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Health department clinic closes after provider tests positive for COVID-19

The Pitt County Health Department clinic is closed after a part-time employee learned on Thursday they tested positive for COVID-19, Public Health Director Dr. John Silvernail said.

The employee, who is described only as a health care provider, was tested last Friday at the Walmart testing site on Southwest Greenville Boulevard and was notified about the positive results on Thursday, Silvernail said.

“They are a health care provider and thought they should be tested for general principle. They were not sick in any way,” he said.

The individual, who last worked on Tuesday, is asymptomatic, but 10 co-workers have been sent home to quarantine, Silvernail said.

“They will not report back to work until they test negative and no longer pose a risk to our patients or other staff members,” Silvernail said.

Testing will take place in six days, he said on Thursday.

Silvernail said the employee came in contact with four patients. The health department is contacting them and offering testing in six days.

The health department worker is the first Pitt County employee to test positive for the novel coronavirus.

The City of Greenville reported last month that two drivers with the Greenville Area Transit System tested positive for COVID-19. When asked on Thursday if any more employees tested positive, a city spokesman said, “if a city employee tests positive for COVID-19 and that employee works in a position that has contact with the public, we will provide public notice. We will also work closely with other employees who might have been exposed to ensure they monitor their conditions, are tested as needed, and are appropriately isolated if necessary.”

Once the other employees are tested, the materials will be sent to the state lab of public health, Silvernail said. The results should be ready in two or three days. When the results are returned, a decision whether to reopen the health department clinic will be made, he said.

“As soon as we get adequate staffing to run our clinic we will reopen our clinic and run our equipment,” he said.

The department will provide some telehealth services. Individuals who were scheduled for certain services, such as tuberculosis test checks, will be seen by nurses who weren’t exposed.

The likelihood the employee spread the infection to others is low, Silvernail said. Asymptomatic individuals are less efficient at spreading the virus, but it is still possible for them to spread it, he said.

“As far as we know the provider was wearing a mask in the clinic. I think the risk to my staff and to the patients that were served that day were very low,” Silvernail said. “Unfortunately as this continues to circulate in the community we will likely to see more of this where people inadvertently expose others.”

A six-day wait before testing is recommended because a false negative could come from testing too soon, he said.

“The virus needs some time to incubate in an individual before you can detect it,” he said.

The most common time to develop the illness after exposure is one to three days. Many people have presented by five days and most everybody has presented by day six or seven, Silvernail said.

With in-person clinical services suspended, patients who have upcoming appointments will be contacted to reschedule, or to be served via telehealth. Walk-in clinical services will not be provided until further notice. Further disinfection measures will be taken, in addition to the cleaning procedures currently in place.

The Women, Infants and Children Program and other non-clinical services will be provided as usual. The Health Department will continue to provide temperature checks of anyone entering the facility. Individuals are encouraged to wear a face covering, cloth mask or scarf as an additional protective measure.

Individuals who are sick should not visit the health department, Silvernail said.

“I hate to send anybody to the emergency department, but the emergency department is available if someone needs care urgently,” he said. “We will try to be up and running for those services that were suspended as soon as possible.”

Pitt County reported the cumulative positive testing total for COVID-19 on Thursday was 267, four cases higher than Wednesday. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported 273 cases in Pitt County on Thursday, six cases higher than its total for Wednesday.

Thursday marked the fifth incubation cycle or — 10 weeks — since the first COVID-19 case was identified in Pitt County, Silvernail said.

“Unfortunately it also is the day we dreaded would come for some time, the day one of our own health care workers tested positive for COVID-19,” he said.

“While we have taken steps to protect our staff and clients from COVID-19 viruses are devilish things and (have) found a gap in our defenses,” he said.

Shall we gather? Churches differ in plans to reopen after pandemic restrictions lifted

After 11 weeks of online worship, Pastor Aaron Kennedy is ready for Opendoor Church to be open more than in name only. So on Sunday, the church doors will be opened to the congregation for the first time since March.

That date is Pentecost. Coming 50 days after Easter, it is a day that many denominations consider the birthday of the Christian church.

“I do believe that Pentecost Sunday is significant,” Kennedy said of the date the church has set for its first gathering since a shutdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus. “Easter was a time in the disciples' lives where they were scattered and they were living in fear even though Jesus had secured redemption for them. But Pentecost was when the Holy Spirit drew them back together.”

