Unlikely Rivals: Fellow Reps Vie for Redrawn District 52

This article first appeared in The Pilot on April 29, 2022.

In a contest precipitated by the state’s legislative redistricting, two sitting members of the North Carolina General Assembly will compete to represent House District 52 in the Republican primary.

State Rep. Ben Moss, a freshman lawmaker from Richmond County, hopes to usurp longtime Rep. Jamie Boles, who is seeking an eighth term in the redrawn district, which now includes all of Richmond and a southeastern portion of Moore County. The district previously covered none of Richmond and most of Moore.

Who They Are

Boles, a funeral home owner, has represented District 52 since 2008. He’s fended off fellow Republicans in past primaries, but this will be his first time facing a challenger from outside of Moore County.

Moss, a railroad engineer, in 2020 became the first-ever Republican elected to represent District 66, which at the time comprised Richmond, Montgomery and Stanly counties. With Richmond now melded into District 52, the Rockingham resident must defeat Boles to keep his seat.

State reps. Jamie Boles, left, and Ben Moss. (Courtesy photographs)

The men are, in many ways, unlikely political rivals. They were even assigned to some of the same House committees during the most recent legislative session.

“We both have basically the same conservative rating scores,” Boles said in a phone interview, referring to the American Conservative Union Foundation’s annual analysis of votes cast by Republican legislators. “We both believe in the same things. It’s just a matter of having seniority over a freshman.”

Moss said he would prefer not to be pitted against his colleague in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, but he isn’t “ready to go home” after only one term.

“We both happened to get drawn into a new district that they formed, and it just so happened that he lived within that district and so did I,” he said in a phone interview. “I’ve had some people say to me, ‘That’s Boles’ district.’ No, that’s not Boles’ district. It’s not my district. It is a district that was designed and we just happen to live there, and I hate that it happened because Jamie’s always been nice to me.”

Boles may not be so chummy in the weeks ahead. Despite having worked together toward common causes in the House, the Aberdeen native said he plans to treat Moss like every other opponent he’s bested over the past 14 years.

“You still go out to win,” Boles said. “You just have to reassure the new people in the new district that you’re just as conservative and care about the same issues as the other Republican members.”

Like Boles, Moss is well-established in his home county. He spent a decade on the Rockingham Board of Commissioners before running for state office.

Still, he knows the district’s map gives Boles an edge in the race. The John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, recently projected that Boles has a “distinct advantage” because of the “higher population of primary voters in Moore County” compared with Richmond, where voters are more likely to recognize Moss’ name on the ballot.

“I’m an underdog,” Moss said. “It’s like a David and Goliath story, but I don’t mind being a David by any means.”

He recalled once attending a meeting where his opponent was introduced as the “unbeatable Jamie Boles.” Moss thought to himself at the time: “You know, the Titanic was announced as the ‘Unsinkable Ship.’”

Where They Stand

Boles believes inflation and workforce woes are two of the biggest issues currently affecting Moore and Richmond counties.

“Overall, everybody right now post-pandemic is seeing a struggle with getting employees,” he said. “You see it in restaurants. You see it everywhere.”

Some of the strain placed on local businesses, he said, could eventually be alleviated by the Republican-led legislature’s work to reduce taxes.

“Since we’ve taken over in 2010, we’ve done real well as far as lowering corporate income taxes and personal income taxes, and we’ve also eliminated the personal income tax on retired military personnel,” he said. “I think that’s going to help both counties, and the businesses will bounce back with the lower taxes that we have.”

Another priority for Boles is enhancing public safety services across the district.

“The first job of the government is to protect the citizens,” he said. “That is the No. 1 goal of the government. It doesn’t matter if you travel in Richmond County or Moore County, you need public safety. You expect it to be there and you expect it to be at the same level throughout the state of North Carolina.”

Moss, meanwhile, believes education will be one of the major issues faced by the district in the years ahead.

“Parents’ concerns for their child’s education and what they’re being introduced to, I think, is a very big deal, and we’re seeing that now in the Moore County area,” he said.

Indeed, meetings of the Moore County Board of Education have recently become battlegrounds for everything from mask mandates for students to the content of little-read books on library shelves.

“Education is very important to me personally because my children are still in school and I care about other people’s children,” Moss said. “In my mind, there are some common-sense guidelines that need to be in place where parents have a chance to play a bigger factor in what actually goes on.”

He added: “There’s several differences of opinion, and that’s fine. I’ll respect everyone’s opinion, but I myself have skin in the game. I have a 10-year-old and a 15-year-old, and I think that differentiates me from my opponent a little bit.”

Moss said he is also committed to “protecting the conservative values that a lot of people hold near and dear in the majority of these rural districts.”

“Moore County’s not as rural as Richmond County by any means, but I think there’s just some issues where a lot of people don’t understand how we live or how we like to live or choose to live,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of basic fundamentals at stake and if we’re not careful, somebody will try to chip away at it.”

Early voting is currently underway at the Moore County Agricultural Center in Carthage and at the Aberdeen Recreation Station. Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the next three Saturdays.

Moore County’s Hispanic Community Hit Hard by COVID-19

This article first appeared in The Pilot on July 7, 2020. 

The disproportionate toll of the coronavirus on people of color in Moore County has been especially pronounced in the Hispanic community.

An ethnicity-based breakdown of cases by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday morning showed that Hispanic people, despite making up only 7 percent of the county’s total population, accounted for 21 percent of the area’s reported infections. This disparity is also reflected in ZIP code-level data from NCDHHS.

About 16 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Moore County have been linked to the primary ZIP code for Robbins, a town with a historically large concentration of Hispanic residents. That postal code is home to only 5 percent of the county’s population.

The Rev. Javier Castrejón of San Juan Diego Mission in Robbins suspects many of the area’s Hispanic patients are contracting COVID-19 in the workplace.

“I’m talking with them by Facebook or phone or after mass about how we can stop this virus, but they have to work to bring meals to their children,” Castrejón told The Pilot in a recent interview. “We are giving food (from our) pantry and meals to the sick families, but other families have to go out for work, and then they get the virus.”

Father Javier Castrejón at San Juan Diego Mission in Robbins on July 2, 2020. (Photo by Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot)

The median household income for Robbins is one of the lowest in Moore County. Castrejón said Hispanic residents without American citizenship were ineligible for economic impact payments through the federal CARES Act.

“They didn’t get a check,” he said.

NCDHHS recently acknowledged a “high rate of COVID-19 spread” among Hispanic and Latino communities throughout the state. The agency said many Hispanic people in North Carolina work in “environments where social distancing can be challenging, health insurance is not provided and for a sick person, staying home could create a significant financial burden.”

Most health insurance providers cover the cost of coronavirus testing, according to FirstHealth of the Carolinas, but patients without insurance are required to pay as much as $110 for a nasal-swab test. While free drive-thru testing is available by online appointment at CVS in Aberdeen, the service is limited to customers with access to a vehicle.

Castrejón would like to see COVID-19 testing offered in a location that is more accessible to people in Robbins, which is about 20 miles away from the nearest testing site. 

“It’s not sufficient,” he said. “They have to drive more than 25 minutes for the test, and they are paying for the test.”

In response to an email from The Pilot inquiring about the possibility of pop-up testing in Northern Moore County, Emily Sloan of FirstHealth of the Carolinas said the company has no immediate plans to expand testing to the area.

“We currently do not have plans to open additional drive-thru testing sites, but we are willing to coordinate with county health departments and employer groups to assist with on-site testing as needed,” Sloan said.

