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19 firefighters quarantined from Winston-Salem fire station due to COVID-19

A Winston-Salem firefighter tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, forcing the quarantine of an additional 19 firefighters until they can be tested, Winston-Salem Fire Chief William “Trey” Mayo said.

Station 5 on Palmer Lane was out of service for 18 hours Wednesday night while it was being disinfected and returned to use.

Mayo said that the affected firefighter did not become ill at work, but that the other firefighters who may have come into contact with the employee were sent home on quarantine for testing.

Station 5 is off Clemmonsville Road near its intersection with Old Lexington Road.

Mayo said all the other major fire departments in the state had earlier experienced COVID-19 cases, and that he’s proud of his employees for avoiding cases as long as they did.

“We do a pretty rigorous screening at the beginning and end of each shift,” Mayo said. “Firefighters do not come into the building before their temperature is checked. We have commercial sanitation products. We held out as long as we could.”

Station 5 is home to both an engine crew and a ladder crew. The quarantine affects both companies.

Mayo said that the layout of each station is different, but that at Station 5, each captain has a private room and the remaining four to six firefighters on duty share a common room.

Firefighters work shifts that basically have them on for 24 hours followed by 48 hours of off time. Mayo said the firefighter who tested positive was exposed to the coronavirus while off duty.

Because of the shift setup, Mayo said, only a third of the firefighting force is on duty at any one time. That makes it possible to keep operations running by shifting employees around, Mayo said.

While Station 5 was out of service, he said, a company came in and did a “deep clean” on the station, wiping surfaces with disinfectant and operating a fogging machine to cleanse living areas with an anti-viral mist.

Mayo said firefighters’ COVID-19 safety practices include wearing masks on trucks and in other areas where they can’t practice social distancing. There’s not many more precautions they can take, Mayo said.

“We are about bottomed out in terms of what we can do without the customers seeing a reduction in service,” Mayo said.

Judge rules in favor of limited public release of video connected to the jail-related death of John Elliott Neville in Winston-Salem

A judge has ordered the release of two videos that capture the moments at the Forsyth County Jail that ultimately led to John Elliott Neville’s death in December 2019.

The decision Friday came as a result of a petition filed by 11 news organizations, including the Winston-Salem Journal, the News & Record in Greensboro and the New York Times. The News & Observer filed the initial petition. The news organizations will get copies of the videos by noon on Aug. 5. The videos must be edited to blur the face of another inmate and to blur any images of certain exposed body parts.

Neville’s death sparked protests over the past several weeks in Winston-Salem and has garnered national attention. According to an autopsy report, Neville, 56, of Greensboro, died as a result of a brain injury that came about because his heart stopped beating, depriving his brain of oxygen. He asphyxiated while detention officers placed him in what is known as a hog-tie restraint position after he suffered some kind of seizure that caused him to fall from his top bunk to the floor of his cell.

He told detention officers 24 times that he could not breathe, Michael Grace, an attorney for the Neville family, said during a court hearing Wednesday on the petition. Detention officers also made jokes and were heard laughing during the incident, Natasha Martin, one of John Neville’s daughters, said in an interview with WGHP/Fox 8, Winston-Salem Journal’s newsgathering partner.

Five former detention officers and a nurse have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in Neville’s death: Lt. Lavette Maria Williams, 47; Cpl. Edward Joseph Roussel, 50; Officer Christopher Bryan Stamper, 42; Officer Antonio Maurice Woodley, 26; Officer Sarah Elizabeth Poole, 36; and nurse Michelle Heughins, 44. One of the videos is body-camera footage from Woodley. Both videos last a total of about 45 minutes.

The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office did not inform the public about Neville’s death until June 26, prompted by questions from the Winston-Salem Journal. Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. has said he didn’t say anything about Neville’s death at the request of the family. He said Wednesday that he stands by the family’s support of the videos’ release.

Judge cites delay

In his ruling, Judge R. Gregory Horne took note of the delay in informing the public.

“And while the Court acknowledges that the decision not to publicly report the death was made by Sheriff Kimbrough at the request of the grieving family, this extended delay in reporting only deepens the compelling public interest in a death allegedly caused by the actions of Forsyth County detention officers or personnel,” Horne wrote. “These alleged actions, occurring while Mr. Neville was in custody, relate to a matter of significant local, state and national public interest and the release of the recording is necessary to advance a compelling public interest.”

Initially, Neville’s family opposed the release of the video, but indicated that they had changed their mind in a statement issued Tuesday through Grace and another attorney, Chris Clifton.

John Neville’s five children — Sean Neville, Brienne Neville, Kristopher Brown-Neville, Natasha Martin and Tre Stubbs — attended Wednesday’s hearing in Forsyth Superior Court.

In a statement Friday, the family thanked Horne for his ruling.

“While we are pleased with his decision, we are mindful of the emotional impact it will have on our family for the public to see the video of our father’s final moments,” they said. “We appreciate Sheriff Kimbrough’s continuing efforts to support our wishes and the courage that District Attorney Jim O’Neill has exhibited in handling this tragic situation.”

