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Firefighters: Report confirms racism in the Winston-Salem Fire Department

A leader of the Omnibus firefighters' group said Tuesday that a consultant's report on the racial climate in the Winston-Salem Fire Department confirms the group's claim that racism and discrimination are happening in the department.

The report, delivered to the city's Public Safety Committee on Monday, said that the fire department as an organization is not racist. One of the study's authors said the Winston-Salem Fire Department was a progressive leader on race.

But the consultants also said the allegations of individual acts of racism were serious enough to warrant diversity training for fire employees.

"It actually substantiates the things we have been saying for the last seven months," said Thomas Penn, the lead spokesman for the Omnibus group, which formed last summer to protest what the group of current and former firefighters called ongoing racism in the department. "These acts have occurred, there are racists in the department, and it creates a hostile work environment."

Omnibus is asking the city to fire Chief William "Trey" Mayo and other fire department employees they say have either engaged in racist acts or, in Mayo's case, allegedly failed to discipline offending employees.

The report, a "Climate Assessment" of the fire department, was carried out by WPR Consulting LLC., and came about after Omnibus launched its accusations of racism.

The Black firefighters told of incidents ranging from hazing that included spitting in the shoes of a Black firefighter to comments that a fire captain is alleged to have made about running over Black Lives Matters protesters.

The Black firefighters also complained about social media posts made by white fire employees that the Omnibus group labeled "racist and threatening," in a grievance the group has filed with the city.

The WPR consultants didn't try to determine whether any of the alleged racial incidents actually occurred, since that was not why they were hired.

But the consultants did say that what they found when they looked at the Winston-Salem Fire Department was a lot different from what they heard about the department going into the study.

"We heard that the Winston-Salem Fire Department was racist and that the chief was racist," Willie Ratchford, the president of WPR, told members of the city's Public Safety Committee on Monday while presenting the report. "We found the fire department to be a very progressive organization that has been a leader in the country when it comes to race and integration."

Among historical achievements, Ratchford cited the local fire department forming the state's first integrated fire company, hiring the first paid female firefighter in the state and possibly the country, and becoming fully integrated in 1967.

Since Mayo came on board, the consultants said, the fire department has continued to rack up a good record with minority promotion: The department got its first Black female battalion and division chiefs, its first Black male division chief and other marks of achievement.

Mayo declined comment on the study on Tuesday, saying he was referring media to Assistant City Manager Damon Dequenne.

Dequenne said that the purpose of the assessment was not to refute or back the Omnibus assertions, but to get an honest read on the department. In that the consultants succeeded, Dequenne said.

"We are pleased with the results and anxious to get started on the recommendations," he said. "I would say that the input received from the participants indicate that the leadership of our fire department has continued this long tradition of being progressive and proactive with diversity in the workplace."

The report did document comments from both white and Black firefighters that there was racism and racists in the fire department. The assessment also described a culture clash between Black and Hispanic firefighters recruited from urban settings, and white firefighters with a more rural background.

The city's next step, Dequenne said, is to start moving forward on putting into place diversity training for firefighters, along with some of the other recommendations in the assessment.

The training would be provided to new hires and current employees, and eventually, to all city employees, Dequenne said.

Dequenne, in presenting the assessment to council members, wrote that "this assessment was not an investigation into specific claims," and that those claims "have been and are under investigation by the city attorney's office and your human resources department."

Penn said he sees that the firefighters who said offensive things are still on the job.

"Our concern is that the investigation has not even begun," Penn said.

Meanwhile, city officials say that the city's legal team and human resources officials are finishing the process of conducting interviews relating to the grievance filing that the Black firefighters made in October.

The interviews would be followed by hearings on the complaints, but those are not open to the public because they involve personnel decisions.  

The grievance makes the same complaints against Mayo and other white fire employees that the Omnibus group made in its more informal public announcements last summer.


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Forsyth jail outbreak jumps to 224 COVID-19 cases, including 186 inmates and 38 staffers, state health agency reports.

A total of 224 people have tested positive since an outbreak of COVID-19 began at the Forsyth County Jail in November, including 186 inmates and 38 staffers, according to the latest numbers released Tuesday by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. 

That's an increase of 39 from from Friday, when 185 people had tested positive for the virus. Despite the increase, Forsyth County commissioners who approve funding for the jail said they support the sheriff's office's efforts to control the outbreak.