The availability and cost of testing aren’t the only challenges in slowing the spread of the virus among Hispanic residents. None of the county’s contact tracers are bilingual, making it potentially difficult to identify individuals who may have been in close contact with Spanish-speaking patients.

Matthew Garner, public information officer for the Moore County Health Department, on Monday said the agency hopes the state will provide two bilingual contact tracers before the end of July. The county currently has four state-appointed tracers.

“Thus far for any language issues we’ve encountered, we’ve utilized the two full-time interpreters we have on staff and we haven’t had any issues yet as far as them being needed beyond their capacity,” Garner said.

Health Department Said it Plans to Work With NAACP; Group’s President Wants to Know When

This article first appeared in The Pilot on July 9, 2020.

On July 1, the director of the Moore County Health Department said his agency would be working with the local chapter of the NAACP to address the spread of COVID-19 in marginalized communities.

O’Linda Watkins, president of the Moore County NAACP, is still waiting for that to happen.

“I haven’t heard a thing,” Watkins said in a phone interview on Thursday evening, eight days after the health director announced the department’s plan to collaborate with the organization. “Everybody seems to be taking their time.”

Robert Wittmann, director of the Moore County Health Department, last communicated with the chapter during a teleconference over a month ago. He told the group then that the county’s Black community was a “high-risk population” for COVID-19.

“There’s an inordinate amount of underlying health problems with the African American population,” Wittmann said at the time.

Citing the 2019 Community Health Assessment for Moore County, he added that the “main areas affecting the health of our citizens” were obesity and behavioral health. The disparity in these areas, Wittmann said, was “much higher for the Black population than the regular population.”

O’Linda Watkins, president of the Moore County NAACP. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

Since that meeting on May 28, data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has consistently shown that people of color in Moore County are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. NCDHHS on Thursday reported that African American residents, despite making up 12 percent of the county’s total population, accounted for 14 percent of infections and 36 percent of deaths.

These figures are based on information reported to NCDHHS, which on Thursday said it was missing race data for 216 of the county’s 594 reported cases.

Miriam King of the Moore County Health Department played down the uneven toll on communities of color during a Facebook Live broadcast last week.

“As far as our county is concerned right now, we are below that radar,” she said. “For those contracting COVID-19, for those testing positive, for those dying from COVID-19, right now our Black community is not adversely affected by these numbers.”

Earlier in the broadcast, King said the Health Department is “working with our Moore County NAACP.”

“We are speaking with representatives and we’re asking and formulating ideas, we’re formulating processes — anything that we can do to help our marginalized communities.”

Wittmann later interjected off-camera.

“Our next project, which will be headed up by Matt Garner, who is the incident commander, is going to be some drive-thru testing,” he said. “And we’ll be getting back in touch with the local president of our NAACP and also the chair of their health committee to devise strategies to get the word out to these at-risk communities in order to be able to direct them into our drive-thru testing.”

But Watkins has yet to hear from Wittmann, Garner or King, and she disputed King’s claim that the Health Department is actively working with the chapter.

“She made the statement and yet still I have not heard from them,” Watkins said. “I feel that someone from the Health Department could have at least sent us an email or some kind of follow-up to set up a time to talk after publicly saying they’re working with us.”

Watkins also took exception with Wittmann’s use of the word “project.”

“I still don’t get what he meant by that,” she said. “How is getting in touch with us a project? That shouldn’t take a week to do.”

In a previous interview with The Pilot, Watkins said the Moore County NAACP hopes to see free coronavirus testing offered in historically Black communities like West Southern Pines and in Robbins, where about half the population is Hispanic. She said the chapter would like to be involved with contact tracing and educational outreach in marginalized communities.

“We still want to work with the Health Department to make sure the community gets what it needs,” Watkins said.

In a phone interview on Friday, Garner said the department still plans on collaborating with the chapter in “the very near future.”

“We’re still working internally to figure out what our capabilities are as far as what we can offer in terms of staff,” he said. “Once we firm that up, we’re going to reach out to them and work with them.”

Garner added: “We’d like to work with them about possibly doing some outreach with some of the African American population and getting some testing sites open up and promoting them.”

The Health Department, Garner said, is looking at ways to offer testing in places like West Southern Pines and the Needmoore community in Carthage.

Catie Armstrong, spokesperson for NCDHHS, on Thursday said the state plans to make free testing more readily available for people of color in the area.

“As many as 300 free testing sites will be deployed throughout July to underserved communities, providing testing access for 2.2 million African American, LatinX/Hispanic and American Indian individuals,” Armstrong wrote in an email to The Pilot. “The initiative will increase testing capacity in more than 100 ZIP codes, including several across Moore County.”

She did not specify which local ZIP codes are included in the initiative.

Moore County Protests Show a Community Galvanized by Killing of George Floyd

This article first appeared in The Pilot on June 5, 2020. 

Hundreds of people knelt for nearly nine minutes Wednesday in downtown Southern Pines in honor of George Floyd, whose slaying in police custody has sparked a national outcry.

The silent tribute was timed to last the approximately 8 minutes and 46 seconds that a police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck before the unarmed black man died in a Minneapolis street on Memorial Day.

Floyd, who had no pulse for three of those minutes, was born in nearby Fayetteville. His body will return to North Carolina on Saturday for a memorial service in Raeford.

Billed as a peace vigil, the downtown demonstration was organized by the Moore County NAACP. O’Linda Watkins, the group’s president, called on the droves of masked mourners in attendance to “move from anger to action.”

“My ancestors, slaves in the Cape Fear Valley, were property,” Watkins said. “Until you get to know us as human beings (…) we can never have the honest talk and the construction actions needed to dismantle the racist mentality that many police still have.”

Derek Chauvin, the officer seen holding down Floyd in a cellphone video made by a teenager, is charged with second-degree murder. The three other law enforcers at the scene during Floyd’s death are charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans, according to a database assembled by The Washington Post. The database, which comprises reports of fatal shootings, does not include deadly encounters like the ones involving Floyd and Eric Garner, whose 2014 death in a chokehold has been widely compared with Floyd’s killing.

Both Garner and Floyd pleaded for air in the minutes before they died. Their cries of “I can’t breath” were printed on several mourners’ signs and T-shirts during the vigil.

Organizers distributed flyers outlining a dozen ways in which residents can rally for systematic change. Some of the recommendations include petitioning for the banning of “knee holds” by police and demanding to see disciplinary records for law enforcers accused of misconduct.

Young protestors in Southern Pines on June 4, 2020. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot) 

Carol Haney, mayor of Southern Pines, was one of several community leaders who spoke during the event. She informed the crowd of a local proclamation inspired by Floyd’s death.

“In part, it reads that George Floyd lost his life in a despicable act which has led to protests with some, like this, peaceful,” Haney said. “It states what we support, what we denounce and what we will not tolerate.”

The proclamation, approved later that evening by the Southern Pines Town Council, declares June 6 a “day of remembrance” for Floyd.

The peaceful protests continued when a procession of 379 vehicles traveled Thursday from the park beside the National Guard Armory in Southern Pines. The caravan, which moved through Aberdeen and Pinehurst before returning to the park, was organized by the N.C. Impact Coalition.

Lakisha Womack, a local educator who co-founded the coalition with her relatives Lanisha Bailey, Shirella Horton and Charles Taylor in 2016, said the group felt a caravan would minimize the protestors’ risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“We want to show the right way to address the issue,” Womack said in a phone interview. “With this being a retirement community, we can’t afford to have COVID-19 run rampant here.”

