Johnston, Cumberland schools make masking optional; Lee County keeps requirement

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Here's the latest news and information on COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccines.

10 p.m.
COVID-19 cases are falling in North Carolina and looking ahead, we might have to pay closer attention to wastewater as a way out of the pandemic.

To get a better idea of where COVID-19 is spreading, the CDC is turning to wastewater samples, including here in North Carolina.

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COVID-19 cases are falling in North Carolina and looking ahead, we might have to pay closer attention to wastewater as a way out of the pandemic.



Dr Rachel Noble is a professor of marine science at UNC; Innovate Carolina and has been working with NCDHHS and the CDC to expand locations where they are testing across North Carolina to include more towns.

Noble said that previously, they were more focused on urban centers such as Raleigh, Charlotte and Greenville.



They're building a program to help public health management navigate this pandemic and beyond. New tools have been added to show the public in better ways what's going on with wastewater signaling.

"So few people are getting PCR tests and when people use home tests, that information largely doesn't get recorded into the state databases, and so testing wastewater for the virus that causes COVID 19 allows us to take the pulse of what's going on in the community," Noble said. "As we see new variants come in, we can watch the trends go up and down. We can also see the effects of mask mandates and vaccine education and really strong booster strategies."

The process is one that continues to evolve and improve.

"We've improved our way to take that quantitative data from the virus in the wastewater and really distill it in a way that the graphs and figures are easier to see and interpret," Noble said. "We are trying to build this for the future so we certainly don't have everything figured out. We hope in the future to be able to add other viruses to it: to Track chemicals of value to people like antibiotics possibly or maybe even certain types of drugs, so we're building all of those capabilities ... it's a lot of people power and it takes a lot of coordination."

-- ABC11's Josh Chapin reported.

7:50 p.m.
The Cumberland County School Board has voted to make face masks optional.

The policy will start Feb. 16.

Meanwhile, a similar push to drop the mask requirement in Lee County failed.

The Lee County school board voted 4-3 to keep the mask requirement.

6 p.m.
Johnston County Schools is making face masks optional for students.

The updated policy will take effect Feb. 21.

5:14 p.m.
Raleigh's indoor mask mandate will continue for now.

During the City Council's work session, Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin gave an update on her meeting earlier Tuesday with Wake County health officials and said simply: "We're not there yet."

Baldwin said Wake County's COVID-19 metrics are still too high but she said the good news is that things are improving.

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Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin said the issue of mask mandates will be revisited in two weeks.



Baldwin said the issue will soon be revisited.

"We'll meet in two weeks to look at the data and hopefully make a decision at that point," Baldwin said.

12:55 p.m.
North Carolina reported 4,648 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday. That's nearly half of the number of cases reported a week ago.

The percentage of tests coming back positive also dropped from last week's 29.8% to 23%. However, that remains much higher than state health officials want to see.

Meanwhile, the newly released data showed 76 fewer people were in the hospital with COVID than were there yesterday.

TUESDAY MORNING HEADLINES
Raleigh and Wake County indoor mask mandates are up for debate Tuesday.

Government leaders will meet in the afternoon to discuss the next steps in the pandemic.

According to Wake County health leaders, the COVID-19 positivity rate is at 19 percent, which is higher than the goal of 5 percent but significantly lower than it was a couple weeks ago.

There were also more than 200 new COVID-19 hospitalizations in the last week.

This comes as some Wake County parents urge school leaders to end the mask mandate, citing mental health concerns for their children.

Health experts have warned that it's too soon to end mask mandates, especially in schools due to the low vaccination rate in children.

ABC11 data shows just over 20 percent of kids 5-11 are vaccinated, 44 percent of kids 12-17 are vaccinated, and children under 5 are not yet eligible for vaccines.

MONDAY
4:01 p.m.
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis. R-NC, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers recently sent a letter calling for the extension of expanded coverage of telehealth services.

In the letter sent to congressional leadership, the legislators said that a short-term extension of Medicare telehealth services, which were extended during the COVID-19 pandemic, would provide "much-needed certainty to healthcare providers and patients while Congress works to enact permanent telehealth legislation."

"We strongly support permanently expanding Medicare coverage of telehealth and removing other barriers to the use of telehealth because of its ability to expand access to care, reduce costs, and improve health outcomes," the lawmakers wrote. "While Congress prepares to enact permanent telehealth legislation, we urge you to include an extension of the pandemic telehealth authorities in must-pass government funding legislation in February."

12:12 p.m.
COVID-19 metrics in North Carolina continue to improve, building on a trend from the last couple of weeks.

There were 4,727 new cases reported. quite a drop from the more than 12,000 recorded Friday.

The daily percent positive is 19.3% down from 21%.

There are also 458 fewer people in the hospital. Hospitalizations stand at 4,032.

