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

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

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

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

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

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

“The answer is always yes,” she said. 

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

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

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

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

Inside the ICU 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just being there is a service, she says.

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

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

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

Talk of the end 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Durhamites use their wits and each other to land coronavirus vaccines

A neighborhood email list promising leftover vaccines launched Bruce, a diabetic Durhamite, on an odyssey. In want and need of a COVID-19 shot, the 76-year-old said he walked through pouring rain to the vaccination clinic at Duke University.

When he arrived, soggy but hopeful, the nurses told him he had been misinformed — they were not taking walk-ins. 

“It wasn’t the end of the world, but the principle of it just seemed so crazy,” said Bruce. “It’s just the whole vagueness and randomness of it all, you know?”

Bruce, who got the shot days later, isn’t alone. As the gates inch open, Durhamites are still hustling to get jabbed, flooding social media sites for tips to lock down fast-filling vaccination appointments or get leftover shots.

On reddit pages and Facebook groups, through neighborhood email lists or by word of mouth, people are sharing insights about how to get immunized faster. Many report signing up on waitlists for multiple vaccination sites in and outside of Durham. Some have driven hours to get to well-stocked clinics.

Most people The 9th Street Journal asked about their vaccine quests declined to share their full names. But their stories display how hard some people are working to get vaccines.

Becca had more luck than Bruce as a walk-in. She got her first dose of the Moderna vaccine Tuesday by simply showing-up at the Walgreens on Fayetteville Street at the end of the day. Nabbing the leftover dose saved Becca from driving two-and-a-half hours from Durham to a coastal Onslow County clinic that she heard about on her neighborhood email list. But the shot stood for more than saved time. 

“It means freedom!” cheered Becca as she waited 15 minutes in the store for potential post-vaccination side-effects. “It means I can hug my friends and go to the gym, and it means I can not stress about ending up in the hospital.”

Social media crowdsourcing 

Durhamites discussing out-of-county vaccination options are flooding the r/bullcity reddit board.

User u/_Brandobaris_ said he couldn’t find vaccine appointments via the state health department, county health department or Walgreens when he became eligible in late February. So, he got creative.

“Using friends and reddit, I found hiDrb.com and a couple other NC counties and pharmacies,” he wrote. He joined their waitlists, too. 

Ultimately, though, it was his wife’s incessant refreshing of the Walgreens vaccination site that ended up saving the day, he reported. She managed to get them both appointments at a location in Chapel Hill last week, where they received their first doses. 

Lisa, a 42-year-old Durhamite whose health issues place her in Group 4, told 9th Street that she had visited over 16 websites trying to find a vaccine appointment. Her plea for help on the r/bullcity page generated hundreds of responses and guidance on where to get a vaccine. Lisa said she has a jab scheduled for Wednesday in Greensboro.

“It’s really difficult,” she said. “I’m a very savvy computer user, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who’s less computer-savvy or doesn’t have a computer to try and navigate all this. There’s just too much information and not a single repository to have it all in one place.”

Vaccine voyages

Security guard Jamal Patterson welcomed people to the Blue Devil Tower vaccination site at Duke University on Wednesday. He hoped to nab a spare vaccine at the end of his shift. Photo by Olivia Olsher

Bruce said he got on Duke Health’s vaccination waitlist back in December. But after weeks of waiting, he started looking elsewhere. He decided to call the Duke Primary Care Clinic. They put him on their waitlist, too. 

“And then again, weeks go by and nothing happens,” Bruce said. 

After his fruitless walk through the rain, he finally found the correct email to request an appointment. He received his second dose on March 2. 

Bruce knew he wasn’t the only person having trouble. He said a friend has a competition among loved ones to see who will drive the farthest in order to get the vaccine. The friend’s nephew claims the top spot, having driven two-and-a-half hours to the Hertford County town of Ahoskie.

Jamal Patterson, a security guard from Graham County working at a vaccination clinic at Duke’s Blue Devil Tower on Wednesday, said he hoped to secure a leftover vaccine at the end of his shift. His boss said that extra doses might be available to him and his co-workers, he reported. That didn’t work out on two previous days, but he wasn’t giving up.

“At the end of the workday, if they have some leftover, I can be like ‘Hey!’” he said, hopeful it would be his day.

To schedule a vaccination appointment in Durham County when eligible, sign up for the county health department’s vaccination scheduling list. Or use the state health department’s tool to find local vaccine providers. 

9th Street Journal reporter Olivia Olsher can be reached at olivia.olsher@duke.edu.

At top: James Spruil waits to receive a coronavirus vaccine at the Walgreens Pharmacy on Fayetteville Street in Durham. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Local leaders build COVID vaccine trust in Black and Latinx communities

When Rev. Mark-Anthony Middleton looks into the eyes of some of his elderly Black parishioners, he sees a deep, historic hurt that leads them to question the coronavirus vaccine. 