People older than 64 are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said the disease is causing a “disproportionate impact on communities of color.” Shortly before the caravan left Southern Pines, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order directing local health departments to “provide targeted measures to help communities of color that have been affected by the pandemic.”

The caravan was escorted by police, and law enforcers were stationed to redirect traffic at various points along the 12-mile route. In Pinehurst, several members of the police department were seen kneeling in solidarity with the protestors.

“In this trying time for our nation, the Village of Pinehurst government is committed to stand for justice and equality for all residents and for our fellow citizens across the United States,” the village said in a statement shared on social media ahead of the protest. “All of our staff, including our exceptional police department, are committed to dignity, safety and a high quality of life for all people without regard for color.”

Addressing the large audience that assembled at the park after the caravan returned to Southern Pines, Horton said the protest was the “largest car procession ever in the history of Moore County.”

“Imagine what we can do if we continue to work together, if we keep this same energy,” she said. “Imagine the changes we can make.”

Earlier at the park, the protestors heard remarks from local mothers whose children had perished in altercations with police. Charlene Ross, mother of Shonquell Barrett, pressed a microphone against her phone as it played audio from the night her son was killed after a 10-minute vehicle chase in June 2018.

In interviews with The Pilot and other news organizations, Ross has said that Barrett was about to pull over when a state trooper initiated the PIT maneuver that ended his life. She has spent the past two years advocating for a law named after Barrett that would prohibit police from using PIT maneuvers to immobilize fleeing suspects.

“I will not be pushed aside,” Ross said Thursday to applause from protesters. “I have a voice, I have power and I will be heard. I did not give up on my son while he was living, and I will not give up on him while he’s dead.”

The Moore County Sheriff’s Office on Friday announced it would help provide security during Floyd’s memorial service in Raeford. In a statement released on the community notification platform Nixle, Sheriff Ronnie Fields praised the “concerned and caring citizens” who participated in the local protests.

“The events that have occurred across our country over the last two weeks concern me greatly. And sicken me!” Fields wrote. “The actions of the rogue police officers on the scene in Minnesota were unnecessary, unwarranted, and criminal.

“I pray that justice will be served, and the Floyd family will find peace.”

Fields went on to condemn the violent riots that have erupted in Minneapolis and other cities.

“The actions of the thousands of people across the country who have chosen violence as a means of their expression of frustration concerns me equally,” Fields said. “Please know that should the criminal element appear in Moore County, the members of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office will be here to protect and serve you, our citizens.”

At least 17 people have died nationally in protests sparked by Floyd’s death. Some of the victims include protestors killed by police and law enforcers shot by protesters.

But Fields noted that the demonstrations held in Moore County have been “totally peaceful.”

“Over the last two days, our citizens have organized and participated in events where their First Amendment rights were recognized and supported,” Fields said, adding he is “so proud to call this place home.”

Juneteenth Celebration in Pinebluff Disrupted by Alleged Hate Crime

The following articles first appeared in The Pilot on Oct. 21, 2021, and on Jan. 7, 2022

‘Still Fighting the Same Battles’: Alleged Hate Crime at Pinebluff Park Detailed During Forum

Mitch Capel speaks during a community forum on racial intolerance at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church on Oct. 14, 2021.

Mitch Capel remembers seeing crosses burning near Cardinal Park when he was a child.

The park was established along the shore of a spring-fed lake in Pinebluff by Capel’s parents in the early 1960s. At the time, it was one of the few places in Moore County where Black people could go swimming.

Capel’s father, the late Felton Capel, was known for breaking racial barriers. He led the push to integrate local schools and was the first Black person elected to the Southern Pines Town Council.

Choking back tears as he looked down at the wristwatch he inherited from his father, Mitch Capel recalled a recent incident at Cardinal Park that is now being investigated by police as a hate crime.

“I never thought in a million years that I’d still be fighting the same battles that my father and our ancestors fought,” he said.

Capel spoke publicly about the incident for the first time during a community forum on racial intolerance earlier this month at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Southern Pines.

According to an affidavit Capel filed with the Moore County Magistrate’s Office, the park’s Juneteenth celebration was disrupted by a man, identified in court documents as Russell Thomas Langford, who allegedly flipped a middle finger to event-goers while driving a pickup truck through the private property. The affidavit alleges that Langford then “discharged firearms” from his own property on Prosperity Way, which is near the park.

“It went on for 35 minutes but it seemed like an eternity,” Capel said of the gunshots. “Everybody kept looking around wondering what was going on.”

Langford reportedly returned to the park and began tossing out bumper stickers in support of former President Donald J. Trump. He later used “racial slurs” while questioning the attendees’ knowledge of Juneteenth, according to the affidavit.

“He started saying ‘you people don’t even know your own history, you people don’t even know what Juneteenth means,’” said Capel, who had never before interacted with Langford. “So I broke down our history as fast as I could in about three sentences, and then I broke down Juneteenth to him.”

Juneteenth commemorates the date that enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they had been freed under the emancipation proclamation signed two-and-a-half years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln. Two days before the celebration at Cardinal Park, President Joe Biden signed a law recognizing the observance as a federal holiday.

In a video shared with The Pilot, Capel and other individuals can be seen escorting Langford out of the park. The video shows Langford backing his truck into a wooden gate post twice before driving away.

Langford, 41, is a former Army Reserve officer who served in the military from 2003 to 2019, according to information provided by the U.S. Army Reserve Command at Fort Bragg. He is highly decorated, having earned more than a dozen awards including the Bronze Star and Meritorious Service medals.

He has also been accused before of harassing members of a marginalized community. He made national news in 2016 after police said he threatened to kill Muslims and left packages of bacon — a food forbidden by Islamic law — at a mosque in Raeford.

Langford later pleaded guilty to ethnic intimidation in federal court. In a news release announcing his conviction, the U.S. Department of Justice said Langford “admitted that he acted intentionally to threaten the mosque’s members and obstruct their religious exercise.” He was sentenced to eight months of home confinement in 2017.

“It’s just insane that there are people out there like that in this day in society who think like that, who drink that Kool-Aid, who hate people because of how they look or how they pray,” Capel said. “It’s insane to think that.”

A warrant was issued on June 21 charging Langford with ethnic intimidation, injury to personal property and littering in connection with the incident at Cardinal Park. He was arrested 12 days later and placed in the Moore County Detention Center under a $75,000 bond, which was later posted by an agent for Palmetto Surety Corporation of South Carolina.

Attempts to reach Langford for comment were unsuccessful. Langford’s privately retained attorney, Kelly Dawkins, did not respond to messages from The Pilot seeking comment.

Langford’s case has been continued twice in Moore County District Court. His next court appearance is set for Dec. 3.

In addition to managing the park, Capel is a professional storyteller who performs under the stage name Gran’daddy Junebug. He had been reluctant to talk about what happened on Juneteenth, he said, because he feared it would overshadow the otherwise successful celebration, which was attended by more than 750 people.

“I tried to hide it from everybody because I didn’t want it to ruin the day,” he said.

But at the urging of Jim Davis, former sheriff of Hoke County, Capel decided to share his experience with the Moore County chapter of the NAACP.

The forum at Brownson Memorial Presbyterian Church was organized by the chapter, and included a panel discussion with representatives from the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice and the N.C. Attorney General’s Office. Dion Lyons, a conciliation specialist with the DOJ’s Community Relations Service, moderated the conversation, which mainly focused on how hate crimes are identified and investigated by state and federal agencies.

