KINSTON, N.C. (WITN) - A group of well practiced dancers meet every Tuesday in Kinston to keep their legs moving and their romances marching to the beat.
The Kinston Seniors Dance was held at the Galaxy of Sports skating rink on West Vernon Avenue. With a soundtrack provided by the Carolina Dreamers, single and married folks were invited to twist the night away.
“With COVID and gas prices, it’s been a little slacked, but for the last two or three weeks, we are gaining back and tonight’s the biggest night we’ve had in, what, six months maybe,” said Patsy Pittman, the dance’s organizer. More than 80 people came to dance.
Each Tuesday, the doors open at 7:00 p.m. and the dance floor closes at 10:00 p.m.
For people like Laura Grant-- 102 years young and an available dance partner at the club for 30 years-- picking a favorite step does not come easily.
“I don’t know. I dance with Gilbert. We used to go all the way around the band and the place,” said Grant. “I love the boys!”
They’ve lost much of the group to COVID.
“It’s sad, but we have new people coming in so our job is never ending,” said Pittman.
The event encourages people of all dance skill levels to participate, and along with the smooth dancing comes free-flowing conversation.
Grant says her favorite thing about the dance club is that it gives her something to look forward to.
The senior dance is sponsored by the city’s parks and recreation department but is 100% self-funded. A different band performs every week.
GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - For more than 300,000 children in Eastern Carolina, school lunch is a necessity to get the nutrient-filled meals they need.
With the school year over, some families may be struggling to provide.
But in Greenville, the Salvation Army has partnered with the Food Bank to fill that gap, and all kids have to do is show up.
“Being fed, being full, and being nourished is not a privilege,” said volunteer Barcey Godwin. “It’s a basic human right.”
Until August 26, families can visit the Salvation Army on S. Memorial Dr. for a free meal for kids 18 years old and under every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.
Each day the menu is something different.
“Nachos and cheese, some milk, some vegetables and a banana,” said Anna Rossi in between bites. “It was really good.”
For the volunteers, going without food is a struggle that hits close to home.
“If they’re anything like me growing up, school food is the only food you have,” said Godwin.
It’s difficult for parents to keep everything from their children, no matter how hard they try.
Another volunteer, Matt Johnson, recalls growing up with his mom, who had to provide for two kids on one salary.
“I know she hit the food bank several times when I was growing up, probably more than I realized,” said Johnson.
At the end of June, millions of families are expecting the COVID free school lunch program to expire, but food insecurity is nothing new to the East.
“I’m 25 years old. I remember when I was 5 being hungry and there was no COVID 20 years ago,” said Godwin.
On Tuesday, a group of bipartisan lawmakers announced a bill that would extend the food program through the summer.
Amongst those spearheading the effort is republican senator Virginia Foxx from North Carolina’s fifth district.
But the extension has not yet been approved.
To have come through that hardship and make it out to the other side, volunteers are hoping to change the story for the next generation of kids.
“Maybe you’re eating toast because that’s all you’ve got is a loaf of bread and a toaster, but to be able to give people a chance at a relatively balanced meal, it’s definitely something I was interested in trying to do,” said Johnson.
If you are fortunate to not be experiencing food insecurity, volunteers say there is still something you can do to help: get the word out about the program.
In the first two days of the program, they have given away just 15-percent of the lunches they have available.
GREENE & HYDE COUNTIES, N.C. (WITN) - Many parents’ fears are being realized as information from the State Department of Public Instruction shows that students, on average, fell behind their academic pace by two to 15 months after their instruction was interrupted by the pandemic.
“The school is a sad place without all the children in it, and we have them back. We are so glad to have them back, and they are so glad to be back,” said Mattamuskeet Elementary School Principal Allison Etheridge.
Instruction is looking more as it did pre-pandemic. Now on the other side of fully remote learning, data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction shows where students have fallen behind in their learning.
