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Roanoke-area hospitals and emergency services agencies are urging public to help combat latest COVID surge

Officials representing Roanoke-area hospitals and emergency services agencies came together Thursday to encourage the community to do its part to combat the latest COVID-19 surge.

During a press conference at the Berglund Center, they offered three actions community members could take to assist in their response to COVID-19 and ease the burden on frontline workers:

Get vaccinated.

Seek the appropriate level of care, meaning individuals should go to a primary care physician, urgent care or retail pharmacy if they simply need a COVID-19 test or have an illness or injury that is not life-threatening.

Continue taking precautions, such as wearing a mask and social distancing.

As a seven-hospital system with a level-one trauma center, Carilion Clinic is used to being busy, said Dr. Patrice Weiss, executive vice president and chief medical officer. But this is a new kind of busy.

“What is notable about this moment in time, however, is the amount of preventable hospitalizations that require quite frankly an inordinate amount of resources,” she said.

Since July, Weiss said, Carilion has admitted 830 patients due to COVID-19, more than 80% of whom had not yet received one vaccination.

“It’s our job to take care of all of those who are sick, no matter the reason. And we will continue to do so,” she said. “Still, it truly does break our heart to see patients who are suffering when they don’t need to be suffering.”

As an obstetrician, Weiss said she continues to see pregnant, unvaccinated patients with COVID-19. Weiss said she understands the fears pregnant women and their families have, but urged them to reach out to their doctors for more information and to learn about the science behind the vaccine.

The hospitalization of COVID-19 patients also affects the ability of medical providers to treat other patients, Weiss said, many of whom delayed care during the pandemic.

With high patient volumes, hospitals in the region have recently needed to utilize “diversion,” a temporary measure in which EMS crews take incoming patients to the nearest emergency room not on diversion, allowing those that are very busy time to “decompress.”

However, officials stressed that if another hospital is unable to take the patient or is too far away, or if multiple hospitals are on diversion, patients are taken to the closest, most appropriate hospital, no matter its diversion status.

Salem Fire-EMS Chief John Prillaman, who spoke on behalf of the region’s first responders, urged people to call 911 or go to the emergency room only for critical illnesses and injuries.

An EMS agency will never refuse service, he said, but it’s important to make sure medical resources are available to “patients who could be experiencing a true emergency.”

Prillaman said diversions might result in EMS crews having to take patients to a hospital across town, adding time to the trip and putting a strain on their resources as well. He said agencies have been dealing with diversions more in the last month or so.

Dr. Carnell Cooper, chief medical officer for LewisGale Regional Health System, said frontline workers are “growing weary” as they continue to battle COVID-19. He spoke of how difficult it is to hear patients express regret about declining to be vaccinated as they take their last breaths.

“It is our calling and our privilege to care for patients during these very challenging times,” he said. “But it’s also our duty and our responsibility to emphasize the tools that are available to take care of our community. The most important tool we have in this pandemic is the vaccine.”

In some parts of the country, hospitals have been forced to ration care. While that hasn’t happened in Southwest Virginia, Cooper said, providers want to be sure they avoid doing so.

Dr. Cynthia Morrow, director of the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts, said it’s important to continue encouraging people to get vaccinated and address any concerns those hesitant to receive the jab may have.

“We’re never going to give up on people,” she said. “We’re going to keep doing whatever we can to try to understand where people are, meet them where they are and try to address any concerns that they have.”

Morrow said she’s hopeful the mandate that businesses with more than 100 employees require vaccination or regular testing will help to increase vaccination rates.

“We know that, for example, we have extremely high vaccination rates for mumps, measles and rubella in large part because our schools require them,” she said. “So we know that policies that are made to protect the public’s health can really do just that: they can protect the public’s health.”

Numerous officials called on community members to do their part by getting vaccinated.

“We really need your help. Please get vaccinated if you haven’t already done so,” Morrow said. “While no vaccine is 100% effective, we know this vaccine is safe and it works.”

Former Rocky Mount police officer jailed in U.S. Capitol insurrection case seeks speedy trial

Thomas “T.J.” Robertson

It will likely be next year before a trial can be held for two former Rocky Mount police officers who say they did nothing wrong by entering the U.S. Capitol while it was being overrun by supporters of Donald Trump.

Both Thomas “T.J.” Robertson and Jacob Fracker continue to express no interest in plea agreements offered by the government, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Aloi said Thursday during a virtual hearing in the case.

Robertson is seeking a speedy trial, which means a date must be scheduled within 70 days of when he was incarcerated in late July for violating his bond.

