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NC courts continue to grapple with how to stay functional and safe during the pandemic

COVID-19 Task Force revisits issues of courtroom safety, vaccination priority

Members of the North Carolina Judicial Branch COVID-19 Task Force indicated at a Tuesday online meeting that the group is considering incorporating the County Alert System in guiding court operations in different jurisdictions and pushing for early vaccination for court staff as it drafts recommendations to Chief Justice Cheri Beasley in light of recent case spikes.

Beasley’s recent directives draw from the task force’s recommendations.

The alert system color codes the severity of coronavirus risks in all counties, featuring three metrics — the number of cases in a particular population, the percentage of tests that are positive and hospital capacity. Dr. Erica Wilson from the Department of Health and Human Services introduced the tool at the meeting.

Given the large volume of people in the courtroom and the long duration of certain trials, Wilson stressed the importance of wearing masks and cleaning hands after handling documents. She added that testing, quarantine and temperature screening can also prevent the spread of the virus.

Marsha Johnson, Harnett County Superior Court clerk expressed concerns about infection and mental health voiced by clerks. An internal survey shows that most clerks are in favor of postponing jury trials, said Johnson.

“We’ve got staff across the state that are scared to go to work,” Johnson said. “Because while you try to keep them apart, and the offices are such that you cannot.”

Other task force members showed support for the plea from the clerk community to be bumped higher on the vaccine priority list. Attorney Patrick Weede also asked the task force to include anyone who is involved in the justice system including criminal attorneys in the ‘essential workers’ category.

Co-chairing the task force, Cleveland and Lincoln Counties Superior Court Judge Don Bridges said the task force will continue its work at a time of judicial leadership transition. Bridges bid farewell to departing Chief Justice Beasley, recognizing her efforts in advocating for the judicial employees and welcomed incoming Chief Justice Paul Newby.

The task force will draft a resolution for the next meeting on January 7th at 2 p.m. and recommendations to the Chief Justice. Visit its website for agendas, past recommendations and recordings.

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