Discarded Covid-19 vaccines are seen in a sharps container at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville on Jan. 20. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

1. COVID-19 vaccinations

COVID-19 dominated the news in 2020. The introduction of vaccines late in the year brought hope for many that the pandemic that had disrupted and taken so many lives would be a fading story. But the situation quickly grew complicated. The worst waves of the original strains of the virus hit North Carolina in January 2021, as social gatherings over the holidays allowed it to spread well before most of the population could be vaccinated. Roll out of the vaccines was uneven, with tales of people presenting false information in order to jump ahead in line. However, just as the virus itself had been politicized in 2020, the response to the vaccines soon took on a political dimension, with many conservatives opposing workplace vaccine mandates and refusing to be vaccinated themselves. Although the situation with outbreaks seemed to be improving in the spring, the arrival of the Delta variant, which caused severe illness, especially among those unvaccinated, prevented a full reprieve. The introduction of the easily transmissible Omicron variant in late 2021 has led to widespread outbreaks, even as vaccines have been opened to more age groups and many people have received booster shots. It seems likely that COVID-19 will continue to be a major story for North Carolina in 2022.

Cindy Palmer, former Cherokee County Department of Social Services Director, dabs her eyes in court Oct. 26 in Murphy after accepting a deal to plead guilty to obstruction of justice. Her lawyer Hart Miles addresses the court. Photo courtesy of NC Courts.

2. Child welfare in NC

Carolina Public Press has been reporting on numerous issues related to questionable county handling of child welfare issues in North Carolina for many years. This includes the situation in Cherokee County, where the Department of Social Services used unlawful documents to remove children illegally from their families without judicial authority. CPP has reported on numerous issues as this situation has been under investigation, including the still unexplained massive shredding of documents in 2018. In 2021, multiple criminal and civil legal cases surrounding Cherokee County DSS began to bear fruit. In May, a federal civil jury awarded Brian Hogan and his daughter a multimillion-dollar verdict for her wrongful removal. Several other cases were settled for large payouts later in the year. In October, former DSS Director Cindy Palmer accepted a plea deal to obstruction of justice for her role in the child removals. Scott Lindsay, the former county attorney, is expected to stand trial in early 2022. Beyond just Cherokee County, CPP produced the investigative series “Patchwork Protection” in June, looking at systemic issues in North Carolina that lead to undesirable outcomes in child welfare cases. These issues aren’t going away and CPP expects to continue to follow them in 2022.

Felicia Hickerson addresses the crowd of protesters gathered to demand body cam footage in the killing of Andrew Brown Jr. by Pasquotank officers. Calvin Adkins / Carolina Public Press

3. Andrew Brown Jr. shooting

In April, sheriff’s deputies in Elizabeth City opened fire on Andrew Brown Jr. as he sat behind the wheel of his vehicle, killing him. The case has drawn national attention both for the case of another Black man dying at the hands of law enforcement, but also because of the resistance to full transparency. Officers indicated that Brown was endangering them as he maneuvered his vehicle to avoid being served with a warrant, justifying their use of deadly force. Although family members were shown a portion of the video footage of the shooting, news media requests to view the full footage have been unsuccessful in the courts. Litigation in the matter continues.

Illustration by Mariano Santillan / Carolina Public Press

4. Sexual assault nurse examiners

In January, CPP presented the investigative series “Finding Nurses,” looking at the problem of access to sexual assault nurse examiners for rape survivors in North Carolina, as well as more systematic information about which hospitals have these specialists on staff. Following the initial series, we’ve reported on multiple developments. One North Carolina congresswoman added an amendment to the Violence Against Women Act renewal bill, to create a federal database tracking the location of SANE nurses. Elsewhere, the state budget funded a pilot program in Cumberland County to ensure access to SANE nurses. Additional measures may also be in the works in 2022.