A total of 152 new deaths were reported for a total of 21,249 since the start of the pandemic nearly two years ago.

11:46 p.m.
The Lee County Health Department will transition its COVID-19 vaccination clinics to the Lee County Government Center at 106 Hillcrest Drive, beginning Feb. 14.

COVID-19 vaccination clinics will be Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

They will administer the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine on Mondays and Wednesdays and administer the Moderna vaccine on Fridays only.

"We will continue to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to anyone who is interested in receiving the vaccine and this transition ensures a spot for your shot on the designated days and times mentioned above," said Lee County Health Director Heath Cain. "Continuing to provide this vaccine aids in protecting the health of everyone in our community."

Scheduling an appointment is best practice as the vaccines must be thawed ahead of time to prevent waste. If you are interested in receiving your COVID-19 vaccine or booster vaccine, please call (919) 842-5744 or register here.

11:45 a.m.
Groundbreaking research by several top American medical centers has identified a COVID pandemic spike in cases of so-called "broken heart syndrome," a potentially deadly stress-induced heart condition that doctors say is disproportionately impacting women.

"My heart felt like it was pounding out of my chest," said Mary Kay Abramson, 63, of Brookeville, Maryland, who was diagnosed with the condition last year. "It just felt like the blood just couldn't get through the heart fast enough."

An otherwise healthy and active corporate travel agent, Abramson said the episode occurred without symptoms or warning signs and even surprised the doctors trying to diagnose it.

"(My cardiologist) comes up to my head and says, 'have you been under a lot of stress, because your arteries look fine?'" Abramson said of the hospital bed conversation last year. "So, yeah, a little bit: I've been furloughed for three months. COVID is going on. You know, can't get out and do things. We're shut down. So, yeah, I have been under a lot of stress!"

It was a classic case of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome, her doctors say. The rare but dangerous form of heart disease is triggered by intense emotional or physical stress when a sudden flood of hormones is believed to stun the heart into pumping less efficiently.

Teams of experts at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, Cleveland Clinic and Johns Hopkins have each been tracking a recent surge in cases, likely spiking substantially during the pandemic, they say. The data is still being gathered and long-term implications examined.

"I don't know how much we can really blame COVID, or how much of this is that we're just recognizing more of it," said Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, director of the Barbra Streisand Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai. "But heart disease is the leading killer of women and all ages, including teenagers, midlife women and older women. This is just a component of that major killer. So it's really something that needs to be addressed."

Bairey Merz says cases of broken heart syndrome have risen up to 10 times faster among middle-aged and older women than among younger women and men over the last decade. The disease is most common in this group as well.

Thirty-four-year-old tech recruiter Jenna Pilja of Huntington Beach, California, thought she was mentally prepared to give birth to her first child during COVID but was suddenly overcome last year after an emergency Cesarean section, potentially triggering a broken heart episode.

"Hearing that my son might not have been OK, that certainly could have triggered me, maybe more because of past trauma," Pilja said. "Despite being on pain medication, I was able to feel some concerning symptoms. I had really bad dizziness and I had the worst headache I've ever had in my life."

Her doctor later diagnosed the episode as a probable case of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Pilja is still undergoing evaluation but is expected to make a full recovery.

"As cardiologists, we always think the heart is the most important organ. It's the brain and the brain controls everything," said Bairey Merz.

The brain-heart connection is at the center of Dr. Bairey Merz's research at the Cedars-Sinai Smidt Heart Institute. ABC News got an exclusive look inside the hospital's high-tech simulation center where imaging data illustrates how stress can literally break a heart.

"You hear people say, 'oh, she's broken-hearted' or somebody is broken-hearted because they had a breakup... but they may come in with this and it's a real diagnosis. It was just, like, unbelievable to me," said Zearlisha Kinchelow, 35, a single mom and nursing student in Kansas City, Missouri., who was diagnosed with a broken heart.

"They just told me I was at 10% heart function," she said. Her heart function has since returned to normal with therapy and changes to her diet and exercise, she said.

For Elaine Kamil, 75, a pediatric nephrology specialist in Los Angeles, immense grief after the unexpected death of her 31-year-old-son physically took a toll on her heart.

"The pain was severe. I got lucky," said Kamil, who believes she has had multiple episodes of broken heart syndrome in the past few years. "I think it's important to make sure that whoever you're seeing -- cardiologists understand Takotsubo (cardiomyopathy) and what the best treatments there are."

While many hearts heal quickly, Bairey Merz says one in five people who suffers a broken heart will have another attack within 10 years.

"Taking care of yourself is definitely more than, you know, just taking care of your body,' said Pilja. "It's really about looking after your mental health and your overall well-being and making sure that you're taking time to engage in activities that help relax you and help you process your emotions in a useful way."