The deepest hit came in math education. Students also fell behind in English Language Arts by two months and one week to seven months and three weeks.
“We have gaps that we haven’t seen in many years,” said West Greene Elementary School Principal Phil Cook. “[Teachers] have done such an amazing job, and I couldn’t be more proud of the work that they all do every single day. They are growing those students, and I’m very excited to see the gains at the end of the school year because I know from the data we’re looking at right now, our kids are growing.”
NCDPI says students will need intensive academic intervention to make up for hundreds to even more than a thousand hours of class time they couldn’t capitalize on, if they want to get back on track.
“We had to really take a deep dive into how are we going to teach these skills to our students because we normally don’t have to do that,” Cook said. “We’ve had a lot of professional development, guiding resources, dug deep, and got our hands dirty and started working with our students at the small groups tables on differentiating the work to meet those needs. They’re coming to us with some weaknesses that we hadn’t seen in years before.”
It’s all hands on deck to fill in the gaps for some of the state’s youngest learners.
“You pull a student who’s in need whether it’s your student or if it’s not because ultimately, they’re all our students and the goal is to get everybody where they need to be,” Etheridge said.
The focus isn’t just on academics, but social and emotional learning, too.
“Our second-grade students had never had a normal school year,” Cook said. “We’ve made sure that our teachers knew about that so that when our students came to us."
In order to try to help students catch back up, the state has outlined several upcoming summer programs focused on learning recovery using the Public Instruction department’s pandemic relief funds.
This summer, a “Career Accelerator” program will be geared toward preparing sixth through 12th grade students for careers, either out of high school or out of college.
A “Summer Bridge Academy” will be available for rising Kindergarten, sixth grade, ninth grade, and 12th grade students.
Two weeks before the start of the next school year, those students will focus on math and English, projects, and field trips, among other things.
The state will also direct a math enrichment program for fourth through eighth graders for before-school and after-school programs designed to help students accelerate their math learning and get back on track.
Schools can apply for the program in July.
GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - The BA.2 subvariant of omicron has risen to make up nearly 25-percent of the country’s COVID infections and the CDC is using household wastewater to track the disease.
Using this method, data can be collected without the variables of patient access to healthcare, seeking healthcare when ill, or the availability of COVID testing.
The World Health Organization labeled the BA.2 variant as the dominant variant across the globe. With mask guidelines more relaxed, eyes turn to the U.S. to make it through the summer without a repeat of sky-high case numbers.
For a while, researchers at East Carolina University were taking samples in Greenville.
"That gave us a target to say, ‘COVID was in this dorm, but not this dorm,’” said ECU’s Director of National Security Initiatives, Jim Menke. “There was a threshold and once it hit that threshold there was enough COVID in the wastewater to say there’s someone sick in that dorm.”
While the university has ended that initiative and opted for other means of COVID tracking, the state is participating in the Centers for Disease Control’s nationwide wastewater surveillance program.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says 24 sampling sites are currently part of the program and 12 more will be added soon.
“We believe it’s in the community. It’s always here,” said Menke. “It’s going to continue to develop variations of that virus.”
This kind of sampling evens the playing field when it comes to detection.
Wastewater measurements include everyone in a community, regardless of whether they have been tested, and can be completed at a fraction of the cost of clinical COVID-19 testing.
This method of disease tracking has been around for decades. In the 1940s it was instrumental in tracking and containing outbreaks of Polio.
Just last month the Associated Press reported 73-percent of the U.S. was considered immune from omicron.
The question that remains is: will that immunity be enough to stop another surge as mask regulations diminish?
Health experts stand strong behind vaccination as the most effective tool to fight COVID-19.
Since the beginning of the year, the number of fully vaccinated Americans increased just over two percent.
Pregnancy-related deaths rise in first year of pandemic, local provider responds
GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - The National Center for Health Statistics reports pregnancy related deaths in the United States have increased, continuing a climbing trend that resulted in an overall average of 24 deaths per 100,000 births during the first year of the pandemic.