The jail outbreak remains the second largest in the state, behind the Mecklenburg County Jail. The state health department reported a total of 276 people who had tested positive since the outbreak began at the Mecklenburg County Jail, including 32 staffers and 244 inmates. The state health agency lists one death -- a staffer -- since the outbreak began. A spokeswoman for the Mecklenburg County Jail has disputed the state's numbers and said that there have been no deaths related to COVID-19 at the jail. 

Christina Howell, a spokeswoman for the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office, said Friday that sheriff's officials would no longer answer specific questions about the numbers there and said that from now on, all media inquiries about specific numbers of COVID-19 cases at the jail would be referred to the state health department.

The Winston-Salem Journal has requested emails and other correspondence between the sheriff's office, the county health department, the jail's medical provider (Wellpath) and the state health department about how the jail has handled COVID-19 cases.

No deaths have been reported at the Forsyth County Jail. 

Mass testing

As of Friday, the jail had 565 inmates and 223 detention officers.

The jail population fluctuate as new inmates come in and others are released. 

On Tuesday, Howell said there are protocols for when an inmate who has tested positive is released. A staff member from Wellpath, the jail's medical provider, reviews a form with the inmate that contains instructions about quarantine requirements.

That inmate signs the form and is given a copy, and the sheriff's office notifies the Forsyth County Health Department that the inmate has been released, Howell said. That allows a county case investigator to follow up with the inmate, Howell said. 

Some of the increase in numbers came after another mass testing last week. 

The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners approves the budget for the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office, which operates the Forsyth County Jail. Several commissioners contacted Tuesday by the Journal said that Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. is doing the best he can to control the jail outbreak. 

"Frankly speaking, Sheriff Kimbrough is doing all that's humanly possible," said Dave Plyler, the board's chairman. "He's working with the health department....I think they're doing the best they can."

Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt agreed. 

"I think he's on top of the problem," she said. 

Even though the commissioners control the purse strings of the sheriff's office, Whisenhunt said she doesn't feel qualified to second-guess decisions Kimbrough makes about working to reduce the jail population. 

"All of those decisions would need to be made by the elected sheriff and the elected DA (Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill)," she said. "That's their call and not mine."

She said she believes Kimbrough is "extremely concerned for the inmates."

Commissioner Fleming El-Amin, who has criticized Wellpath in the past, said he hopes that Joshua Swift, the director of the Forsyth County Health Department, moves to vaccinate inmates as soon as possible. El-Amin is the vice-chairman of the consolidated board overseeing the health department and the Forsyth County Department of Social Services.

He said he also understands that inmates who have tested positive are being isolated at the jail.

"I would hate to see anyone pass away from COVID-19," he said. 

Don Martin, vice-chairman of the board of commissioners, said there is no doubt that the outbreak at the Forsyth County Jail is bad. He said he believes that Kimbrough is doing the best he can and he won't question his decisions about reducing the jail population.

Kimbrough said in a statement on Friday that the "numbers are forever changing."

"We are in the middle of a pandemic, not only in Forsyth County but worldwide," he said. "We are committed to the safety of the residents of the Detention Center. We will continue to be vigilant as we combat this pandemic in the Detention Center and in our community."

Critics remain

Triad Abolition Project, Forsyth County Community Bail Fund and Prisoner Outreach Initiative have all criticized the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office on how it has handled the COVID-19 outbreak.

Julie Brady, president of the Forsyth County Community Bail Fund, said this week that she is disappointed that the numbers continue to increase. On Friday, she referenced a news conference that Kimbrough held on Dec. 21, partially to respond to criticism. Over the two weeks after Kimbrough held the news conference, her group bailed out 25 inmates, she said. On the first day, the jail population was 587.

When the group bailed out the 25th inmate, Brady said, the jail population was 590. The lowest bond that the group paid was $150.

"Whatever protective measures they have inside are clearly not working," Brady said Tuesday. She said her group continues to demand that Kimbrough, Winston-Salem Police Chief Catrina Thompson, O'Neill and Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin do more to reduce the jail population. She said the district attorney's office could stop setting secured bonds for some offenses. And Winston-Salem police officers and sheriff's deputies can stop arresting people for non-violent and minor offenses.

"It's a very concerning situation and it's frustrating that our law-enforcement departments aren't doing much about it," she said. 