“Older folks still have the memory of Tuskegee,” Middleton, a Durham city council member, said, referencing the Tuskegee Study, a study on syphilis that withheld proper medical treatment from hundreds of misinformed infected Black men as recently as 1972.

Historical malfeasance has led elderly Black Durhamites to mistrust medical institutions, explained Middleton. To address the gaps between vaccination rates for people of color and white people, that anxiety needs to be taken seriously, the council member said.

“We have to affirm the legitimate fears and concerns that people have,” Middleton told the 9th Street Journal.

Eligible people in marginalized communities, particularly Black and Latinx people in Durham, are getting the vaccine at a much lower rate than white folks. As of March 3, 19.5% of Durham County’s white population has received the first dose of the vaccine, according to data made public by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. That’s almost double the rate for Black Durhamites: 11.3% of Black or African-American people have gotten their first shot.

For other marginalized ethnic and racial groups, the rates are even lower. Five in 100 Hispanic people in Durham have received their first vaccine, while only 6.27% of American Indian or Alaskan Native people have received the vaccine. 

A lot of the inequity is a result of structural shortcomings. People of color have less access to wifi connection and transportation, making it hard to get the vaccine even for people who are eligible and want it. 

But fears over the safety of the vaccine widen the gap, local health experts said during Durham County public health’s “COVID-19 Vaccines in the Black Community” livestream on Feb. 16. 

To address the inequities, the department has offered free rides to vaccination sites for people with appointments. Local churches have chipped in too, working to gain permission from state leaders to become official vaccination sites.

Overcoming the psychological barriers to vaccination, however, requires a more empathetic, creative approach. 

A Durham public health worker hands residents masks as they enter the Durham County Human Services COVID-19 vaccination site. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.

For Middleton, getting his first shot was a part of the effort. He was one of several local Black leaders the county health department selected to vaccinate on live television. His second shot, set for March 10, will be livestreamed too. 

While he has also been verbally advocating for the safety and efficacy of the vaccine via his radio channel and pastorship, Middleton believes the fact that he can point to his arm and say “I got it” goes a long way.

“Representation matters,” he said.

From the pulpit and the recording studio, Middleton has been spotlighting Black women who have helped create COVID-19 vaccines, including Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who has been instrumental in developing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, he added. 

Nurse Faye Williams, who came out of retirement at the start of the pandemic, was the first person in the Triangle to be vaccinated. Speaking at the county health department’s Facebook event, she said she hoped other Black people might’ve seen a reflection in her as she got the shot. 

“I wanted them to look at me and also see themselves… I wanted to be an example, and do my part,” she said.

Durham County Health Director Rod Jenkins speaks during a live panel discussion titled ‘COVID-19 Vaccines in the Black Community,’ hosted by the Durham County Department of Public Health. The Feb. 16 livestream also featured Population Health Director Marissa Mortiboy, nurse Faye Williams, and Duke University Assistant Professor Dr. Julius Wilder.  

Durham County Health Director Rodney Jenkins, who also spoke at the event, admitted he had to take some tylenol and catch an early night on Christmas eve when he was vaccinated on Dec. 23. But the effects didn’t last long, he said. 

“I came back Christmas day feeling brand new,” he said, adding that he’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

The panelists touted rest, hydration and Tylenol as key ingredients to a successful vaccination experience. 

Building trust in the Latinx community

In Durham’s Latinx community, financial and linguistic barriers compound technological and transport challenges in preventing people from getting the vaccine, wrote Dr. Krista Perreira, a social medicine professor at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. 

Some Latinx residents may be hesitant to receive the vaccine because they don’t know that it’s free or that receipt of the vaccine will not be considered in a public charge determination, which could affect immigration status, Perreira said. 

Others might be unaware that no documentation of US citizenship or immigration status is necessary to get vaccinated, added Perreira, a member of the state’s CEAL Research Team, a coalition of medical professionals focusing on COVID-19 awareness and education research among underserved communities

“For Latinx residents who may not have a computer, may not have a driver’s license, or may not read or speak English, these barriers can be especially high,” she wrote. 

Other pressures may discourage Latinx people from seeking vaccination too. 

“Your average Latinx person will probably not feel at ease walking into a county health department or hospital, and will feel more at ease getting vaccinated at an event that is tailored for our community,” explained Rev. Edgar Vergara, head pastor at La Semilla, a United Methodist church that serves Latinx Durhamites.

People walk into the vaccination site at Duke University’s Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.

Duke Health, La Semilla and other local non-profit and religious organizations have joined together to host a series of vaccination drives. The drives take place in places familiar to many Latinx community members, such as El Centro Hispano and the Latino Community Credit Union.