Looking further into the trend’s history, maternal mortality has more than tripled in the past 35 years.
For black mothers, the maternal death rate was almost triple the amount of that for white mothers.
“It’s very distressing,” said Vidant Medical Center OBGYN Dr. James DeVente. “I think a lot of us always try to look for one thing that we can fix to make it all go away and we realize, it’s not just one thing.”
After spending time with their own son in the NICU, the Seyler Family created a nonprofit called Cameron’s Care Packages and Houses driven to increase education and opportunity for struggling mothers across ENC.
“As parents, we’ve been there,” said John Seyler. “If you don’t know where your next meal is going to be or your next place to sleep, how are you going to be able to care for this child and be successful?”
861 pregnancy-related deaths were recorded in the United States in 2020.
While there is no cure-all currently known to prevent the mortality rate of mothers during pregnancy, childbirth, or one year after birth, DeVente says Vidant Medical Center is working on a long term platform to decrease some of the contributing factors.
“What we have to do instead of trying to find a silver bullet that’s going to make this all go away is to basically have a multi-fork plan that will kind of capture all the things that we know are involved,” said Devente.
Addressing rising rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease is all included in the plan of attack to lower birth risks.
The hospital network is focusing on how to integrate education, collaboration, and standardization in every visit.
“I want to be able to the moms provide healthy meals for them and their babies,” said Lynn Seyler. “We’ll be transporting the moms to doctor’s appointments to make sure they get there and then to school and work.”
The Seyler Family follows suit to keep their community supported.
Researchers are looking into the wide reach the pandemic could have on this data.
Not only could COVID infection play a role in the trend directly, but at the start of the pandemic, mothers across the country felt hesitancy going into their doctors’ offices, trying to avoid infection.
Health professionals now work to rewrite that thought by encouraging expecting mothers to be seen by their doctors early and often.
Preventative prenatal care can help decrease birth mortality. At Vidant doctors have decreased the preterm delivery rate by more than 20 percent for infants born before 37 weeks within the last 10 years.
Greenville renter says she’s being forced to move out because she used state COVID-19 funding
GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - A Greenville renter says she has been told to move out of her apartment complex next month because she received financial assistance on her rental payments.
The renter, Nandi Barton, says she has paid her rent in full and on time since she started renting from Legacy at Fire Tower in September of 2020.
At that time, Barton moved to Greenville looking for a fresh start.
“Being a woman of color, you have that fear, that internal fear,” Barton said. “I was just coming here for my children to have a better life.”
In August of 2021, Barton’s job asked her to transition out of a remote position and into in-person shifts, something she couldn’t accommodate. She lost her job.
Soon after, she got sick with COVID-19.
Barton says she remembered a note on her rental payment submission form in the past.
“I had seen the resources that said: If you are having struggles due to COVID-19, you can use this program,” Barton said.
She then applied for the HOPE Program funds, which were available to households impacted by the virus who were struggling with rent and utility payments.
Knowing her lease would soon be up, Barton says she reached out to the property to find out the terms of a renewal.
Later, she received a notice at her door saying her unit was undergoing a “management non-renewal due to receiving financial assistance.”
When asked why this was the reason for a non-renewal, Legacy at Firetower said, ”Ownership has discretion whether to renew a lease and they chose not to.”
Barton says she’s fortunate to have a good-paying job now, but not everyone that used those funds is in the same boat.
“If I was to hear that it was done to somebody else in this complex, I would still want to move,” Barton said.
She wonders who else may be displaced. That question could cause the same headache that Barton is experiencing for thousands of renters.
In North Carolina, the HOPE Program provided more than $745 million in rent and utility payments for those in need.
Across the country, at the height of the COVID-19 rental payment program, nearly half a million households received financial assistance each month.
According to the documents that Barton says she’s received from her apartment building, she has until March 27th to leave her apartment. However, she says her rent is paid through May.
