this year predominantly addresses three of those priorities. Here’s a summary of the latest major findings: 

Expand affordable housing

Source: State of the County Health Report

Between 2010 and 2019, the median sale price for homes in Durham rose by more than 50%, the report notes. Median gross rent rose 27% from 2010 to 2018, from $798 to $1013.

“Durham is gentrifying, so housing that used to be affordable is starting to be unaffordable,” said Romero Ruiz. 

A large proportion of Black and Latinx residents are renters. Only 29% of Black residents and 33% of Latinx residents own their homes, compared to 64% of white, 49% of Native American and 44% of Asian households, according to the report. 

This disparity leaves Black and Latinx renters especially vulnerable to rising house prices. Consequently, Black and Latinx households have less to spend less on food, healthcare and other necessities.

“Housing and health is totally related. You know, depending on what neighborhood you live in, you’re probably more likely to have better or worse outcomes,” said Romero Ruiz.

Progress in 2019

Durham County voters approved a $95 million housing bond last fall. Paired with $65 million in federal and local funding, the bond money will help redevelop public housing properties in downtown Durham over the next five years. The money will also help finance permanent housing for people who are homeless, fund down payments for first-time home buyers with low incomes and assist people in danger of being evicted.

Durham City Council approved Expanded Housing Choices, an ordinance that permits higher density building in neighborhoods near downtown.

Durham County created a coordinated entry program for people who are homeless in October 2019. Anyone who needs shelter must first report to Durham County Department of Social Services for a coordinated entry and diversion intake. This creates one point of entry for shelter and housing resources.


Durham was reminded that health and housing are connected in a big way this year. Nearly 900 people living in McDougald Terrace were evacuated from their homes after carbon monoxide leaks were detected in some apartments. Inspectors found stoves, furnaces and water heaters leaking hazardous gas at the public housing complex.

Conditions at McDougald are also a reminder of the long-lasting impact of racial segregation and economic discrimination. McDougald was built in 1954 for Black tenants in what has traditionally been a Black neighborhood at a time when Durham was still racially segregated.

Local officials have big plans to upgrade many public housing properties here, but not McDougald. That’s because it’s located outside the city’s growing downtown, officials say, where investors are less likely to risk their money.

There are multiple ways that long-ago racial discrimination affects the health of Durham residents today, said Jannah Bierens, a health equity consultant and co-chair of the Partnership for a Healthy Durham.

“Just because laws change, that doesn’t mean that people change or that the practices change. So it takes an internalized transformation as well,” she said.

Increase access to care

The proportion of uninsured residents in Durham has decreased from 15% in 2015 to 12.2% in 2018. But among that 12.2%, who remains without coverage? Most are Latinx residents, who cite immigration status as the most common barrier to receiving health insurance.

In 2018, 40% of Latinx residents were uninsured along with 11% of Black residents, according to the report. Durham has a small Native American population, totalling 726 at the last count; 19% of these residents are uninsured. In comparison, the percentage of white and Asian residents uninsured was 6% and 7% respectively. 

To increase access to care and address racial and ethnic disparities, Partnership for a Healthy Durham has outlined two main goals for 2018-2021: increase knowledge about healthcare resources, such as Lincoln Community Health Center, and increase access to culturally appropriate care. That includes patient care teams trained in racial equity. 

Progress in 2019

The partnership recently received a grant from Duke University to place more bilingual community health workers with organizations such as Project Access of Durham County and El Centro Hispano, according to Romero Ruiz. These health workers help both insured and uninsured members of the Latinx community navigate the resources available to them, said Romero Ruiz. 

For the first time since 2015, the partnership updated its Medical Care Options in Durham brochure, which provides uninsured or underinsured residents a long list of resources, including the Lincoln Community Health Center’s new satellite clinics. The new brochure also includes updated information on how to apply for Medicaid.

Alliance Health, a behavioral health organization, continued to focus on evidence-based care in 2019 for Durham County residents who are uninsured or insured by Medicaid, according to the report. Its staff has expanded efforts to respond to severe mental illness, substance use disorders and long-term needs, according to the report. 


Employment and access to care through insurance coverage go hand-in-hand. According to the report, residents ranked lack of employer based plans and unemployment as their second and third barriers to health insurance. The report partially blames workforce discrimination for inequities in access to care.

Linking obesity, diabetes and food access

Source: State of the County Health Report

In 2018, 70.4% of adults in Durham and several nearby countries were overweight or obese, according to the report. Additionally, one in 10 people skipped a meal or cut the size of a meal because they didn’t have enough money to buy food. 

Limited access to healthy food, contributes to obesity, among other health problems like heart disease, diabetes and chronic kidney disease. Additionally, income, employment, race, ethnicity and disability may be factors in residents’ ability to get healthy food options, according to the report. 

Black and Latinx residents are disproportionately affected here too. According to the report, 14.9% of Black residents skipped or cut a meal sometimes or frequently in the past year, compared to 12.6% of Latinx residents and 6.6% of white residents. 

Bierens said that Black and Latinx residents don’t always have access to healthy food. 

“Black and brown neighborhoods are heavily saturated with fast food restaurants and alcohol and tobacco. Those things are also coping mechanisms, so there’s so many interrelated layers,” she said.

Progress in 2019

The City of Durham, Sustainable Duke, Feed My Sheep of Durham, TROSA, Duke Pratt School of Engineering, Sarah Duke Gardens, Duke Farm, Inter-faith Food Shuttle and Healthy Duke created the Bull City Community Garden, a new addition to the local food scene.

The partnership also collaborated with Durham Public Schools to expand more nutritional choices in school meals. It created a document discussing health and nutrition for parents. And it improved Durham’s Healthy Mile Trails,


The link between obesity, diabetes and food access is not as simple as many think, according to Bierens. Stress and lack of sleep are commonly overlooked factors that induce higher cortisol levels and a rise in body fat, said Bierens.

Teaching people to eat healthy diets without discussing effects from stress and lack of sleep is not enough, Bierens said.

It’s vital to understand the racial dimension of these community health problems, she said. For that reason, the partnership has a Racial Equity Task Force, whose members will include Durham residents grappling with these problems.

Looking forward

One priority from the 2017 survey was reducing poverty. According to the 2019 report, poverty is decreasing in Durham. But this positive news comes with a caveat.

While the percentage of Durham residents living in poverty decreased from 20% in 2010 to 15.8% in 2018, the actual number of people in this category has increased by 64% since 2000. In 2018, 46,805 people had incomes below the poverty level compared to 28,557 in 2000, according to the report. 

The decrease in the percentage of people living in poverty is likely explained by an increase in the the number of higher-income households moving to Durham.

The partnership, like so many institutions locally and nationally, will focus more than ever on the racial and ethnic dimensions to health disparities in Durham. “We just started adding the ‘why’ and talking about inequities,” Bierens said.

At top: People angry over dangerous conditions at McDougald Terrace public housing protested outside City Council chambers last winter. Access to affordable housing is one of five issues that Durham residents have rated as priority needs. Photo by Bella Hutchins

Correction: This article was modified to correct Jannah Bierens’s work title.