Lyons said that Moore County District Attorney Mike Hardin was unable to attend the forum because he was preparing for an upcoming murder trial. O’Linda Watkins-McSurely, president of the Moore County NAACP, said the sheriff’s office had also been invited to participate but did not attend.

The June 19 incident at Cardinal Park is one of eight local hate crimes reported to the Moore County NAACP since 2003. Last year, a woman in Southern Pines filed a complaint alleging that she saw two people in Ku Klux Klan regalia sitting in a parked SUV in front of her home.

“Never in my 29 years of living have I ever been so scared for my life,” the individual wrote in the complaint, which was read by Watkins-McSurely during the forum. On Thursday, Watkins-McSurely told a reporter that the complaint is still under investigation.

The KKK’s intimidation tactics are painfully familiar to Capel, who said he saw “crosses being burnt” on hillsides in Pinebluff as a child. He said he also remembers seeing the hate group’s symbols and slogans spray-painted on buildings at his parents’ park.

Capel said he decided to file a criminal complaint following the Juneteenth incident at the park because it was the “right thing to do.”

“I did it because I knew my father would have done it and I knew my ancestors would have done it,” he said. “I knew it was a hate crime.”

Ex-Army Officer Sentenced to Probation After Disrupting Juneteenth Event in Pinebluff

Screenshots from a video showing Russell Langford at Cardinal Park on June 19, 2021.

A former Army Reserve officer was found guilty Tuesday of multiple misdemeanor offenses following his disruption of a Juneteenth celebration in Pinebluff, but he avoided what would have been his second conviction for ethnic intimidation.

Russell Thomas Langford, 41, was sentenced to 18 months of probation by Judge Regina Joe for littering, injury to personal property and disorderly conduct in connection with a series of disturbances that occurred on June 19 at Cardinal Park, a venue of historical significance to the Black community in Moore County.

Langford, who served in the military from 2003 to 2019, had been accused before of harassing members of a marginalized community. He made national news in 2016 after police said he threatened to kill Muslims and left packages of bacon — a food forbidden by Islamic law — at a mosque in Raeford. He later pleaded guilty to ethnic intimidation in federal court.

Mitch Capel, manager of Cardinal Park, said last year’s incident began when Langford, who is white, drove his pickup truck through the private property while flipping a middle finger to people attending a Juneteenth event. Capel, who is Black, alleged that Langford then “discharged firearms” from his own property on Prosperity Way, which is near the park.

Langford returned to the park, Capel said, and began tossing out bumper stickers in support of former President Donald J. Trump. He later used “racial slurs” while questioning the event-goers’ knowledge of Juneteenth, Capel said.

Juneteenth commemorates the date that enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they had been freed under the emancipation proclamation signed two-and-a-half years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln. Two days before the celebration at Cardinal Park, President Joe Biden signed a law recognizing the observance as a federal holiday.

In a video submitted as evidence in Moore County District Court, Capel and other individuals are seen escorting Langford out of the park. The video then shows Langford striking a wooden gatepost three times with the back of his truck before driving away.

In the eyes of prosecutors, the property damage caused by Langford was enough to charge him with ethnic intimidation under state law, which makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to “damage or deface the property” of another individual “because of race, color, religion, nationality, or country of origin.”

Joe, who herself is Black, disagreed, ruling that Langford was not guilty of ethnic intimidation. In a phone interview after the trial, District Attorney Mike Hardin said he was disappointed with the verdict, but “understand[s] the judge’s reasoning.”

“From a legal standpoint, I think she was following the strict letter of the statute,” Hardin said. “That’s a hard decision to make but I think she made the decision that she believed was right, and that’s all you can ask from a judge.”

The challenge created by the statute, Hardin said, was showing that Langford intended to damage the gatepost because of Capel’s race.

“When you watch the video, there’s no doubt that he’s trying to start trouble,” Hardin said. “But the question is did he go there with the intent to damage the property, or did he go there with the purpose to start trouble and then ended up damaging the property?”

Langford did not testify during the trial. His privately retained attorney, Kelly Dawkins, argued that he did not deliberately strike the gatepost and suggested that unspecified psychological issues and alcoholism may have contributed to Langford’s behavior at Cardinal Park.

In an interview after the trial, Capel said he appreciated the work done by prosecutors and accepted Joe’s rationale.

“The judge did the best she could do within the law, but I just don’t understand how someone can ride through an African American-owned park on a national, federal African American holiday with their middle finger up, using the N-word, taunting and being belligerent, and that’s not considered ethnic intimidation,” Capel said. “If that’s not ethnic intimidation then what is? That statute needs to be changed.”

Cardinal Park was established along the shore of a spring-fed lake in Pinebluff by Capel’s parents in the early 1960s. At the time, it was one of the few places in Moore County where Black people could go swimming.

Capel’s father, the late Felton Capel, was known for breaking racial barriers. He led the push to integrate local schools and was the first Black person elected to the Southern Pines Town Council.

In addition to managing the park, Mitch Capel is a professional storyteller who performs under the stage name Gran’daddy Junebug. He said he had initially been reluctant to pursue charges against Langford because he feared the incident would overshadow the otherwise successful Juneteenth celebration, which was attended by more than 750 people.

But then he asked himself: “What would my father do?”

“He always sought justice and always did things because they were the right thing to do,” Mitch Capel said. “He wouldn’t have let it go, and I couldn’t let it go. I have to live with myself, and I had to know that I did what was right and that I stood up to hatred.”

Although Langford was not found guilty of ethnic intimidation, Hardin said he was pleased to see him convicted of the other crimes he committed on Juneteenth.

“I think everybody, even Mr. Langford, knew that he had acted inappropriately and violated the law,” Hardin said.

“George” Author Weighs in on Push to Remove Book From Moore County Schools

This story first appeared in The Pilot on March 5, 2022.

The Moore County Board of Education on Monday is expected to discuss whether “George,” a children’s novel about a transgender girl, should remain in the libraries of two schools, ending a months-long review of the book’s appropriateness for students.

Alex Gino, the book’s nonbinary author who uses they/them pronouns, has been following the local controversy surrounding “George.” They said they were not surprised that a resident filed a complaint in December calling for the book’s removal from McDeeds Creek Elementary and Union Pines High schools. 

School districts across the U.S. have fielded similar complaints about “George,” which last year topped the American Library Association’s list of Most Challenged Books. The novel is usually challenged for “LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting ‘the values of our community,’” according to the association.

Gino said their book is “at its heart, a traditional middle-grade story” about a transgender fourth-grader who wants to play Charlotte in her school’s stage production of “Charlotte’s Web.”

“There is a difference between a book that is challenged because of what an author chose to do in it versus a book that is challenged because of who the author is,” Gino said in a Zoom interview. “My book is being banned because there’s a trans character, and that says that my existence is so monstrous, so terrifying, that it is not appropriate for children. That’s gut-wrenching.”

The local push to remove “George” was prompted by a complaint from Carthage resident Jim Pedersen, who argued that it was not the “government’s business to introduce children to transgenderism.” He does not have children enrolled in either of the schools that carry the book.

Philip Holmes, a member of the Moore County Board of Education, vowed in January to have “George” removed from circulation.

“We teach reading, writing, and arithmetic,” he told The Pilot at the time. “You can teach ‘be nice to everybody, treat them equally,’ this, that and the other, but when you start diving deep into a person, how they recognize themselves, I’m not ok with that.”