Sheriff's officials have said that all new inmates are quarantined for 14 days and are tested on the fifth day they are at the jail. Howell said in an email Friday that detention officers have recently started wearing only N95 or KN95 masks while around inmates. Before, they had worn those kind of masks only in certain areas of the jail. Inmates are now being issued two surgical masks every day, she said. Inmates have been restricted in movement inside the jail due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

An outbreak at a correctional facility is not considered over until 28 days after the latest date of onset in a symptomatic individual. Inmates are considered no longer infectious after they exhibit no symptoms and completed required isolation, which is 14 days, according to the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

Photos: Triad Abolition Project's March around Forsyth County Jail

President Donald Trump gestures as he steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Valley International Airport, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Harlingen, Texas.


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Mass COVID-19 vaccination site planned for Forsyth. Fairgrounds will likely be used.

Forsyth County has been listed as one of nine communities in North Carolina with a planned mass vaccination site for COVID-19, state Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen told legislators Tuesday.

The Winston-Salem Fairgrounds is the likely choice of site, Forsyth Manager Dudley Watts said.

“We are working on a fairgrounds site and are trying to finalize it” with the county Board of Commissioners, Watts said.

Cohen said the mass sites are part of the state Department of Health and Human Services' attempts to ramp up vaccine distribution. The goal is for the nine sites to administer an estimated 45,500 vaccinations on a weekly basis.

Neither Cohen nor DHHS officials could be reached after her presentation for details about the Forsyth site.

Meanwhile, the Guilford County Division of Public Health and Cone Health said Tuesday they will begin large-scale COVID-19 vaccinations at the Greensboro Coliseum Special Events Center on Jan. 19.

The vaccinations are appointment-only and for those 75 and older in the first subgroup of the state's Phase 1B vaccination plan. The groups project starting with a 750 vaccination per day rate.

North Carolinians are not limited by their county of residence in getting the vaccine.

Grilling

The frustratingly slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccine statewide and at the county level spurred a grilling of Cohen during Tuesday's joint legislative healthcare oversight committee hearing.

Although there was not an overtly political tone to the inquiries, several Republican legislators expressed exasperation with the rollout, including committee co-chairs Sen. Joyce Krawiec and Rep. Donny Lambeth, both from Forsyth.

There were bipartisan questions about distribution bottlenecks, whether state or county health officials should be in charge of distribution at the local level, whether to change the priorities of who gets the vaccine, and how to insure all doses are disbursed as quickly as possible.

Legislators cited media reports showing North Carolina lagging behind in vaccinations.

A New York Times report, last updated Friday, has North Carolina ranked 41st with just 2% of its population having at least one Pfizer or Moderna vaccine dose, or 211,512 out of 10.5 million residents.

A Bloomberg News report ranked North Carolina 42nd in terms of percentage of doses (27.8%) used, although the state was 12th in total doses administered.

DHHS reported during Tuesday's meeting that the total was up to 257,165 doses. The breakdown is 219,173 through community sites and 37,922 at long-term care facilities through CVS Health and Walgreens.

DHHS said it has allocated 417,500 doses to hospitals and county health departments with all 100 counties having received doses. Another 165,900 doses have gone to CVS Health and Walgreens.

Plan questioned 

DHHS submitted in October its first version of its distribution plan to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cohen said in October that DHHS' goal for the plan "is to immunize everyone who is eligible for and wants a COVID-19 vaccine."

Both Cohen and Cooper acknowledged with the submission that phases of distribution would be necessary because of an expected limited initial vaccine supply from the federal government.

"The (Cooper) administration had 10 months to draft and refine a plan to distribute a vaccine that everybody in the world knew was in development," Krawiec said.

"But, they didn't even effectively plan for something as simple as what to do when too many people call asking to schedule their vaccination."

Cohen addressed comments about the state's distribution plan by saying, "it was hard to plan to scale when you didn't know what your allocation was going to be (from) the federal government."

The current combined weekly allotment of the Pfizer and Moderna allotments is 120,000, Cohen said.

"As we more know what is coming" on a weekly basis, "we can plan better as we go forward," Cohen said.

On Tuesday, Cohen said that "everyone will have a spot to take their shot."

Cohen then cautioned that "it will be many, many months until everyone is going to get access to the vaccine."

Distribution

Some states emphasized first vaccinating its elderly population regardless of health status.

N.C. DHHS chose to insure vaccination allotments in all 100 counties.

That strategy leaned on county health departments, along with providing additional doses to the state's largest healthcare systems and hospitals to help cover large population bases.