Illustration by Mariano Santillan / Carolina Public Press

5. Raising jails

In October, CPP published the investigative series “Raising Jails,” examining problematic issues with how North Carolina counties decide to build jails. Often, they hire consultant firms who may be in line for design contracts if a jail is built or expanded. And the consultant work itself appears predisposed to recommending building bigger jails. Meanwhile relatively few counties are investing in measures to reduce jail populations, even though statistics show that substance use is an overwhelming reason for people ending up in county jails. Some counties may also be counting on making money by housing inmates for various other jurisdictions. But that math may not add up the way they think it does. If the flow of inmates suddenly dries up, county taxpayers could find that county commissioners have left them with a heftier debt-maintenance burden than expected.

Illustration by Mariano Santillan / Carolina Public Press

6. Changing Tides

In September, CPP published the enterprise reporting series “Changing Tides,” examining how climate change is affecting the coastal ecology and economy in North Carolina. Changes leading to a loss of seagrass could have a ripple effect on what have been some of the most flourishing coastal ecosystems in the country. Already, commercial fishermen have to travel further to find some species. Coastal residents subsisting on their own fishing describe struggles with catching the fish they used to see. Scientists have proposed ways to lessen the damage to the state’s fisheries, but the situation remains in flux.

Vashaun Williams, a 38-year-old Wilson resident, said he submitted a declaration to his landlord when his hours at the Coca-Cola plant in Clayton were reduced and he fell a few weeks behind on his rent. His landlord charged late fees on the overdue amount, and Williams said he couldn’t pay off the total quickly enough to prevent an eviction action. Calvin Adkins / Carolina Public Press

7. Evictions

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, federal and state moratoriums on evictions for nonpayment were extended repeatedly, but eventually lifted. CPP took a close look at what each step in this process entailed and what was at stake for those involved. Some landlords said they could not continue with the moratoriums indefinitely. But some tenants said this was all that was keeping them afloat. The pandemic and the economy are shifting rapidly as the year ends, so it remains to be seen what continuing impact for housing will be in North Carolina.

Buncombe County poll worker Terry Davis checks in Brandon Williams at the Shiloh Community Center in Asheville on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press
Buncombe County poll worker Terry Davis checks in Brandon Williams at the Shiloh Community Center in Asheville on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

8. Election security

Misinformation, especially about absentee ballots, confused many voters following the 2020 elections. As CPP worked to separate the facts from the hysterical nonsense, it became clear that the elections had been secure. But elections officials in North Carolina would like to make them more secure. In part to accomplish that, several counties did pilot audits of a new system during municipal elections this fall. These audits should improve confidence in election outcomes. At the same time, misinformation has also encouraged other measures. The idea that widespread voter fraud is taking place and could be stopped by requiring a photo ID at the polls led to a ballot measure that passed several years ago, but has since been tied up in the courts. Many critics say voter ID requirements would only disenfranchise minority voters and do nothing to improve security. Litigation surrounding voter ID continues and will likely be in the news in 2022.

Superior Court judges Nathanial Poovey, Graham Shirley and Dawn Layton hear arguments over new voting districts in North Carolina on Dec. 3, 2021. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press

9. Redistricting

Every 10 years, the U.S. conducts a Census and the North Carolina General Assembly draws new maps for congressional and legislative districts. More often than not in recent decades, those maps have been thrown out for being unfair or discriminatory. The process in 2021 came late due to Census delays. As expected, critics say the new maps are again unfair. The state courts have delayed filing for 2022 races and backed up the primaries to May in order to sort through the legal challenges that may or may not lead to new districts.

Pre-Kindergarten students at Love Memorial Elementary in Lincolnton wear masks Sept. 23 as they make applesauce. Photo courtesy of Lincoln County Schools.

10. School mask mandates

If COVID-19 vaccinations were politicized, school policies on mandating masks were the flashpoint for tensions that went beyond civility. School boards reported death threats from parents who opposed masks. Parents who called for mask mandates tried to take their cases against local districts to the courts, but have so far been unsuccessful. With Omicron spreading like wildfire, questions about school policies will undoubtedly be in the headlines for early 2022.

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