Last weekend, over 500 people were vaccinated at an event at La Cooperativa Latina in Raleigh, reported Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, health equity director for Duke Hospital’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. Martinez-Bianchi leads Latin-19, a network of Duke doctors and state health officials focused on fighting COVID-19 in the Latinx community. Vergara said another vaccine drive in Durham is scheduled for Thursday this week.

Having someone who speaks your language, who is a member of your own community providing resources for fighting COVID-19 makes a huge difference, he added.

“Together,” said Vergara, “we are able to reach more people and have a greater impact.”

9th Street Journal reporter Olivia Olsher at olivia.olsher@duke.edu. 

At top: Durham residents exit Southern High School after receiving the COVID-19 shot at a vaccination in late January. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.

Peace vigil stirs mourning, pledges to curb street violence

On Sunday, men and women in bright green baseball jackets and fluorescent yellow masks took possession of a corner of McDougald Terrace where several shootings have occurred over the last five years.

While the Bull City United members finished setting up, people who live nearby and supporters from other neighborhoods rolled in, by foot and in cars. Joyful songs like “Before I Let Go by Frankie Beverly and Maze played from speakers as people greeted one another. 

A street outreach program founded in 2015, Bull City United, tries to reduce gang and gun violence by framing it as a contagious disease that can be treated and prevented. The group’s strategy involves detecting and interrupting conflicts, identifying and treating high risk individuals and changing social norms. 

Many team members come from Durham neighborhoods where this violence is most common. They hosted seven vigils across Durham last week to honor the Week of Peace. The vigils remember people lost to gun and gang-related violence and work to spark hope that things can and will change. 

After Bull City United’s Keshia Gray teared up reading names of people killed in Durham in 2020, team member David Johnson took over. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Durham experienced a surge of gun violence last year. From Oct.1, 2019 to Sept. 30, 2020, the number of people shot in Durham soared 59% to 221 people, according to police data. One out of every six gunshot victims in Durham during that time was younger than under 18, including eight children younger than 12.

On Sunday, David Johnson, a Bull City United supervisor, welcomed attendees as they arrived, most of whom he knew by name. Once more than 20 people gathered, Johnson took a mic and addressed the crowd.

“We are out here trying to show our love and support,” he said, adding how grateful he and the United team is for people joining them to seek change. “Y’all have shown us nothing but love.”

Johnson introduced  Keshia Gray, United’s outreach coordinator, who knows the McDougald community because some of her family lives there. “It sure is good to be home, y’all,” she said. “But one thing that is getting up out of here is gun violence.”

Determined whoops and “Yes Ma’ams!” escaped from the crowd.

Bull City United has not been as visible in recent months as it was after launching in 2015. Gray said it is growing now, pointing to Ty Robinson, a young man in the process of becoming a conflict mediator. She knew Robinson originally as a person at risk of being exposed to violence, she said.

“Gun violence is not normal, depression is not normal, the effects of gun violence aren’t normal,” she told the crowd. “Burying your children is not normal and we are not going to allow it to be normal.”

Gray invited any mothers who lost children to violence to speak. Mothers were there, but none stepped forward.

Gray then read names of people killed by gang and gun violence in Durham in 2020. DaShawn Jones was on the list. So were Benjamin Smith, Terry Bradshaw and Kordell Young. Gray choked up shortly after naming Young, who was fatally shot on March 20 last year.

“He was one of our own,” Gray said, noting Young was active in Bull City United.

Seeing Gray overwhelmed, Johnson took over reading names. Starting with Jose Rodriguez, Russel Dukes, Jr., Phillip Jones, then Anthony Adams, Jessica Cortez Luna and Joshua Lindsey, he listed many more.

Ashley Canady, president of McDougald Terrace’s resident council, sang at Sunday’s vigil. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Once 40 names were read, the mix of families with young children, young and older men and women, and quiet, bereaved mothers shared a moment of silence. 

Ashley Canady, president of McDougald’s resident council, walked to the center of the group and started singing “Hero,” by Mariah Carey. The lyrics fit with the push to encourage community members to work together to reduce violence. “When you feel like hope is gone, look inside you and be strong, and you’ll finally see the truth, that a hero lies in you,” she sang.

As Canady continued, United team members in the green baseball jackets passed around white and green star-shaped balloons, another tribute to people lost last year. Everyone released the balloons together. A wave of quiet passed through the crowd as they watched the balloons rise to the sky. 

“Peace is a lifestyle,” said Gray, back on the mic. The people surrounding echoed the words back to her. 

After Gray led a short prayer, people lined up for boxed meals of soup, sandwiches and cupcakes. They picked pandemic goodie bags holding hand sanitizers, fluorescent masks with a Bull City United logo, water bottles and T-shirts. 