Cohen acknowledged that while some county health departments have made remarkable progress with vaccination appointments and allocations, others have struggled enough that DHHS may opt to transfer some of their doses to more efficient pathways.

Sen. Jim Burgin, R-Harnett, said his biggest concern is that the county-centric distribution system "is ripe for confusion."

He expressed dissatisfaction with counties that opted for a first-come, first-served format that has left individuals ages 75 and older waiting in lines for hours, if not overnight, in a cold car.

"I don't think it's safe for them to be exposed like this," Burgin said. "I'd love to hear a great solution to this."

Cohen said DHHS' recommendation to counties is to rely on appointments.

"We want to empower every single county to have access points for vaccination, but we also know we need to centralize through some high-throughput sites," Cohen said.

Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, encouraged DHHS to set up a better job with allowing individuals to pre-register and to encourage county health departments to do weekend vaccinations, including taking doses to houses of worship, to reach minority communities.

"We have got to eliminate these bottlenecks, if that means counties offering vaccinations 12 to 16 hours a day," Rabon said. "Let's be flexible. Let's make changes every day."

Krawiec concluded the Cohen presentation by challenging DHHS to acknowledge that "the status quo is completely unacceptable, and the failure of the county-centric model was known before planning even began."

"We have been in a crisis, but we don't seem to be handling the vaccine rollout as if we're in a crisis, with all hands on deck and everybody who can administering those vaccines."

Federal changes

Trump administration health officials announced Tuesday a series of major changes, perhaps foremost lowering the priority age range for those getting a vaccination from 75 and older to 65 and older.

Another shift would include emphasize vaccinations earlier for individuals under age 50 with compromised health systems.

One caution cited by Alex Azar, secretary of U.S. DHHS, could have a direct impact on North Carolina.

The Associated Press reported Azar said that U.S. DHHS will base each state's allocation of vaccines partly on how successful states have been in administering those already provided.

"If you are not using vaccines that you have the right to, then we should be rebalancing to states that are using that vaccine," Azar said.

Cohen said DHHS will review the new DHHS recommendations and "come back very quickly."


Crime-and-courts
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‘Stop shooting at my house,’ says sister of 9-year-old hit by gunfire in Winston-Salem

A 9-year-old girl, shot in the foot when someone opened fire on her home in southeastern Winston-Salem Monday night, was afraid to go home after getting medical attention, a relative said Tuesday.

Ailani Salinas was released from a local hospital early Tuesday, said Jacqueline Salinas, her sister.

“She was screaming that she didn’t want to come back home,” Jacqueline Salinas said of Ailani.

Ailani, a virtual student at Union Cross Elementary School, is recovering from her injury, Jacqueline Salinas said. Ailani is staying with another relative in Winston-Salem.

Winston-Salem police were called to the 1800 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive shortly after 10 p.m. Monday. Four people were inside when someone fired several rounds at the home.

The bullet that struck the Ailani penetrated a bedroom window, police said. No one else inside the home was injured.

Jacqueline Salinas, 24, said she was working at her job as a delivery driver when the shots were fired at the home. She said that 10 to 15 shots were fired at the home, and about 10 bullets penetrated the dwelling.

“It was shocking,”  Jacqueline Salinas said. “I want them to stop shooting at my house. We have little kids here.”

No arrests have been made, police said.

A neighbor who declined to give her name said she felt bad that a shooting had happened in the area.

“I hope she’s OK,” the woman said about Ailani.

Another neighbor who also declined to give her name said she heard the gunfire Monday night, but she doesn’t know Ailani.

Gunfire happens sporadically in the neighborhood, the second woman said, but she feels safe living there.

Jacqueline Bridges, a city resident who works near the site of the shooting, said she thinks the area is mostly safe, but that Winston-Salem has too much violence.

“I hear about the shootings all the time in Winston-Salem,” Bridges said.

James Bedsworth of Winston-Salem also said that the neighborhood along South MLK is typically safe, but he has seen what he described as gang activity in the area.

Last year, he saw one group of teens chasing another group of teens, Bedsworth said.

Jacqueline Salinas sees things differently.

“This isn’t a safe neighborhood,” Salinas said. “There is always something happening in the streets.”

Anyone with information about the shooting can call Winston-Salem police at 336-773-7700 or Crime Stoppers at 336-727-2800. Crime Stoppers of Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County is on Facebook.


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