Asheville – Buncombe County’s Public Health Director, Stacie Saunders, provided the commissioners with an update on the latest wave of COVID-19. The updates have lost the limelight they enjoyed in the era of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings, back when people were suffering and dying and there was no known cure.
The latest wave is not so alarming. Infection rates are high, but hospitalizations remain relatively low; deaths have flatlined with only one in the previous week. Saunders remained “cautiously optimistic” about what appeared to be the leveling of the current spike, noting Memorial Day weekend, a time when people flock to the area to participate in large gatherings, had just passed.
Saunders attributed current low hospitalization rates to vaccination, testing, and treatment. There are, in fact, one-stop locations that will test and issue and fill same-day prescriptions for eligible people testing positive. These Test to Treat locations include pharmacies and urgent care centers and may be found at https://covid-19-test-to-treat-locator-dhhs.hub.arcgis.com/.
Vaccines are still being offered by the county’s Immunization Clinic at 40 Coxe Avenue downtown and other providers, which may be found at https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/vaccines. Appointments are usually needed. In the interest of equity, the county is about to deploy its first mobile vaccination team to DisAbility Partners on Leicester Highway.
Saunders said the county is moving to a dimmer-switch COVID response, such that it will retain scalable surge response. Due to low demand, the state has announced it will stop supporting testing vendors on July 31. The county has been working with the vendor, Starmed, and Starmed has consolidated services to a single location in the Asheville Mall. Saunders said the county is now in negotiations to keep Starmed on a retainer, as another COVID surge is expected in the fall and/or winter.
Saunders advised members of the public to keep home-testing kits on-hand. COVID, with its variants, was going to be a part of the new normal, and people believing they could be infected likely would not want to go to a pharmacy and infect others. Insurance companies usually pick up a fair share of the purchase price of off-the-shelf kits, and free kits may be ordered from www.covid.gov/tests, but delivery may take three weeks.
Also newsworthy, the Food and Drug Administration will be reviewing vaccines for infants six months old and up. Moderna’s vaccine would be safe for children up to five years old; Pfizer’s is only significant for children up to four years old because it already has a vaccine safe for five-year-olds. If these vaccines are approved, they will be released by June 21.
In Another Matter
Later in the meeting, the county’s Justice Services Director, Tiffany Iheanacho, spoke of an initiative on which the county has been working since 2020. She wanted to be clear that the initiative and her presentation had been getting ahead of issues and was not in any way reactionary to “several recent homicides in our community.”
Iheanacho is working to reduce the local jail population by, among other things, “addressing racial disparities.” She is funded through two $1.75 million Safety + Justice challenge grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Work began with the observation that “both violence and the justice system have disparate impacts on black people living in Buncombe County.” To illustrate, Iheanacho noted that in 2019, blacks comprised 6.3% of the county’s population, 25% of the jail population, and 69% of the victims of gun violence. Then, after COVID spurred the early release of inmates, the jail population was left 33% black. “Some of this language and work went into us declaring racism a public safety and public health crisis,” she said. That was before July of 2020, when seven of the nine homicide victims that year were black men.
To start things off, community engagement listening sessions were held, where common problems articulated two decades ago – like differential treatment of the poor and people of color, lack of positive male role models, distrust of authority, difficulty navigating the criminal justice system without a lawyer, and discharge to poverty – remained at the forefront. Then, select police data compiled for 2021 showed no change in disparity.
So, Iheanacho’s team sent out a request for proposals that resulted in the awarding of five grants. Four went to the community-led initiatives: SPARC, which works to keep people out of jail; My Daddy Taught Me That, which teaches young men how to become responsible adults; Umoja, which helps people uncover and overcome trauma damage in their own lives; and the Racial Justice Coalition, which seeks the undoing of systemic racism and institutional violence against people of color. The fifth grant will support the development of a comprehensive plan.
Listed outcomes of these partnerships included counts of individuals participating in healing conversations, trauma and resilience training, youth mentorships, and resource support services. The collaborations were deemed sufficiently successful to continue with MacArthur grant funding next year. Other supported initiatives will help disadvantaged people regain their driving privileges, navigate the court system, receive counseling for mental health and substance abuse, and benefit from interactions with law enforcement officers who have received special training. Another anticipated activity will be the establishment of a violence interruption program in Buncombe County.
Taking a more traditional approach to decreasing crime, the sheriff’s department provided an update on its Realtime Intelligence Center. The system allows dispatchers and others at Emergency Services headquarters to view incidents in a livestream. The system is capable of working with “thousands and thousands” of cameras, which are only activated when an alarm is sounded. The same cameras can capture evidence for investigations. The system was deployed primarily to help with school incidents, such as being able to see when an active shooter flees. Another part of the system is a large map that tracks officer activity. Chair Brownie Newman had concerns about privacy, but he was told most of the cameras were “already there.”
The second part of this presentation was a request to allow the surveillance service to act as an enterprise fund. Newman had questions here, too. He was told businesses would pay a flat fee of $60 per camera per year. Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara then wanted a better understanding of the constitutional implications of getting businesses to fund and participate in the surveillance of public spaces. Newman concurred. He thought there should be parameters plus opportunities for public input. Again, he was told the cameras were “already there.” Business owners just wouldn’t have to go through the headache of searching through tapes for clues; the cameras would only be activated during incidents.