“Where the rubber meets the road is when you have a defendant who says ‘I want to go to trial,’” Washington D.C. District Judge Christopher Cooper said in inquiring about a date.

Although Aloi said a trial could be held by early next year, one was not scheduled Thursday. Cooper asked the parties to be back in court Nov. 10 for another status conference.

Other circumstances, such as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, could complicate the speedy trial requirement. But Cooper said he wanted to avoid the possibility of Robertson spending more time in jail awaiting trial than what his ultimate sentence would be – assuming that he is convicted.

Robertson and Fracker say they committed no acts of violence during the Jan. 6 riots and were not told by Capitol police officers that they were not allowed to enter the building.

They were charged with the felony of obstructing an official proceeding, and several misdemeanors, after a photograph showed them posing in front of the statue of a Revolutionary War hero. Both men were fired from their jobs as Rocky Mount police officers a short time later.

At first, both Robertson and Fracker agreed to waive their speedy trial rights; Robertson changed his mind after he was incarcerated for possession of firearms and other offenses that violated the conditions of his bond.

More than 600 people – including two others from Western Virginia – have been charged with participating in the uprising, which came during a joint session of Congress to certify an election won by President Joe Biden.

Earlier in the day, Trump urged a large crowd that had gathered nearby to “fight like hell” against an election he says was rigged against him. There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Although some members of the crowd have said they did nothing violent, prosecutors contend that doesn’t absolve them.

“Every single person charged, at the very least, contributed to the inability of Congress to carry out the certification of our Presidential election,” they said in court papers.

Christiansburg mother is sentenced to 2 life terms for sexually abusing son who was murdered

Kayla Nicole Thomas kept her eyes cast downward, fixed on the table in front of her, as her relatives spoke Thursday about the heartbreak and horror of what Thomas had done to her young son.

“I cannot wrap my head around it,” said Melinda Chrisley, Thomas’ mother, describing sleepless nights and tear-filled days spent consumed with wondering how such a thing could happen.

“He was so precious,” she said of her grandson, 2-year-old Steven Dale Meek II. “She was supposed to protect that baby.”

Thomas, 28, was sentenced Thursday for the sexual abuse of her son, crimes she said she committed at the insistence of her boyfriend, who later murdered Steven.

A jury took just an hour to convict her on all charges after a trial in June, and urged the courts to sentence her to two life terms plus 10 years.

During Thursday morning’s hearing, Judge Mike Fleenor said he saw no reason to go against the jury’s recommendation.

“They are the conscience of this community,” he said, adding the evidence had been overwhelming that Thomas committed acts the judge described as depraved and unfathomable.

“This has been a very disturbing, unsettling and just awful case for everyone involved to say the least,” he said.

Thomas will be on probation if she is ever released from prison. But Fleenor said it was improbable that she would ever be free again.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt said the life sentences were the only “reasonable and just” outcome for such a case.

“To think about a sweet, innocent little child like that, and the horrific acts committed against him. I don’t know a word for that,” she said. “Then to think that these acts were committed against him by his own mother.”

Thomas, when confronted by investigators in 2019, admitted to performing sex acts on her son and recording it to share with her boyfriend, McKenzie Kyle Hellman, who she lived with in Christiansburg.

At trial, she testified that Hellman had been using methamphetamine and she gave into his demands on that day, the morning of Jan. 8, 2019, out of fear of him.

Prosecutors noted that she continued to reach out to Hellman while in jail, writing him love letters, with one sent as recently as two weeks before her trial date.

Steven was hospitalized three days after the sexual abuse with what investigators later determined were 22 separate blunt-force wounds to his head, among an array of other injuries. He died at the hospital on Jan. 13, 2019.

Hellman’s own young son, who also lived with the couple, told investigators that Hellman had struck and kicked Steven.

A jury found Hellman, 27, guilty of child sex abuse and pornography charges. He was scheduled for a separate jury trial for killing the boy but pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

He is now serving a sentence of two life terms plus 90 years.

Thomas was convicted of inanimate object sexual penetration, forcible sodomy, making child pornography, and distributing or electronically transmitting child pornography.

During her sentencing hearing, relatives of Steven, including his father, testified to the deep grief that his loss has created. Several said they were battling depression and anxiety.

Thomas and her son had lived with her parents until about five months before his death. There had been no signs of abuse then, relatives said.

Steven was described as a cheerful, loving boy, who shadowed his grandparents, begging them to sing another round of Baby Shark or insisting on helping them with chores.