Thousands of pastors across the country, some in defiance of governors' orders in their states, have vowed to bring congregants back into their sanctuaries on Pentecost, the day Jesus had promised his presence would come to those waiting in Jerusalem. But for some area congregations, the wait continues.

Even though restrictions on religious gatherings in North Carolina have been lifted, many churches have hesitated to issue a call to worship — at least under one roof.

'The right thing'

“The Apostle Paul says just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do something,” said Mike Dixon, pastor of Winterville Baptist Church. “To show love to one another, we can't always do what we'd like to do. We've got to do what's the right thing to do.”

The church has an attendance of about 100 people, many of them senior adults considered at high-risk for COVID-19. Dixon, who became pastor on March 3, had preached one Sunday in the sanctuary before churches closed.

After that, the congregation had to resort to live-streaming to get to know their shepherd's voice. In recent weeks, the church has purchased an FM transmitter so that it could begin drive-in worship services.

“As a new pastor, my wife and I were looking forward to going into people's homes, getting to know people, having a slice of pie and a cup of coffee,” Dixon said. “God had something else in mind.”

As the pandemic has brought a shift in plans across the landscape, members of Sycamore Hill Missionary Baptist Church have watched what seemed like a banner year turn into one that was extraordinary in ways no one would have imagined.

In 2020, the church was to have celebrated its 160th anniversary, along with the installation of the Rev. James Alexander as senior pastor. This also was to be the year for the dedication of the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza, a $2 million monument to the church that once stood on what is now the Greenville Town Common.

“We had visions of grandeur, so to speak, in terms of celebrating,” Alexander said. “We really had to pull back because right now we have the uncertainty of when we can gather.”

For now, Sycamore Hill has no gathering dates on its calendar. Alexander, who began his work there in October 2019, plans to continue virtual worship services and Bible studies on Zoom for the foreseeable future.

Alexander said he is concerned about the risk for the many senior adults who are among his congregation of about 300. Although the sanctuary can accommodate more than twice that number, he has not set a date for bringing people back inside.

“It's very personal for me,” said Alexander, whose wife is a chaplain at Duke University Hospital in Durham. “I do take this pandemic very seriously because it impacts our household."

A doctoral candidate whose final paper deals with transitioning into a new church environment, Alexander knew before taking the position at Sycamore Hill that Greenville sees its share of hurricanes. But he never imagined a pandemic.

“You always can anticipate that you may experience some discomfort with change or transition, but I don't think anyone has predicted that we would encounter a pandemic,” he said. “I wish we had a manual in terms of how to proceed through this season, but we're literally writing it on the go.”

'Soft launch'

Travis Sneed has said more than once since beginning his job as executive pastor of Covenant Church in March that he wished he knew where his predecessor put the pandemic protocol notebook. Instead, leaders have been working to navigate how to bring about 2,000 congregants back to a worship service on one of Covenant's two campuses.

Covenant's Washington, N.C., location, which plans to return to indoor worship on Pentecost, has been able to host a drive-in service while its doors were closed. But Sneed said the church's Greenville congregation is too large to gather either in cars or on the lawn.

Covenant has set June 20-21 to relaunch its Saturday evening and Sunday morning gatherings in the sanctuary.

“We kind of are looking at it as a soft launch,” Sneed said. “It's not going to be the grand opening that many people would kind of hope for. We'll obviously be coming in with a number of restrictions.”

For the first three weeks, there will be no children's ministry and no coffee in the lobby in order to control crowding. The service will be considered a “touch-less” one, with no bulletins distributed or offering baskets passed. Volunteers will be required to wear face masks. Ushers will dismiss people by rows to avoid congestion at exits.

“We are trying to accommodate the most concerned people and also the most eager people to return to a sense of normalcy," Sneed said. "That's not always easy to do. “

The church is surveying its congregation to see when people plan to return. While large numbers of members have been viewing regularly online, many have expressed a desire to be present physically rather than virtually.

“Our Christian faith is one that is incarnational. We believe that Jesus is the son of God; he is God clothed in human flesh. He came to be with us," Sneed said.

“There's an element that has been lost as people sit in their living rooms," he said. "For many people, that's a sense of community.”

