RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Gov. Roy Cooper encouraged local officials and schools to end their mask mandates, the governor said at a news conference held Thursday afternoon at the Emergency Operations Center.
Cooper cited the decline in cases from the Omicron variant, vaccination rates and boosters and other factors in calling for an easing of the face-covering restrictions.
"As a result of all of these factors, I encourage schools and local governments to end their mask mandates," Cooper said. "Soon, NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley will discuss the latest school guidance from health officials on masks, their recommended path to ending requirements and COVID data."
Cooper acknowledged the pandemic has been difficult for everyone but particularly so on parents, teachers, and schoolchildren.
"We are taking a positive step on mask requirements to help us move safely toward a more normal day-to-day life," Cooper said. "It's time to focus on getting our children a good education and improving our schools, no matter how you feel about masks."
The governor cautioned that as entities decide how to move forward, people and businesses should continue to make the best decisions for themselves, their employees and their customers.
"There are still some places, such as health care, long-term care and transportation like airplanes, where a mask will be required because of the setting or federal regulations," Cooper said.
The state's COVID-19 trends are decreasing, lowering the risk of infection, and improving hospital capacity.
"NCDHHS has always been committed to using the right tools at the right time to combat COVID-19 and chart a course for us all to get back to the people, experiences, and places we love," said Kinsley. "At this time, the most effective tools are vaccines and boosters. Everyone five and older should get a COVID-19 vaccine and everyone 12 and older should get a booster as soon as they are eligible. It's not too late to vaccinate."
WATCH: Gov. Cooper's full opening statements
To date, 71 percent of North Carolina's adult population is fully vaccinated. About 75 percent of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, including 96 percent of North Carolinians 65 and older.
As Cooper spoke Thursday, the North Carolina House passed the Free the Smiles Act in a bipartisan vote of 76-42. The bill will give parents the right to opt-out of student mask mandates for their children.
"All health care decisions for our students belong with their parents, not with politicians or bureaucrats," North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said. "No one cares about these children more than their parents, and no one is better suited to make these decisions. This action is long overdue. While politicians have failed to roll back these onerous restrictions that have resulted in learning loss, young children have paid the heaviest price for ongoing mandates and restrictions that are simply not based on science or current data."
The North Carolina Senate also approved a bill making masks optional in K-12 schools and early childhood programs on state property.
"Our youngest students are suffering under these mask mandates. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine how difficult your first few years of school would be if you had to wear a mask," Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, who serves as the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said. "Giving parents the ability to choose whether their child wears a mask balances the specific needs of a family. It's past time to give our students a lifeline and let them get back to learning freely."
Senate Bill 173 passed the Senate 28-17. The House approved the bill and it now goes to Cooper for his consideration.
Senate Republicans said in a release that "for years we've known that school-aged children are at a lower risk for severe COVID-19, yet they're the ones who continue to bear the brunt of the masking requirements. As Democrat-run states begin lifting mask mandates, they're still requiring young students to continue wearing masks in schools. Studies are beginning to show that masks are having detrimental effects on their social and emotional development."
School boards in North Carolina are required to vote on their masking policies every 30 days, but that requirement is repealed in this bill.
The bill does not supersede any federal requirements for masking on school buses.
Asked about the legislation during his news conference, Cooper said he had some "concerns" but would take a look at the bill.
Last summer, Cooper dropped the statewide indoor mask requirement as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations plummeted, and he resisted calls to reimplement the requirement during the Delta variant surge in the fall, and then again with Omicron this winter.
Instead, the administration effectively punted to city and county governments, as well as individual school districts.
Face coverings remain required at most schools in central North Carolina, but districts have started rolling back the requirements. Here's an updated list of where your district stands.
Lee County school leaders will meet also meet Thursday about mask rules, as will Wayne County.
Dr. David Wohl from UNC Healthcare told ABC11 earlier this week it's still too soon to be removing masks while many children remain unvaccinated and masks are an effective way to help protect them.
"I think we have to do a better job of protecting our kids, especially since a lot of them are not vaccinated and protecting our teachers. So if it was up to me, I would wait just a little while longer," Wohl said.
The debate over masks has indeed intensified after other Democrat-run states like Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Oregon have all announced plans to make masks optional in schools by the end of March.
Cooper said Thursday that he frequently speaks with governors of both political parties regarding health policies and actions.
"If a child has bad diabetes, if a child is suffering from cancer and getting chemotherapy -- by all means, by all means," Rep. Dr. Greg Murphy, R-NC, told ABC11 about masks in schools. "As a physician, I have to be objective, I have to be objective and take emotion out of it and say look, this is what the truth is, this is what reality is and say look, you know it's really, really not necessary, and in fact, I think harmful to children."
Murphy, a practicing urologist in Greenville, has recently petitioned the National Institutes of Health to initiate new studies to evaluate whether lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions while helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19, may have inadvertently caused more harm to others.
"Because we shut everything down, people were told not to go to emergency rooms for two or three months or go see your doctor, and we know for a fact that 9 million cancer screenings didn't occur," Murphy, who said he supported early lockdowns in March 2020, explained. "We also know at-home deaths spiked because people may have had strokes or stress pains."
Meanwhile, U.S. health groups continue to promote COVID-19 vaccines as a safe way to reduce severe cases of COVID-19 and subsequent hospitalizations and deaths, even in children.
"So it is true that omicron is less virulent and causes less severe disease, but because we've seen so many children get infected, unfortunately, we have seen too many kids that have gotten severely impacted by COVID-19," Adm. Rachel Levine, MD, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health, told ABC11. "It is not clear what some of the long-term impacts of having COVID will be, which highlights the importance of our current vaccination programs for children."
REACTION TO COOPER'S ANNOUNCEMENT
The North Carolina Medical Society issued a statement supporting the governor's recommendations. The society, whose members represent physicians and physician assistants said it's now time to use what we know to "critically and judiciously" plan the transition into an endemic.
That means more focus on individual behaviors and less toward public mandates.
"Vaccines have been an effective tool for minimizing potential health (personal and public) hazards associated with COVID. Vaccines are also vital in slowing widespread viral transmission resulting in increased disease progression as measured by hospitalizations and deaths. We are seeing success to that end. Now, we must accept that very much like the seasonal flu, COVID19 will be among us on the list of SARs viruses. We must learn to live with it in a safe and thoughtful way. Patients should rely on their trusted physician to help them evaluate their personal risk and safely navigate life in the new post-pandemic COVID era," said Michael Utecht, MD, President, North Carolina Medical Society/
In essence, it's about people making smart decisions based to minimize their chances of being exposed to SARS-CoV2.
"Evaluating risk is something that we commonly do without thinking, like when we drive a car," said Chip Baggett, Executive Vice President and CEO of NCMS. "Your primary physician has the deep understanding of your personal health history and lifestyle to assist you in developing a personal COVID risk determination. That is where people should now turn to for guidance."
The North Carolina Association of Local Health Directors also weighed in on Cooper's remarks.
"Cases and hospitalizations are falling. So many people have acquired the Omicron variant that there is a lot of natural immunity and a high percentage of vaccinations in North Carolina. We have a scenario where people have been vaccinated or have had Covid-or both-and there is a low likelihood of transmitting the virus, so therefore they may not need to wear a mask. We are not stating that masks are bad or ineffective, but that everyone's situation is unique, and some may feel comfortable continuing to wear a mask in public. They should have every right to do so," the group said. "It's important that we change and continue to assess the prevention tools and guidance within this evolving pandemic, which are critical as our state navigates daily response. Today's transition in guidance will help decision-makers maintain local authority and local control to respond to the metrics present within their community."