They continued: “Next Wednesday will be an emotional day not only for us but for so many others in the city, state and across the country. We would like to reiterate our strong desire that any protests be peaceful and honorable and free from violence or destruction in any form towards businesses, property and citizens including the individuals who have been charged in our father’s death. Justice for our father will not result from violence, pain or suffering.”

Clifton said the family is anticipating the emotion and the outcry that will come from the videos’ release. He said “they are unified in their desire to see their father’s (death) not be in vain and that some actual changes in the system come.”

In an interview that aired Wednesday, Martin told WGHP/Fox 8 that she saw the video Wednesday and watched her father plead and beg detention officers to turn him onto his back so he could breathe.

“The biggest takeaway, the one that struck me, (is that) they were making jokes and laughing over our dad while he’s in duress,” she said. “(They) made jokes about the handcuffs.”

At one point, a key breaks while detention officers are trying to remove the handcuffs, and an officer said, “That’s coming out of your paycheck.”

Martin said she didn’t understand why the detention officers never took her father to an infirmary if he was having a medical emergency. And then, when they are taking him out of a cell and getting ready to transport him to the hospital, other inmates start singing “Amazing Grace.”

“You equate that song some of the time to a funeral,” she said.

DA opposed release

O’Neill and attorneys for the defendants opposed the release, arguing it would hurt the chance for a fair trial. At least one of the attorneys, J.D. Byers, who represents Stamper, said his client’s safety might be threatened if the videos are released.

The attorneys also argued Wednesday that their clients’ reputation would be negatively impacted by the release.

“My concern for the safety of my client has not changed. But the judge has made his decision and I respect the rule of law. We made our arguments and he gave us a full hearing,” Byers said Friday. “If the video is looked at in its entirety, it tells a different story than what we’ve heard so far. You will see (detention officers) doing what they were trained to do.”

Nils Gerber, who represents Woodley, echoed those sentiments.

“I believe the video in its entirety will not show a case like what’s happened in Minneapolis,” he said, referencing the George Floyd case. “This is totally different. The full video will show that everybody was trying to help this man. My position is that (Woodley) did nothing wrong and in fact did everything right.”

David Freedman, who is an attorney for Roussel, said he wanted the community to see the video in its entirety and not in snippets.

“I respect and understand (the judge’s) concerns for our community and believe he made the decision he thinks is in the best interest of the community.”

“They will see a man’s tragic death, but one that’s accidental and unintended,” he said. “It will show my client and the other detention officers doing what they were trained to do in trying to render aid to Mr. Neville as he was in medical distress.”

O’Neill could not be reached for comment Friday.

Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition have held marches in downtown Winston-Salem and for more than two weeks have done an occupy-like protest at Bailey Park, demanding answers from Kimbrough and O’Neill.

They said in a statement Friday that they have respected the family’s wish not to have the videos released.

“We understand the trauma associated with Mr. Neville’s family having to publicly relive their grief, and also know the trauma associated with Black people being consistently exposed to brutality against people that look like them,” the group said in a statement. “Now that the family has since decided to support efforts to release the video, we support their agency in making that difficult decision.”

Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem applauded the judge’s decision in a Facebook post.

The group explicitly demanded the video’s release but issued an apology Wednesday for not consulting the family before doing so.

Mike Tadych, the attorney who represented the media coalition, thanked Horne for the decision, saying it was a triumph for transparency.

“There is a compelling public interest in what happened,” he said. “Hopefully, the recordings to be released next week will begin to answer that and many other questions.”

1,954 new COVID-19 cases reported in North Carolina. 42 new cases reported in Forsyth County.

The rate of increase in COVID-19 cases in Forsyth County and the state slowed slightly Thursday, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

As of noon Friday, there were 1,954 new cases statewide for a total of 122,148 since mid-March, and 21 additional deaths for a total of 1,924.

The highest-ever daily number of new cases statewide was 2,481 on July 18.

Forsyth County public-health officials reported 42 new cases for an overall total of 4,833. The number of deaths in the county remained at 48.

The DHHS said 1,229 North Carolinians are currently hospitalized with COVID-19-related illnesses, down 10 from Thursday. The record high of 1,272 was reported Wednesday.

There have been more than 1,000 hospitalizations in the state every day since July 7.

The DHHS said, as of 4 p.m. Monday, that about 81% of North Carolinians who have contracted COVID-19 were considered recovered.

Forsyth County health officials said that, as of 12:45 p.m. Friday, 3,294 residents were counted as recovered for an active COVID-19 case count of 1,491.

Guilford County has reported 5,093 cases since mid-March, including 51 new cases Thursday. The number of deaths remained at 142.

There have been at least 19,192 cases in the 14-county Triad and Northwest North Carolina region, representing 15.77% of statewide cases. There have been 316 reported deaths, representing 16.4% of the statewide total.