Gino disagreed, saying that positive depictions of transgender people in books can help others to become “more aware and accepting.” Promoting acceptance, they said, is crucial at a time “when trans people, especially trans women of color, are at risk of violence.”

About 86 percent of students surveyed in 2019 by the national LGBTQ group GLSEN reported they had been harassed or assaulted “based on their sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity.” More than half of those same students did not notify school officials because of doubt that “effective intervention would occur or fear the situation would only worsen once reported,” according to GLSEN.

Carter, a transgender eighth-grader attending Moore County Schools, said books like “George” are “a source of representation” for students like him.

“I think a lot of people believe that if a cisgender or non-LGBTQ child stumbles upon the book then they might be influenced by the transgender themes in the book, which I don’t think is true,” said Carter, whose mother requested be identified using a pseudonym for safety reasons. “The book is talking about how hard it is to be trans and how difficult it is. It is not trying to tell people to live alternative lifestyles.”

He pointed out that “George” is not required reading for students and must be checked out from school media centers.

“It’s not being pushed on other kids,” he said. “It’s simply a book in the library, and it’s really important to have books for every kid in the school. It’s our decision whether to pick up the book or not.”

His sentiment was shared by Gino, who also feels that restricting access to certain books stifles the autonomy of young readers.

“One of the lines I hear is, ‘It’s ok for you to decide what your kid reads, but you can’t decide what my kid reads,’” they said. “But that kid over there has now been denied access, and that kid over there might be a trans kid who is exactly the kid who needs to get that book. No, you don’t get to decide what your children read. Your children are whole human beings who have the right and deserve to learn about the world. They deserve tools, and you holding that back from them makes for adults who are ill-prepared, and that’s a travesty.”

After receiving Pedersen’s complaint, the Moore County Board of Education tasked an advisory committee with reviewing the book’s suitability for students. The committee, which is made up of both teachers and parents, determined last month that “George” should remain in the two schools.

In its recommendation to keep “George” at McDeeds Creek Elementary School, the committee wrote that the book “addresses positive messages about acceptance, diversity and inclusion.” The group’s recommendation for Union Pines High School states that the novel “meets the diverse needs of members of the school community and reflects a relevant perspective on current issues.”

The committee’s recommendations have been forwarded to the school board for final consideration. 

“I’m actually not worried that they’re going to vote against it,” Gino said. “I believe in the people in that room, and I believe that they know the systems that books go through to get into the classroom. These challenges don’t pass most of the time, however, they’re going to keep coming so it’s important to get policies in place so that it can’t take up so much time and so much energy.”

Gino urged the school system to establish a more “onerous process” for dealing with challenged books in the future. Getting something like “George” banned from school libraries, they said, “should be as hard as it was for me to get it published.”

This Aberdeen Motel Has the Lowest Sanitation Grade in Moore County

This article first appeared in The Pilot on Dec. 14, 2021. 

During a recent stay at the Super 8 motel in Aberdeen, Erick McRae felt something crawling in his bed.

When he turned on a light to investigate, he saw dozens of cockroaches scatter across the room. He estimates there were as many as 60 of the insects.

“They were everywhere,” McRae said in a phone interview. “On the walls and the floor. Behind the dresser. Under the sink and in the shower. Above the door — everywhere.”

He showed a cell phone video of the cockroaches to a concierge, who offered to move him to a different room. But McRae said the second room wasn’t much of an improvement.

“Soon as I get in there, I see two or three more roaches,” he said. “Then I try to turn on the heat and the heat doesn’t even work. It was the worst experience I’ve ever had in a hotel.”

Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot

Similar stories are common in online reviews of the establishment, which currently holds the lowest sanitation grade of any hotel in Moore County. Crystal Hodges, an environmental health specialist with the Moore County Health Department, said the Super 8 has “documented complaints regarding pests verified through inspections and investigations.”

The health department threatened to suspend the motel’s lodging permit because of a “pest infestation” in August 2019, according to documents obtained by The Pilot through a public records request. The notice of suspension was lifted following a re-inspection that September.

“Insect infestations identified through an inspection, complaint or inquiry are addressed by the Moore County Environmental Health Department by verifying the infestation then taking action to remedy the situation,” Hodges said in an email. “Remedies may include requiring the owner or manager of the establishment to eliminate food sources, thoroughly clean the area, remove clutter, seal holes or cracks in floors, walls and ceilings; and contracting a professional pest control service.”

Copies of receipts shared with the health department show that the motel is frequently serviced by exterminators, but the issues have persisted.

Health officials observed 36 sanitation violations during an inspection of the motel this past September. Some of the violations included:

• Live insects crawling on an AC vent and a cabinet;

• A ceiling-light fixture filled with bugs;

• Mold growing on a wall;

• “Bodily fluid” on the torn cover of a mattress;

• Rusty refrigerators and microwaves; and

• “Petrified animal feces” beneath a bed.

Super 8 received a sanitation grade of 71 at the time. Under state law, any hotel that receives a score lower than 70 can immediately have its lodging permit revoked.

The motel’s grade improved to an 83.5 after a re-inspection on Nov. 2. The score currently stands as the lowest sanitation grade posted for any of the county’s 22 hotels.

Chart showing the sanitation grades for Moore County’s 22 hotels. (Graphic by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot) 

Super 8 is a subsidiary of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, a franchisor whose other brands include Ramada, Days Inn and Howard Johnson. In a statement to The Pilot, a spokesperson for Wyndham said the company was looking into the issues at the Aberdeen motel.

“We are disappointed by these allegations, which are in no way reflective of our brand values or our expectations of franchisees,” Rob Myers, senior director of global communications for Wyndham, said in the statement. “While this location is independently owned and operated, we take these concerns seriously and are addressing the hotel’s owner.”

The Pilot was unable to reach Girma Aduga, the motel’s owner, for comment.

‘We Desperately Need to be Vaccinated’: Southern Pines Retirement Community Denied Shots

Note: This special report on a retirement community’s plight to get vaccinated against COVID-19 first appeared in The Pilot on Jan. 29, 2021.

Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. Marian Andersen is scared to leave her small apartment at Gracious Retirement Living in Southern Pines.

The 85-year-old is, like most of her fellow tenants, at high risk of serious complications from COVID-19. In addition to her age, Andersen has diabetes, hypertension and other conditions that make her particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“If I get COVID, I will probably die because I’ve got all of these things against me,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m in constant stress over this whole thing.”

A few weeks ago, Andersen and other residents of Gracious Living were told they would be among the first wave of people eligible for vaccination in Moore County. Hawthorn Senior Living, the Washington company that owns the facility, said it had enrolled the residents into the federal Pharmacy Partnership Program, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pipeline for delivering the vaccine to long-term care facilities.

Andersen was eager to get her shot. She said the virus had spread ferociously through the apartment building, with several people on her floor testing positive.

But in a letter to tenants on Jan. 18, Hawthorn said that Gracious Living had been dropped from the program because the facility is not “attached to a skilled nursing or assisted living community.”

Gracious Living, a so-called independent living community with more than 100 residents, was deemed “ineligible and removed from the CDC Pharmacy Program,” according to the letter.

“We understand this is frustrating and disappointing,” the company wrote. “Rest assured, the entire Hawthorn family will continue to do all we can to ensure timely vaccines for all residents and staff in our independent living communities.”

Andersen said that while Gracious Living is billed as independent living, it operates more like an assisted living community. Many residents receive physical therapy and other health care services from providers with satellite offices at the facility, she said.