Church family

Pastor Gene Williams said members of Parkers Chapel Free Will Baptist Church feel like family, which is one reason the shutdown has been so hard on them.

“Our people are not customers. Our people are family,” said Williams, who has served with the church for 17 years — 12 as senior pastor. “We are a spiritual family, and just like you want to be with your family, our church folks want to be with each other.”

That is why the congregation began meeting outdoors on May 17, the day after a federal judge blocked enforcement of a state ban on large gatherings that did not exempt churches. An estimated 75 percent of the congregation turned out for the outdoor services, where Williams preached from the back of a flatbed truck belonging to a member who owns a towing company.

Outdoor worship services are part of the church's multi-phase plan for coming back together following the shutdown.

“There's not anything right now we're doing as a church at Parkers Chapel that we have not had to sit down and evaluate and say, 'Moving forward, what is the best way for us to do this?'” Williams said. “It's our reality right now.”

Within the next few weeks, the church hopes to move its congregation indoors, adding a second Sunday morning service to allow for social distancing. Williams expects that people will have to be seated in an overflow area in the fellowship hall and the family life center.

But crowd control is not expected to be as big a challenge as another aspect of social distancing — avoiding touch.

“Our people are used to hugging necks, shaking hands, fist bumping,” Williams said. “That's going to be, for our church, really as much an adjustment as probably anything.”

Handshakes and hugs are two of the things Father Romen Acero has missed most since Mass at St. Gabriel Church of the Sorrowful Mother went virtual in March.

“We are used to kissing each other, to hugging each other,” he said of the 320 families that attend St. Gabriel.

“We sit together, we have the meal together and we enjoy fellowship. All those things will not come back immediately.”

The Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, which includes eastern North Carolina, continues to waive the obligation for the faithful to attend Sunday Mass. But Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama, in a letter on May 22, left the decision of gathering for Mass to local priests. St. Peter Catholic Church began public Mass on May 23.

Acero said his church is not ready for such a move. Instead, the church will begin outdoor Mass at the end of May. The church building, including the restrooms, will remain closed. Congregants will wear masks, and will receive Communion in their hands, rather than on their tongues. Members have been instructed to avoid physical contact during the Sign of Peace — a traditional greeting that has often included handshakes.

“It's going to be difficult,” Acero said. “It's going to be challenging because we are used to that.”

Coming changes

Dixon said the pandemic may mean the end of some practices that congregations had considered traditional, but many are not things he views as essential.

“I don't think things are ever going to get back to the way they were, not in the way that we're doing church," he said, "and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

“Tradition, a lot of times, in a church can be a church's worst enemy. A lot of times it takes something like what we're dealing with right now to get to a place where we don't have any choice but to change.”

Opendoor is making numerous changes to be able to bring its members back. Perhaps the biggest is going from three services to five and requesting reservations in order to keep attendance from exceeding 35 percent capacity.

Kennedy said the sermon will on the screen rather than in person at the majority of the services, a change he expects his congregation will have no problem accepting.

“I think part of what's shifted in this day is that we don't go listen to a man or woman on a stage,” he said. “We go and we worship God because of what that does that's different than what we can experience online.”

He does expect some of the grief people have experienced during the pandemic due to the loss of their way of life will also be felt as they return to church.

“People are going to return to a church they don't remember because it does have to be different than when they left,” he said. “We need to give people time to begin to think about, process, what it will look like when they come back so they're not shocked by it.”

New season

Pentecost will be the first time Kennedy has stood in front of his congregation to speak since the funeral of his father, Opendoor co-founder Greg Kennedy, who died Feb. 18 at age 70.

In the weeks since, Aaron Kennedy has thought of how fitting one of his father's often-quoted phrases is for these unprecedented times.

“He said, 'What can be won't be unless you let go of what might have been,'” Kennedy said, quoting his father. “I just continue to replay that in my head and in my heart, that as a church we really do have to let go of what was so that we can really discover what God desires to do in this next season.”

Williams said that in this season, the church should not let become discouraged by  distance.

“We know that God is going to guide us in this,” he said. “He's going to lead us in what we're doing."

Williams pointed to the early church, where members were scattered, often due to persecution, as an example.

“Every letter that is written in the New Testament is written to a group of people that the author is not currently with,” he said. “The church was thriving at one point when they're weren't all even together.

“If God did that work then, he's the same God. He can certainly do that now.”