Tammy Goodman lost her son, Charleston Goodman, to gang violence in 2018. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Tammy Goodman was one of the mothers present who did not address the crowd. She wore an orange sweatshirt with a photo of her son, Charleston Goodman, on the back.

Three years ago, 26-year-old Charleston Goodman was kidnapped outside of his home in East Woodcroft Parkway on Sunday January 28th, she said. He has not been found. In August 2019, his nine-year-old godson, Z’yon Person, was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. 

Sundays are difficult for Goodman and her family, she said before Sunday’s event began. And vigils are bittersweet. 

Even if she doesn’t speak, showing up to advocate against violence gives her motivation to get out of bed each morning, Goodman said. In late 2020, Goodman co-founded Guns Down, Hearts Up, an anti-violence group focused on raising awareness of gun violence and advocating for more political investment in the problem. 

“I’m turning pain into purpose,” said Goodman. “I know the pain would consume me if I wasn’t doing this.”

9th Street reporter Olivia Olsher can be reached at olivia.olsher@duke.edu

At top: Balloons rise from a violence-prevention vigil that members of Bull City United organized at McDougald Terrace last week. The star-shaped balloons were released to remember 40 people killed by gang- and gun-related violence in Durham in 2020. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the date when Charleston Goodman was kidnapped.

Low supplies delay coronavirus vaccinations

By Rebecca Schneid
and Dryden Quigley

Durham County and Duke University have paused offering new coronavirus vaccination appointments due to a limited supply. 

County officials intend to begin scheduling new appointments by the end of February, but are unsure of an exact date. An unspecified number of people will be required to delay existing  appointments. But officials say that will be a small number and delays won’t exceed five days.

People with dates on the books, including spots for second doses, will get vaccinated, health officials stressed.

“Durham County has a baseline allocation of 600 first doses for the next three weeks, and we are uncertain when our allocation will increase. It is best to halt scheduling until we are confident we will be able to fulfill additional appointments,” Public Health Director Rodney Jenkins said in a press release.

People lucky enough to have appointments did get shots this week. That was evident Friday, as people complied with health precautions to gain entry to the county Department of Public Health vaccination site on East Main Street.

Visitors were screened in the parking lot by answering a few questions and then were handed tickets from staff members that allowed them to enter the building.

A woman collects a ticket needed to enter a vaccination site at the Durham County Department of Public Health this week. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

After getting dose number one, Durham resident Juan Santiago said he was “very relieved.” He also landed an appointment for a return dose two, in three weeks, he said.

Before climbing into an Uber, Santiago stressed he does not plan to stop wearing a mask or stop staying mostly at home.

This vaccine shortage is not unique to Durham. All over the state, distribution sites have exhausted their resources, state officials say. On Tuesday, state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen released a letter explaining that federal allotment of vaccines to North Carolina dropped from 260,000 to 120,000 this past week. 

The federal government is incentivizing states to use all of allotted vaccines, Cohen said, noting that states with large unused vaccination supplies could receive reduced quantities. In response, vaccination providers worked especially hard this past week to clear the states’ backlog of vaccines, she said. 

As of Tuesday, North Carolina had distributed 95 percent of its first doses. The recent success pushed North Carolina from 40th to 22nd place on a Center for Disease Control and Prevention ranking on how many first doses states administer.

Durham early this week announced plans to open a mass vaccination site capable of vaccinating 17,000 people
weekly. The timeline for the opening of the site was still being determined, officials said.

Health care workers, longterm-care residents and staff, and people aged 65 and older are eligible to receive coronavirus vaccines in North Carolina. Durham County has distributed about 36,000 vaccines so far, according to the NCDHHS.

A sign points the way to vaccines at Southern School of Energy and Sustainability. Due to the pandemic, Durham public schools have not met in person since March 2020. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

North Carolina has had over 746,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases with Durham County making up 19,000 of those cases. Durham County has also had 173 deaths attributed to the virus. 

There may be a shortage of vaccines in Durham, but there is certainly no shortage of want. Despite demand not meeting supply, eligible Durham residents have been contacting helpline or online services to try to get appointments.

People were also crowdsourcing on social media forums like Reddit and other digital platforms to find out where they could get doses as quickly as possible.  Some traveled if needed to get their shots, including to Granville and Cumberland counties.

9th Street Journal reporter Olivia Olsher contributed to this report

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: One woman wheels another into Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center at Duke University, one of three sites in Durham dispensing coronavirus vaccines this week. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama 

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 charlie.zong@duke.edu

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 dryden.quigley@duke.edu

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 veronica.niamba@duke.edu

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 isabella.caracta@duke.edu

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 cameron.oglesby@duke.edu.

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