“Most people here need some kind of help,” said Andersen, who moved to Gracious Living from New York two years ago to be closer to her daughter. “A lot of them can’t even get dressed in the morning or shower themselves.”

Meals are prepared in-house and delivered to residents’ apartments, which are not furnished with stoves or ovens. The facility had provided bus transportation to tenants without vehicles, but Andersen said the service stopped after the bus driver “got COVID and retired” last year.

“We are an assisted living place without being called assisted living,” she said. “It’s one large building with a lot of elderly, handicapped people.”


For all the ways Gracious Living is similar to an assisted living community, there are some key differences.

Assisted living facilities are licensed and regulated by a division of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. They are subject to routine inspections and can be penalized for deficiencies.

Independent living communities like Gracious Living are exempt from such oversight. And unlike assisted living communities, they are not required to notify the state of coronavirus outbreaks.

An outbreak is defined by DHHS as two or more active infections in a congregate living setting. When an outbreak is declared at a long-term care facility, all residents and staff members must undergo weekly testing.

The facility is also added to the state’s online list of ongoing outbreaks. The list, which is updated twice a week, shows the number of cases and deaths in places where outbreaks have been reported.

There is no public data on cases at Gracious Living, and a Hawthorn spokesperson did not respond to a question Tuesday about the number of infections at the facility. Judy Halstead, who has lived at Gracious Living for three years, estimated that as many as 20 tenants have tested positive in recent weeks.

“I know there’s been right many cases, and we’ve had a few people that passed away,” Halstead said. “They don’t like to tell us anything if they can help it.”

Another woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from her employer, said her 79-year-old father contracted COVID-19 after spending months quarantined in his apartment. She suspects her father was infected by an asymptomatic staff member who delivered meals to his room.

Eight other people on his floor tested positive around the same time, the daughter said. But because Gracious Living is not considered a congregate living setting by DHHS, it was not flagged with an outbreak.

“If you have that many cases, you should be required to report it as an outbreak just like the other facilities,” she said. “It’s crazy not to.”

The daughter, a health care professional whose employer is not affiliated with Gracious Living, believes the facility should be prioritized for vaccination along with nursing homes and assisted living communities.

“Even though they call it independent living, there are several people there that aren’t independent,” she said. “Half the people in there have their own personal nurse, and in the very beginning they mandated lockdowns and all of these other rules as if they were a nursing home. It’s like they pick and choose when they want to act like a nursing home.”

She made arrangements last week for her father, a cancer survivor suffering from Stage 4 liver failure, to get vaccinated at a different location. She said she would have sought an appointment for him much earlier had she known that Gracious Living did not qualify for the Pharmacy Partnership Program.

“They were told this whole time that they were going to be getting their shots at the facility, and then they were told they wouldn’t,” she said. “Now they’re just leaving people in their rooms indefinitely after telling them to hold tight because they were going to get the shots. Well, why did we wait this whole time when they could have been registered to get vaccinated elsewhere?”


Adam Bryan, spokesperson for Hawthorn Senior Living, said the company expected independent living communities to be included in the CDC’s vaccination initiative.

In an email to The Pilot, Bryan said that Hawthorn, which owns eight other facilities across the state, enrolled more than 6,000 residents into the Pharmacy Partnership Program back in October. At the time, the CDC told the company it would be notified if there were any issues, Bryan said.

But when Hawthorn asked earlier this month when vaccinations would begin at its facilities, the CDC told the company that Gracious Living was not eligible for the program. The CDC advised Hawthorn to instead work with the Moore County Health Department and DHHS to vaccinate residents.

“At this time, neither the State of North Carolina, nor the Moore County Health Department, have been willing to assist in vaccinating the residents living at Southern Pines Gracious Retirement Living, despite numerous requests for assistance,” Bryan wrote in the email.

Matt Garner, public information officer for the Moore County Health Department, contends that the department is unable to hold a vaccination clinic at Gracious Living because of the “limited amount of vaccine available to us and the fragility of handling procedures for the vaccines.”

“In the future, as the vaccine supply increases and vaccine variations from other manufacturers are available, we do have plans to offer the vaccine in other locations, including sites where our more at-risk populations reside,” Garner said in an email.

The health department is currently administering shots to all citizens aged 65 and older at its office in Carthage. While most residents of Gracious Living meet the age requirement, they must still wait for the health department to work through its backlog of eligible individuals who have already pre-registered for vaccination.

This is not an issue for nursing homes and assisted living communities. Residents of these facilities are being vaccinated where they live by Walgreens and CVS pharmacies under the federal program.

Andersen said it is unfair to force Gracious Living residents, many of whom cannot drive, to travel to Carthage. The vaccine, she said, should come to them.

“I keep seeing these pictures on TV of all of these cars waiting in line (for vaccination), but what about the people that don’t have cars?” she said. “And these people get to go back to their houses. They don’t have to go back to a building that’s getting COVID cases every day. It’s not fair for us. We desperately need to be vaccinated.”

Ron Clarke, 86, lives in a cottage on the Northwest corner of the Gracious Living campus, about 56 yards away from the four-story apartment building where most of the facility’s residents reside. He has friends in the building, but he hasn’t visited them for weeks.

“Too many people in there are coming down with the virus,” Clarke said. “I see the funeral home up there all the time at night.”

Before the pandemic, he enjoyed eating lunch with one of his friends in the building’s dining area, which is currently shut down. His friend used a walker with a bicycle horn attached to the handle, and Clarke would tease him by imitating the sound of the horn.

Clarke said his friend died less than 48 hours after testing positive for COVID-19 last month.

“They told us he caught the virus from his caregiver,” said Clarke, a retired police officer who worked in Washington, D.C., for 44 years. “It was piss-poor planning not to vaccinate these people.”

Asked about the facility’s designation as an independent living community, Clarke said it is “time to call a spade a spade.”

“It should be cited as an assisted living facility because they’ve got a lot of people in there who have no clue as to where they are or what they’re doing, and they need somebody to help them around,” he said. “Either call it assisted living or tell these people they require housing in a different facility.”


Before Gracious Living was deemed ineligible for the Pharmacy Partnership Program, another independent living community in Moore County made the cut.

A vaccination clinic was held on Jan. 8 for residents of Pine Knoll, an apartment building less than three miles from Gracious Living. John Presley, a resident of the building, said the shots were administered by CVS.

“We’re independent and we got it, so I have no idea why they’re being excluded,” Presley said of Gracious Living. “Why would they not take it there if they would take it here?”

While Pine Knoll is also considered to be independent living, there is one overriding difference between the two facilities.

Pine Knoll, located off N.C. 22 in Southern Pines, is part of St. Joseph of the Pines, a senior care network that offers both skilled nursing and assisted living accommodations on a separate campus near Camp Easter Road. Despite being detached from that campus, Pine Knoll was included in the federal program because its parent organization satisfies the CDC’s definition of a long-term care setting.

Hawthorn Senior Living does not operate any regulated nursing facilities or assisted living communities in Moore County, leaving most residents of Gracious Living with a more tangled path to inoculation.

They must first pre-register with the Moore County Health Department, which is currently scheduling appointments for all citizens aged 65 and older, a group that makes up nearly a quarter of the county’s total population. They must then travel to the health department’s vaccination site in Carthage, where they will receive the first dose of a vaccine that requires two shots to be fully effective.

After receiving the first shot, they must return to an apartment building where the virus has somehow managed to spread among tenants who have been quarantined in their rooms for months.