The toddler often made a bigger mess during his attempts to help, said his grandmother. “But I didn’t care,” she said. “He was my world. He was my first grandchild.”

When Thomas moved out, her parents said, they got to see the child less and less.

C.J. Chrisley, Thomas’ stepfather, said he was last able to see Steven that October. The family didn’t get to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas with him. They still had a stack of wrapped gifts waiting for him when he was killed. His grandmother packed them away. She couldn’t bear to donate the toys or let other children play with them.

“It’s been horrifying,” C.J. Chrisley said. “We will carry this every day for the rest of our lives.”

Chrisley added they loved their daughter and prayed for her soul. But they couldn’t comprehend what she had done.

“She was not raised that way,” he said.

The defense called no witnesses to address the judge before the sentence was delivered. But Thomas made a statement, rising and removing her face mask, revealing she had been crying.

“I am deeply, deeply remorseful for what happened,” she said. “I’d give anything to have my baby boy back. I’d do anything to get a second chance, and to do right by my son like I should have done in the first place.”

Murder charge against suspended Hokie player Etute is elevated to grand jury

CHRISTIANSBURG — A Montgomery County grand jury will consider a second-degree murder charge against suspended Hokie linebacker Isimemen David Etute.

Judge Gordon Saunders certified the charge to a grand jury at Etute’s preliminary hearing on Thursday. The grand jury is scheduled to decide Oct. 26 whether Etute should be tried in the county’s Circuit Court.

The witnesses at Thursday’s hearing in General District Court were three Blacksburg police detectives who added details to the public description of Etute’s final encounter with restaurant project manager Jerry Paul Smith.

Etute, 18, is accused of killing Smith, 40, in Smith’s downtown Blacksburg apartment on Memorial Day. Attorneys said Thursday that the two men connected through the Tinder app and met for oral sex on April 10, then again on May 31.

But in April, Etute thought that he was meeting a woman, not a man, witnesses and Etute’s defense attorney said Thursday. And in May, Etute wanted to see who it was he’d been with.

On Thursday, police testified that although Etute entered Smith’s apartment alone, he arrived at the building at 119 N. Main St. with two friends — who were not identified Thursday.

Other details from the detectives’ testimony and defense attorney Jimmy Turk of Radford’s cross-examination included that after Etute and Smith had oral sex on April 10, Smith paid Etute $50; that a detective recognized Smith’s body because Smith had been a defendant or witness in prior cases; and that police found a knife between Smith’s mattress and box springs.

In June, a spokesperson for Smith’s family described him as a proud, openly gay man.

On Thursday Detective Ryan Hite testified that records obtained from Tinder showed that Smith presented himself on the app as a woman named Angie Renee. Etute said that after he met Angie on April 10, he wondered if he had been with a man or woman and stopped communicating with the person, Hite said, recounting what Etute told investigators after Smith’s death.

Then the person Etute knew as Angie sent a message asking if he would put in a good word about her to a friend of his, Hite said in response to questions from Turk and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jason Morgan. Etute’s friend also asked if Etute could vouch for Angie, Hite said.

Etute arranged to go back to the North Main Street apartment on May 31 to find out if Angie was a man or woman — and to “engage in another consensual act” with Angie if she was a woman, Hite said.

As during his first visit, the multi-level apartment was only dimly lit and Angie seemed to be concealing her face, Hite said that Etute told officers. Etute groped Angie to “determine if this was a male or female,” the detective said.

After that, Etute used the light on his phone to illuminate Smith’s face in the dark apartment. When Etute saw facial hair, “he said he just started hitting him,” Hite said.

Etute told police that Smith was sitting on his bed when Etute began punching, and that he struck him about five times, using his right hand. Smith “swatted” at Etute and fell to the floor in a space about 4 feet wide between the bed and wall, Etute said.

Etute said that he stepped over Smith and kicked him in the face as he did so. There were bloody footprints on the apartment’s carpet, its kitchen floor and in the hallway outside the apartment door, Hite and Detective Heather Rose-Semple said.

Etute told police he heard breathing and “gurgling” as he left, Hite said. Security camera footage showed Etute and his two friends went outside to a parking lot and waited 10 to 15 minutes before driving away, Hite said.

None of them called 911, Hite said. Days later, when Etute spoke to police, Hite told him that Smith had died and Etute broke into tears, Hite said.

Asked by Turk if Etute told police why he hit Smith, Hite said, “His statement was that none of this would ever have happened if he’d known this was a man and not a female.”

Etute told police that he had nothing to drink and had taken no drugs before going to Smith’s apartment.