There have been 11 cases in the Forsyth County jail, all staff members. The DHHS said Friday that seven inmates in the Surry County jail and three inmates in Randolph County’ are infected.

The 16-county Triad Healthcare Preparedness Coalition has more intensive-care beds in use, at 418, than any other region in the state, as well as the second most inpatient beds in use, at 3,474. Both counts include patients with and without COVID-19.

The Triad region has the state’s second highest total of adult COVID-19 patients in ICU, at 79, down one from Thursday. It also has the second highest total of COVID-19-related hospitalizations, at 254, down 25 from Thursday.

Unemployment benefit claims in North Carolina slow down as federal supplement ends

The expiration — for now — of the federal unemployment insurance benefit supplement has led to a week-long decline in new claims in North Carolina.

However, economists said Friday it’s too early to determine whether there is a trend of fewer claims.

The N.C. Division of Employment Security reported that as of 10 a.m. Friday, new claims were below 10,000 for six of the last seven days. That includes 6,289 new claims Thursday.

Since mid-March, 1.21 million North Carolinians have filed a combined 2.06 million state and federal jobless claims. Some people have been required to file a second claim — after being determined to be ineligible for initial state benefits — in order to qualify for federal benefits that often include extended state benefits.

About 28.5% of the 4.23 million North Carolinians considered in the state’s workforce as of mid-June have filed a state or federal unemployment claim.

About 69% of claimants, or 834,823, have been approved for benefits, while 23%, or 278,312, were determined to not be eligible.

North Carolinians altogether have received $6.63 billion in paid state and federal UI benefits since March 15, primarily coming from the weekly $600 supplement.

However, the federal benefits will shrink drastically once claimants’ final $600 weekly payment is received this week.

The $3 trillion federal CARES Act stimulus package, passed in late April, extends state benefits by up to 13 weeks for most claimants once they exhaust their initial 12 weeks of regular state benefits.

Even though the 13 weeks are paid by the federal government, the weekly amount adheres to state benefit guidelines of a $350 maximum.

The extension is not automatic. According to the U.S. Labor Department, claimants “need to apply for them” at each extended benefit step, which could delay payments.

The Trump administration, Republican-controlled U.S. Senate and Democratic-controlled U.S. House continue to plead their case for what extended weekly benefit amount and number of weeks to provide. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rolled out a $1 trillion package Monday that would provide $200 a week in federal unemployment benefits through Sept. 30, and then provide 70% of claimants’ previous salary beginning no later than November.

Meanwhile, Democrats want to continue the $600 weekly benefit through the end of the year.

The White House said Thursday night it would support a short-term extension of up to $600 in weekly federal UI benefits, according to The Associated Press.

With any agreement, it could take additional weeks to activate the agreed-upon changes within each state’s unemployment insurance system.

“If continuing claimants see their benefits fall sharply in value, they might feel it is no longer worth filing continuing claims,” said John Quinterno, a principal with South by North Strategies, a research firm specializing in economic and social policy. “I also could see many claimants not realizing fully what is going on until they receive their first reduced insurance check.

“At the same time, many people may keep filing on the grounds that any benefits — even grossly inadequate ones — are better than nothing.

“They may hope, too, that Congress can reach an agreement and renew the program with supplements paid retroactively,” Quinterno said.

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday that Congress “needs to put politics aside and do what’s right as this pandemic still rages on. The $200 is not enough with people being out of work for a longer period of time.”

Cooper continues to point to the lack of interest in the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly to extend state UI benefits beyond a weekly maximum of $350 and a maximum of 12 weeks — the latter tied with Florida for lowest in the nation.

Those rules were created in July 2013 when the Republicans held a veto-proof super-majority in the state legislature and Republican Pat McCrory was governor.

During the legislature’s negotiations of how to spend federal CARES Act money in March, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said he was willing to consider raising the state’s weekly maximum to $400.

Cooper said Tuesday he supports a $400 state weekly benefit, “even a little bigger than that.”

During the 2020 session, the legislature did not take any committee action on two Democratic-sponsored pieces of UI-focused legislation, House Bill 1075 and companion Senate Bill 792, that would have restored the number of UI weeks to 26 and set a weekly maximum of $400.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate nearly tripled from 4.3% in March to 12.2% in April and 12.9% in May before dropping stunningly to 7.6% in June. Individuals without jobs and not actively looking for work are not counted as part of the labor force.

The state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund was at close to $3.85 billion before the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic began. Since then, $1.54 billion has been paid out, or 40% of the fund’s total.

The remaining UI payment breakdown is $4.56 billion from the federal pandemic unemployment-compensation package; $328.3 million in the federal pandemic unemployment-assistance package; $201.2 million in pandemic-emergency unemployment compensation, and $3.2 million in special extended benefits.

That means that 76.8% of UI payments to North Carolinians are coming from federal sources, mostly the $600 weekly benefit.