The WITN team will continue to investigate these claims.
GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that consumer prices jumped 7.5% last month compared with a year earlier, affecting all goods and services.
Families are struggling with rising costs from diapers to snacks, and are making sacrifices to stay on budget.
“You definitely have to stretch a buck farther than you’ve expected,” James Trimble, a Pitt County father of two said.
From December 2020 to December 2021, the consumer price index rose for meat and eggs in the double digits, and it’s forecasted to rise even higher this year.
As Trimble shops for his family, he notices a rise in “meat, the pampers, clothes, everything. You have to budget stuff and you have to be on top of it.”
The inflation rate increase seen across the countries is the highest price jump seen in four decades.
Some parents are having to shift their spending to make ends meet.
“Snacks and stuff you can hold out on, maybe get a lower brand of this snack and stretch the buck,” Trimble said, “but you definitely have to have Pampers, wipes, and clothes.”
Trimble’s family saves money where they can by utilizing free resources like the playground at Town Common in Greenville, but more financial challenges loom on the horizon.
“I don’t think any family, no matter how well-off they are, could support one child educationally right now,” Lauren Freeman, a childcare provider and student said.
At the end of the day, Trimble says of his kids, “We’ll make sure they are taken care of first.”
Meanwhile, some economists see a chance to regulate the surge.
“At this point, I am cautiously optimistic that we will get this under control like we did in the past,” said Dr. Haiyong Liu, East Carolina University Economics Department chair said.
Eyes turn now to the federal government, which may decide to raise the key rate in March by one-half of a percentage point. Typically, it is a quarter-point hike.
GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - With cases of COVID-19 trending downward across the state, many wonder where we stand in the fight against the virus.
For some, this news is a breath of fresh air, but as health professionals explain, we aren’t to the end of the battle just yet.
“There is good news with these decreasing test numbers,” said infectious disease expert Dr. Paul Cook, “but we’re not at the end of the line yet. In fact, I think we have a long way to go.”
While it may seem like COVID has been around forever, Pitt County Public Health Director Dr. John Silvernail reminds us that COVID is a brand new disease.
“We’ve only had two years to study and understand things,” said Silvernail. “I’m sure many of the early studies with time will prove to be partially true, but not completely true.”
Cook understands that some may be confused by the daily changes in guidelines for dealing with the virus. However, “If people have this idea that medical knowledge is static, that’s wrong,” he said.
It’s helpful to zoom out and look at the way COVID has infected Pitt County since the very start.
“You can see the biggest week in Omicron we were almost 5,000 cases for that week,” said Silvernail. “So, we’ve dropped off in case numbers, but we’re still above the height of the Delta wave and really the height of last January.”
While staying realistic, Silvernail still celebrates the victories that come along the way.
“We have not had a death in Pitt County below the age of 25, so that case fatality rate in the 0-17-year-old and 18-24 year old age group is zero percent,” he said.
That isn’t the case for all age ranges in the county.
146 Pitt County residents have died since the beginning of the pandemic.
Moving forward, medical professionals say vaccination, mask-wearing, and testing to slow the spread are essential to making it out of this pandemic.
PITT COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) - Virtual learning has taken on a new meaning at H.B. Sugg Elementary School where one student is on wheels this school year.
EJ Lyles made his kindergarten debut using an innovative piece of technology: a VGO robot.
Social and emotional learning is an important skill in early education. This week, Lyle’s classmates are learning about emotions and feeling words.
Happiness and excitement were the dominating emotions and feelings shared by his new friends when Lyles dialed into his classroom.
“Having EJ return and him coming home, we knew that at Sugg/Bundy we needed to teach and take care of and love on him,” principal Ali Setser said.
In October, WITN first told Lyles’s story of a long road to recovery.
He underwent a series of traumas that left him hospitalized at Duke University Hospital.