Gordon Galtere, a Pine Knoll resident who was hospitalized with COVID-19 in November, expects to receive his second dose of the vaccine next week. Just like the first shot, the second dose will be administered as part of an on-site clinic at Pine Knoll.

Galtere believes the same service should be extended to Gracious Living.

“Everybody there should get the vaccination there,” he said. “For us older people in group settings, the worst thing that can happen is someone getting the virus and spreading it.”

‘My Brain is on Fire’: COVID Suffering Lingers for Southern Pines Man

This article first appeared in The Pilot on March 26, 2021.

Ronald Rushing Sr. at his home in Southern Pines. He has suffered for months from lingering COVID-19 symptoms. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

Over the course of a few months, Ronald Rushing Sr. went from running marathons with his wife to struggling to walk the length of his driveway in Southern Pines.

Rushing, 47, said he was in the “best shape of my life” before testing positive for COVID-19 in July. He now suffers from incapacitating fatigue, unrelenting head pain and a host of other lingering symptoms, with no finish line in sight.

“My brain is on fire from the time I wake up in the morning until I go to bed at night,” Rushing said in a recent interview. “It’s a burning, sharp pain that runs from ear-to-ear all day long.”

Like other people living with what is sometimes called “Long COVID,” Rushing’s issues began after his infection ended. He experienced only minor symptoms in the weeks immediately following his diagnosis, he said.

“When I tested positive, I had a cough and a sore throat, some fatigue and a headache,” he said. “It started out very mild.”

Rushing’s condition worsened while he was waiting for medical clearance to return to his job at Aldi, where he works as a store manager. His intermittent headache turned into a continuous “burning sensation,” he said, and light activity would cause his heart rate to quicken.

“I couldn’t take the dogs out to use the bathroom or roll the garbage to the curb without feeling like I was dying,” said Rushing, who now uses a cane to walk because he has difficulty maintaining his balance.

His symptoms persisted even after he tested negative for COVID-19 in September. He grew forgetful and sometimes spoke with a stutter.

“I started smelling cigarette smoke throughout the day and it constantly felt like there was smoke in my eyes, but nobody in the house smokes,” he said. “I don’t really leave the house anymore because I can’t figure out what I’m doing most of the time.”

When Rushing does go out, it’s often for testing. He has undergone a CT scan, an EEG, a spinal tap and three M.R.I.s in search of answers.“Everything comes back negative,” he said. “You feel kind of alone and lost in the world because everybody thinks you’re fine since you’re no longer infected. You can’t look at me and know my brain is on fire, so you wouldn’t know that I’m sick per se.”

Before he fell ill, Ronald Rushing Sr. regularly ran marathons with his wife. (Contributed Photographs)

Researchers are only beginning to understand the constellation of post-infection symptoms associated with some cases of COVID-19.

“Most people who get COVID get completely better, but not everybody,” said Dr. Gretchen Arnoczy, an infectious diseases physician with FirstHealth of the Carolinas. “There’s other infections where people have persisting symptoms or changes in function after the infection. And like everything else with COVID, we’re definitely learning (about long-term symptoms) in real time.”

On Tuesday, the journal Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology published a peer-reviewed study that involved 100 so-called long haulers from across the United States. About 85 percent of participants reported having multiple neurological symptoms that lingered for months.

“We have seen that COVID can cause neurologic effects and can cause effects in the heart, but we’re still trying to understand the scope of that and how it affects the rest of the body,” Arnoczy said in an interview earlier this month. “With COVID, we also know there’s an increased risk of blood clots, heart attacks and strokes after infection. Although anyone who has been in bed sick for a week is going to be at increased risk of blood clot, the increased risk of blood clot after COVID is significantly higher than that.”

But the cause of the symptoms remains a mystery.

“It’s really not yet clear if post-COVID symptoms are due to the persistence of the virus or the virus tripping off something in the immune system, or damage from the virus itself,” Arnoczy said. “Some people have scar tissue in their lungs after COVID, and their symptoms are not due to the virus but the damage that the virus did, even though the virus is gone.”

While there is no approved treatment at this time for Long COVID, preliminary findings from a small observational study conducted by British researchers suggest that vaccination may alleviate some persistent symptoms. The study, which has not been certified by peer review, focused on older patients who were hospitalized with COVID-19.

Rushing has only visited the hospital once during his eight-month ordeal. It was Jan. 6, and he was eating dinner at home with his wife and their young children.

“All of a sudden, I felt like I was drowning,” he said. “I felt like there was liquid shifting back and forth in my brain. It was the most afraid I’ve ever been in my life.”

The doctors, Rushing said, “chalked it up to an unknown neurological episode.”

Five months before he tested positive for COVID-19, Rushing ran a marathon with his wife at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. A wall of the couple’s home is festooned with medals and ribbons from the many races they’ve competed in together.

“He went from being extremely active to just laying in bed because he can’t do anything else,” Marsha Rushing said of her husband’s condition. “He’s basically in constant pain now. He’s not able to do family stuff like we used to without him being in excruciating pain.

“If he goes out to the store with us just to get groceries, he’s in bed for the rest of the day because it’s too debilitating. He can’t even sit at the table and eat dinner at night without being in pain.”

Ronald Rushing Sr. said would run seven miles a week before he was diagnosed with COVID-19 in July. He now uses a cane to walk because he has difficulty maintaining balance. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

Ronald Rushing began receiving short-term disability payments from Cigna, his insurance provider, in August. The company stopped paying him on Jan. 22.

“They said my symptoms shouldn’t interfere with my work,” he said, adding that he is in the process of appealing Cigna’s decision.

Rushing will undergo another round of testing next week. He hopes to receive a referral from his primary care physician to participate in a clinic for long haulers that was recently launched by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“I would jump on one foot naked in a pond for answers at this point,” he said.

How an Assisted Living Facility in Seven Lakes Overcame an Outbreak

This article first appeared in The Pilot on Sept. 18, 2020.

Amanda Bumin, executive director of Seven Lakes Assisted Living & Memory Care, said her “entire life was consumed” by the six-week struggle to quell a coronavirus outbreak at her facility.

The virus is thought to have moved furtively into the assisted living community through an infected worker. Another infection was later identified at the facility, prompting state-mandated testing for all employees and residents.

Staff members soon bore the stigma of having their facility placed on the state’s list of outbreaks in congregate-living settings. The list includes a running tally of infections and deaths at places where outbreaks have been identified.

Seven Lakes Assisted Living & Memory Care was added to the list in early July. A total of 36 infections and four deaths were eventually linked to the facility in what remains the county’s third largest outbreak in a long-term care setting.

Amanda Bumin, left, with her staff at Seven Lakes Assisted Living & Memory Care. (Photograph by Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot)

But Bumin knows the numbers don’t tell the whole story. She knows that successfully curtailing an outbreak also means overcoming professional challenges and personal turmoil. And she knows her team succeeded.

“We did a pretty damn good job,” she said in a recent phone interview. “Looking back, I’m a thousand percent confident of that.”

Travails of Testing

A coronavirus outbreak is defined by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services as two or more active infections in a nursing home, prison or assisted living community.

In facilities with outbreaks, all residents and employees must undergo testing. This meant Bumin had to find enough testing kits for her 45 residents. She also needed to find a registered nurse who could administer the tests.

“We’re not a skilled nursing facility, so we don’t have a nurse on site 24/7 to just administer tests,” she said.