Rose-Semple said that Smith’s body was found lying on its back, that Smith sustained “severe trauma to the face,” and that blood was splashed on the wall near him.

Cross-examining Hite on Thursday, Turk asked if the detective had seen a knife between the mattress and box springs of Smith’s bed on the side adjacent to where Smith’s body was found. Hite replied he had only seen the knife in other officers’ photos of the scene.

When Turk mentioned the knife, a friend of Smith’s family, Rebecca Snavely, stood in the courtroom’s spectator area and angrily left the courtroom.

Smith’s killing “was premeditated,” Snavely said outside, with tears streaming down her face.

Premeditation is a requirement for a first-degree murder charge. A second-degree murder charge involves an unlawful killing but not necessarily premeditation.

At Thursday’s hearing, Turk asked the judge to strike the second-degree charge, saying the evidence at worst supported a charge of involuntary manslaughter. Saunders quickly denied Turk’s motion, but the attorney reiterated his position after the hearing.

“This is not second-degree murder. This is just a very, very sad case all around for both sides,” Turk said.

After the hearing, bailiffs escorted Turk, Etute and about a dozen of his friends and relatives out a side door to the courthouse.

About a dozen of Smith’s friends and relatives waited by the main exit. Some pulled on T-shirts bearing Smith’s face and #justiceforjerrysmith.

Snavely said the family is grieving and that Smith’s brother and 13-year-old nephew are trying to come to terms with having discovered Smith’s body on June 1.

“They never went 24 hours without talking to him,” Snavely said. “This was a 13-year-old — he was found by his nephew with his face beaten.”

Smith’s aunt Doris May expressed frustration with the way her nephew was portrayed in the courtroom. “What they say, I know it’s all a lie,” May said. “Jerry wasn’t afraid to say he was gay and he didn’t try to be a woman. I don’t care what they say.”

Smith’s relatives said they also were frustrated that the two people who accompanied Etute to Smith’s apartment had not been arrested.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt said after the hearing that she was not expecting anyone else to be charged.

Surveillance footage from Smith’s apartment building that was viewed by The Roanoke Times showed the two other people walking up a hallway to Smith’s apartment.

The time-stamped surveillance footage that building owner Corky Cranwell said that she provided to the police shows Etute entering the apartment at 10:07 p.m. and the footage picks back up at 10:10 p.m. with the three running away.

The cameras were activated by a motion sensor and stopped recording during that three-minute gap.

Arrested on June 2, Etute was released on a $75,000 secured bond and placed under electronic monitoring and house arrest at his family’s home. On Thursday, the judge said Etute could return with his family to Virginia Beach and remain free on the same bond conditions.

Roanoke College president announces retirement

The future is bright at Roanoke College, said a retirement announcement emailed to students on Thursday by President Michael Maxey.

Maxey, president at Roanoke College since 2007, said his retirement is effective the first day of August 2022, at the end of the current academic year.

“Next summer I will complete my fifteenth year as Roanoke College’s eleventh president,” Maxey said in an email to students. “I am convinced that the close of this academic year is an optimal moment to retire.”

Maxey has been with the college since 1985. His nearing 37 years with Roanoke College is the longest overall tenure with the school of any person who became its president, the release said.

“I did not intend a long-term stay. Then Roanoke College’s magic happened,” Maxey said. “Momentum and ambition are among the most precious ingredients of the Roanoke College magic.”

The school will immediately begin the search for Maxey’s replacement, the release said. Board of Trustees Chairman Malon Courts said Maxey’s commitment and leadership will be appreciated beyond his final 11 months in office.

“In large part due to President Maxey, Roanoke College is on firm footing,” Courts said. “As we look toward the future, I am confident that the College will continue to flourish and grow.”

Roanoke College will name a search committee that includes members of the school’s community to help find a new president, the release said. Details about the search process, committee composition and timeline for Maxey’s replacement are forthcoming.

During Maxey’s time as president, Roanoke College expanded its course offerings, saw new construction on campus and increased its presence in athletics, the release said.

“The coming of next summer is right for new leadership at Roanoke College,” Maxey said. “We are poised to accelerate Roanoke College’s progress.”

Maxey, a native of Bassett, Virginia, is known for learning the names of each new Roanoke College student, and for teaching anyone interested how to tie a bow-tie. His wife, Terri, is also involved with the college, and they have three sons.

“I feel very positive about Roanoke College’s future,” Maxey said. “We have many things to do this year and I will continue to focus on those actions that will help Roanoke College and our community.”