Lyles had just been involved in a crash that seriously hurt his mom when he began exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Then, Lyles was diagnosed with a MRSA infection that caused several of his organs to begin failing.
Fast forward three months and Lyles’ heart and kidney functions are approaching normal levels.
“I do appreciate how willing and open the school has been just to really get him back on track,” Sophia Lyles, EJ Lyles’ mom said.
“That was one of our fears. When he did come home, how would school go?" said Sophia Lyles, EJ Lyles’ mom
Setser reached out to Karen Harrington, Pitt County Schools director of student services, for options and landed on the VGO robot.
EJ Lyles is able to see, hear, and interact with his classmates from the safety of his home.
The robot wears an #EJStrong t-shirt, something that one donor gifted all 800 students of the H.B. Sugg and Sam D. Bundy school.
Setser inducted the shirt into the school’s spirit day collection, making it uniform-approved on the special dress-down days.
While his classmates admired his shirt, EJ Lyles admired their masks.
“He was really excited about the one kid with the Spiderman mask,” Sophia Lyles said. “It really did enough for him because he’s been jumping off the walls ever since.”
At home, EJ Lyles has made great strides in his recovery, but he doesn’t get to spend much time with other children his age.
“I think it’s important that he’s around kids his age and he realizes, ‘Hey, I’ve been through this and I’ve made it through it and now I’m here.’ That’s a way for him to share what he’s been through and share that he’s just like anybody else,” Olivia Haley, EJ Lyles’ kindergarten teacher said.
Haley has worked with the Lyles family to craft a schedule that includes Lyles in group learning while working around his medical schedule.
Lyles completed a math lesson Wednesday in greater than and less than numbers. He was able to participate with a small group of students to identify the correct answers.
And when Lyles was ready, he would light up his robot to signal his hand being raised.
EJ Lyles will continue to be monitored by a team of doctors, but when he is able to make an in-person debut at school, the H.B. Sugg family is ready to embrace him.
GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - With a new plan rolling out from the federal government, free COVID-19 tests can soon be delivered to people’s doors.
The news comes as some Pitt County residents waited in lines for 10 hours at Vidant’s drive-up testing site in Greenville.
“I think I felt more sorry for all the cars with kids,” Sharon Kott said.
“There were so many people there and nobody was leaving.”
Sharon Kott, waited for 10 hours to test at Vidant.
Vidant sees around 700 patients a day for COVID testing. Recently, about 50% of its tests have been coming back positive.
For the healthcare workers administering the tests, the incoming weather system is adding to their stress.
“They are exposed to COVID every day,” Dr. Dave Harlow, Vidant Allied Health vice president said.
“Even if it’s a pretty day and it’s 24 degrees at 7 in the morning, that’s just not normal for most healthcare workers to work in those conditions," said Dr. Dave Harlow, Vidant Allied Health vice president.
Noticing the strain that the omicron variant has put on hospitals across the country, the Biden administration is rolling out four free at-home testing kits for each household.
The tests are rapid antigen tests meant to be taken three to five days from exposure.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Paul Cooks said, “They’re pretty good. They’re not great so if you get a positive, you’ve got an answer. If you get a negative, then you might have to say, ‘Well if I’m having symptoms, maybe I need to get another test.’”
If you have to go to Vidant or another medical provider for a PCR test, “be patient,” advises Harlow.
“We do split the line into four different pieces once you get in there. There are four different lanes that go through there, but even at that, it’s going to take time," said Harlow.
Vidant recently released that it will be closing the gates of its drive-up testing site on Friday, Jan. 21st due to the incoming weather system. Vidant is always closed on Saturdays.
Weather permitting, the site will reopen Sunday morning for more testing.
Anyone who would like to claim their household’s free, at-home testing kits should go here and enter their name and shipping information.
Tests are expected to ship out within 7 to 12 days of ordering.
Every story you see here is written, filmed, edited, fronted, and day-turned by Maddie. As an MMJ with WITN, she really does it all!