The Moore County Health Department had recently offered to conduct mass testing at any local long-term care facility that requested the service. But when Bumin contacted the health department, she was told it would be at least a week before testing could begin.

“I can’t wait until the middle of next week to even administer a test,” said Bumin, who urgently needed to know how many of the facility’s elderly residents may have been exposed to the virus. “That’s not fair to residents, families or staff members.”

She then reached out to N.C. DHHS, which offered to ship enough testing kits overnight to cover the facility’s residents. A nurse from Bumin’s corporate office arrived the next morning to swab the residents’ noses.

Wanting the results back as quickly as possible, Bumin personally drove the nasal samples to a state-run laboratory in Durham for processing.

With the residents’ tests delivered, Bumin could focus on finding testing for her 25 employees. The problem, she said, was that nearly all of the testing sites available in Moore County at the time required a referral from a primary care physician.

“A lot of my employees might not have doctors,” Bumin said. “A lot of them go to the ER or a walk-in clinic for their health care needs, so getting a doctor’s order is not feasible.”

She was eventually able to secure testing for her staff through CVS Pharmacy, which was the only local provider willing to test patients without a referral. A handful of employees tested positive, including Bumin.

“I was really lucky in that I didn’t have symptoms,” she said. “(The virus) doesn’t discriminate, and it’s kind of unpredictable in who it will or will not affect, and how severely.”

Bumin continued to work following her diagnosis, isolating in her office each day while wearing layers of personal protective equipment. She did not want to “abandon the ship,” she said.

Hard Conversations

As results from the state started streaming in, it became clear that the virus had spread rapidly among the facility’s residents. A total of 31 residents, over two-thirds of the facility’s population, tested positive for COVID-19.

Bumin began the difficult task of notifying their loved ones. A colleague offered to call the families for her, but Bumin insisted on telling them herself. She felt it was her responsibility. 

“That was the hardest part for me personally,” she said. “You feel like you’ve done something wrong.”

Bumin worried that the residents’ families would blame her for the outbreak. She worried she would be a “failure in their eyes.”

Some of the infected residents’ family members cried on the phone, and Bumin wept with them. “No one was mad,” she said.

“Of course, they’re not happy that their mom or dad has COVID, but they trust us and they know that we’re doing everything that we can and we’re doing our very best to keep (their parents) safe and to not let their symptoms get out of control.”

The families continued to receive updates from Bumin as the outbreak wore on. She also posted about the situation on the facility’s Facebook page, and encouraged people in the Seven Lakes area to send notes and gifts to lift the residents’ spirits.

And while most other local facilities with outbreaks ignored inquiries from the press, Seven Lakes Assisted Living regularly sent out news releases detailing its response to the outbreak. Some of the releases included surprisingly forthright comments from Bumin. 

In a statement to The Pilot on July 7, she spoke out against the politicization of “basic infection-control measures,” and urged everyone to wear face coverings.

“Transparency is key,” she said last week. “You can’t try to pretend like it’s not happening. You have to be totally transparent, suck it up and have those hard conversations.”

Hunkering Down

Several of the facility’s workers stayed in hotels to avoid exposing their own families to the virus.

“They were literally either here or at the hotel for a month, and that’s a long time,” Bumin said. “They did their laundry here, ate here and then went to the hotel.”

Bumin also planned to check into a hotel, but she abandoned the idea after her husband and daughter both tested positive. Like Bumin, they did not experience symptoms.

Many staff members took on additional responsibilities during the outbreak. Maintenance manager Allen Hamilton cooked breakfast for residents. Mercedes Webster, director of activities, and Ashley Robinson, an office manager, both helped with housekeeping.

“I was very, very proud of my staff,” Bumin said. “My team is phenomenal.”

The employees, she said, were constantly sanitizing surfaces and enforcing isolation protocols. This was a challenge for workers assigned to the facility’s memory care unit, where residents couldn’t help but undermine the staff’s efforts to contain the outbreak.

“It’s very difficult to keep those residents in their rooms,” Bumin said. “They have Alzheimer’s, dementia and things like that, and they’re always on the move.”

At the same time, Bumin and her staff tried to make sure the community’s residents didn’t feel neglected. They played Bingo together, with socially distanced employees shouting numbers from hallways outside the residents’ rooms.

People in the Seven Lakes community donated puzzles and other activities that the residents could do alone in their rooms. Rodney Godwin, a financial planning consultant who lives near the facility, played his ukulele for the residents over Zoom.

“We tried to remind them that there are still people out there that love them and care for them,” Bumin said, adding that isolation has been shown to accelerate symptoms of dementia among the elderly. “I don’t think my residents, through any of this, have felt forgotten.”

Multiple agencies came to the facility’s aid during the outbreak. The N.C. Public Safety Department’s Emergency Management Division made sure Bumin’s staff never ran out of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment. “They were a huge help,” she said.

Brandy Baker, a registered nurse on loan from Encompass Health, came in to monitor the sick residents’ symptoms. “She was an angel,” Bumin said.

And while the Moore County Health Department failed to provide timely testing, Bumin said Melissa Fraley, the department’s director of nursing, was a “rockstar” who kept the administration updated on the condition of residents who had been admitted to FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital for treatment.

“I don’t know what the health department’s staffing situation is or what their job descriptions are, but it did seem like Melissa was single-handedly trying to handle everything,” Bumin said. “I don’t know if that’s everybody’s experience, but for us she was trying her best.”

Through Fraley, Bumin learned that some of the facility’s hospitalized residents had died. Writing in a news release on July 21, the health department said the deceased residents included a woman and three men, all of whom were older than 65.

Again, Bumin knows the numbers don’t tell the whole story. “Those residents were our family,” she said.

In early August, Seven Lakes Assisted Living & Memory Care was removed from the state’s list. The outbreak had ended, according to N.C. DHHS.

Dr. Kevin O’Neil, a geriatrician and chief medical officer for the assisted living community’s management company, said the facility’s staff “never once let the virus impact their commitment to caring for their residents.” In their response to the outbreak, he said, the employees showed “both compassion and resilience at the highest levels.”

“We have been impressed by how Amanda and her team have adapted to this unprecedented time, especially through their own battle with COVID-19,”  O’Neil said. “All assisted living communities could benefit from leadership like Amanda brings to Seven Lakes.”

‘They Cannot Get Sick’

After losing four residents to COVID-19, Bumin has little patience for people who downplay the threat of the disease.

“I can’t comprehend how people don’t understand the reality of COVID-19,” she said. “The only reason that it’s going away a tiny bit is because we had to be forced, kicking and screaming, to abide by things. It’s not because the election is coming up or because the pandemic was made up. It’s because of the precautions that were put in place.”

Sixteen of the 27 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in Moore County are linked to outbreaks in long-term care facilities. Three of those deaths were announced earlier this week in connection with an ongoing outbreak at Accordius Health of Aberdeen, a nursing home where nearly 80 infections have been identified.

It is one of six local long-term care facilities now on the state’s list.

“A lot of people think (the virus) is not that big of a deal anymore, but it’s still a big deal and I don’t know how to get people to realize that or see that,” Bumin said. “These people, this population, they cannot get sick. It is not a risk that should be taken.”

Face coverings, hand hygiene, social distancing. None of it is up for debate, as far as Bumin is concerned. People who haven’t gone through what she experienced “don’t get to argue about it,” she said.

“Society evolves and changes, and we have to evolve and change with it or we’re going to suffer, and there’s a lot of suffering associated with COVID-19,” Bumin said. “I can tell you that because I watched people suffer.”