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North Carolina State quarterback Devin Leary (13) looks to throw the ball against Syracuse during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Health officials still urge COVID-19 safety precautions
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LENOIR — Although the COVID-19 numbers are trending in the right direction, local health leaders continue to urge residents to remain vigilant in taking precautions as concerns mount of a winter surge.

Across North Carolina, only about 56% of the population is fully vaccinated. The Caldwell County Health Department encourages residents to take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other flu-like illnesses during this holiday season.

“While COVID cases are currently decreasing in our county, it’s important to continue taking precautions to protect yourself and your family,” said Caldwell County Public Health Director Anna Martin.

The Health Department recommends everyone to stay and keep loved ones healthy. It is crucial to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot as colder weather looms along with holiday gatherings. Stay home when sick. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and remember to throw away the tissue. Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds at a time, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Wear a covering over your mouth and nose when you are unable to keep six feet distance between yourself and others.

The total population for Caldwell County is 82,482 residents, based on the 2021 U.S. Census. According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the average COVID-19 case count during November is 22.16 cases per day.

“This is down from what we’ve seen over the last four months,” said Paige Counts, Caldwell County public information officer.

The total number of deaths in the county has reached 224 since the very beginning of the pandemic. Caldwell has been home to 13,905 COVID-19 cases.

So far, about 47% of county residents have taken their first vaccine dose, and about 45% of the county’s residents are fully vaccinated. These numbers fall slightly behind the state averages: 61% of North Carolina residents have taken at least the first dose, and 56% are fully vaccinated.

“Right now, we’re just trying to get everyone vaccinated,” said Martin. “We want to get out as much information as we can and urge people to get vaccinated in order to stop the spread so we can return to normalcy.”

The health department has vaccines readily available every week from Tuesday to Thursday.

To treat patients who test positive for COVID-19, the health department has partnered with EMS Community Paramedics to provide monoclonal infusion therapy. To receive this infusion therapy, patients must have one of the following: one or more mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms; be within the first 10 days of the start of symptoms; be at high-risk for hospitalization due to pre-existing conditions.

To make an appointment with the health department for monoclonal therapy, COVID-19 testing, or to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, call 828-426-8400.

Blue Ridge Memorial Park Luminary Display set for Dec. 10th
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The city of Lenoir Luminary Display will be Friday, Dec. 10 at Blue Ridge Memorial Park on Wilkesboro Boulevard.

City staff will fill and light thousands of luminaries to display on the graves at Blue Ridge Memorial Park. The purpose of the event is to commemorate the people buried in the cemetery and to honor their families. Cars are expected to fill the cemetery roads for hours during the evening as people come to see the beautiful lights and remember their loved ones.

Staff will be using real candles this year.

Lighting generally starts around 4:30 p.m., and the Luminary Display starts at 6 p.m. The rain date will be Friday, Dec. 17th.

City's Hotel Street project underway
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LENOIR — The Hotel Street project aims to increase convenience and diminish high volume traffic near Wilkesboro Boulevard.

Contractors started clearing the Hotel Street connection on Monday, Nov. 22. The new section will improve accessibility to several properties in the area. When the project is complete, Hotel Street will connect Linkside Court to Hibriten Drive. Residents of Linkside Court, the Veridian apartments, and the Hampton Inn will be able to use Hibriten Drive during high traffic times. Rather than turning left directly onto Wilkesboro Boulevard, residents will be able to take Hotel Street, turn left on Hibriten, and turn left at the traffic light onto Wilkesboro Boulevard.

The NAPA Auto Parts and Blue Ridge Tire parking lots will also connect to the new section, which will increase access for their shoppers and employees.

Contractors have 75 calendar days to finish this project. Workers must grade the roadbed; extend a retaining wall; install storm drains, curbs, gutters, and guard rails; and pave the street. The project budget is $260,800.

New N.C. budget expands school choice
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RALEIGH — Many North Carolinians breathed a sigh of relief last week when the GOP-led legislature and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper came to terms on a budget for the new biennium. School choice advocates were among them and have plenty to celebrate in the new spending plan.

“There is greater demand for educational options than ever before. Thanks to the efforts of state lawmakers, North Carolina parents have even greater access to public and private school choice programs for their children,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation.

“This year, approximately one in four children are attending a school of choice. Yet, countless families still lack access to public charter schools or resources to attend nonpublic schools. This budget gets North Carolina much closer to ensuring that any family who chooses a school of choice will have the requisite access and resources for it.”

Under the new budget, the state’s largest school choice program — the Opportunity Scholarship Program — gets a significant boost. The maximum scholarship award amount jumps from a flat $4,200 a year to $5,900 per student. That amount is based on 90% of the state’s per-pupil spending on public schools, meaning that as spending increases each year, so does the value of the scholarship amount.

The new budget also opens the scholarship to new families by raising the income threshold to qualify from around $73,000 a year to about $85,000 a year.

All foster children may now qualify, regardless of their parents’ income level. The budget broadens the pool of students who qualify who are the children of recently honorably discharged service members.

N.C. Opportunity Scholarships are designed to give low- and moderate-income families the opportunity to leave their locally zoned public school and attend a private school that is a better fit for their students.

The budget also combines the Children with Disabilities Grant Program and Education Savings Account into one program to ensure adequate funding and reduce waitlists — to the tune of over $31 million in funding beginning with the 2022-23 school year. Currently, the disabilities grant and ESA program provide up to $8,000 and $9,000, respectively, for students with special needs to help defray the cost of tuition, specialized treatments, and therapies, or equipment.

For the current 2021-22 school year, the budget increases funding for the Disabilities Grant by nearly $6 million and by more than $9 million for the ESA program.

Cooper’s signature on the budget is significant due to his stalwart opposition to the Opportunity Scholarship Program and school choice in general. Cooper has been a vocal opponent of these scholarships, trying to zero out the program in his budget proposals year after year.

“This budget isn’t narrowly focused on public schools, although school districts will receive enormous benefits from it,” Stoops said. “Instead, lawmakers crafted a budget that embraces the concept of educational pluralism and parental decision-making in an unprecedented way.”