Growing evidence suggests doing so is one key to maintaining a healthy heart.

FRIDAY
9:09 p.m.
President Joe Biden released a statement after the U.S. surpassed 900,000 deaths from COVID-19.

"Today, our nation marks another tragic milestone - 900,000 American lives have been lost to COVID-19. They were beloved mothers and fathers, grandparents, children, brothers and sisters, neighbors, and friends. Each soul is irreplaceable. We pray for the loved ones they have left behind, and together we keep every family enduring this pain in our hearts," Biden said. "After nearly two years, I know that the emotional, physical, and psychological weight of this pandemic has been incredibly difficult to bear. I know what it's like to stare at an empty chair around the kitchen table. But I also know that we carry an incredible capacity within ourselves - not only to come through our grief stronger but to come together to protect one another.

"We now have more tools than ever before to save lives and fight this virus - with vaccines remaining our most important tool. Vaccines and boosters have proven incredibly effective, and offer the highest level of protection. Two hundred and fifty million Americans have stepped up to protect themselves, their families, and their communities by getting at least one shot - and we have saved more than one million American lives as a result.

"We can save even more lives - and spare countless families from the deepest pain imaginable - if everybody does their part. I urge all Americans: get vaccinated, get your kids vaccinated, and get your booster shot if you are eligible. It's free, easy, and effective - and it can save your life and the lives of those you love.

4:30 p.m.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have released a study on whether varying degrees of COVID-19 lockdowns, school closings and restrictions made any impact on mortality.

The resounding conclusion is that they did not and likely caused more harm than good and have had "devastating effects" on society.

In fact, the study authors wrote that "while this meta-analysis concludes that lockdowns have had little to no public health effects, they have imposed enormous economic and social costs where they have been adopted. In consequence, lockdown policies are ill-founded and should be rejected as a pandemic policy instrument."

The study concluded that lockdowns and other measures improved COVID-19 mortality rates in Europe and the United States by only 0.2% to 2.9% on average at best.

Researchers found that during the early stages of a pandemic, "before the arrival of vaccines and new treatments, a society can respond in two ways: mandated behavioral changes or voluntary behavioral changes."

Though the study concluded that it could not find "significant positive effects" of mandated behavioral changes, such as lockdowns, it said more research is needed to determine the best way to have effective voluntary behavioral changes.

"It should be clear that one important role for government authorities is to provide information so that citizens can voluntarily respond to the pandemic in a way that mitigates their exposure," the authors wrote.

Moreover, the authors found that lockdowns used early in the pandemic have contributed to "reducing economic activity, raising unemployment, reducing schooling, causing political unrest, contributing to domestic violence, and undermining liberal democracy."

See the full study here (.pdf)

4:01 p.m.
The number of lives lost to the pandemic in the U.S. stood at about 899,000 Friday afternoon, with deaths running at an average of more than 2,400 a day, back up to where they were last winter when the vaccine drive was still getting started.

New cases per day have plunged by almost a half-million nationwide since mid-January, the curve trending downward over the past two weeks in every state but Maine, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. And Maine health authorities said cases are declining there, too, falling sharply over the past week.

Also, the number of Americans in the hospital with COVID-19 has dropped 15% since mid-January to about 124,000.

Similarly, an early-warning program that looks for the virus in sewage found that COVID-19 infections are declining in the majority of participating U.S. communities, according to data posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Deaths are still on the rise in at least 35 states, reflecting the lag time between when victims become infected and when they succumb.

Public health officials have expressed hope that the worst of omicron is coming to an end, though they caution that things could still go bad again and dangerous new variants could emerge.

3:39 p.m.
The Chatham County Public Health Department will operate two drive-thru sites to distribute N95 respirator masks to the general public from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, while supplies last.

Additionally, the three branches of Chatham County Public Libraries will continue to give out N95s while supplies last.
N95s are limited to one box of 20 respirators per household/car.

Here are the sites and hours of operation for Saturday:
  • Chatham Community Library 197 NC Highway 87 N, Pittboro, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Northwood High School (drive-thru) Pittsboro, 310 Northwood High School Road, 10 a.m. to noon.
  • Wren Memorial Library, Siler City, 500 N. Second Ave. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Silk Hope School (drive-thru), Siler City, 7945 Silk Hope Gum Springs Road, 10 a.m. to noon.
  • Goldston Library, 9235 Pittsboro-Goldston Road, Goldston, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.


Masks are available inside of the three library branches. Those visiting the Northwood High School site should go to the right side of the school near the bus lot. Those visiting the Silk Hope School site should use the driveway in front of the school.

"We are thrilled that we've been able to bring N95s to the Chatham community, and we're so grateful for our partners at Chatham County Public Libraries and Chatham County Schools for serving as pick-up locations," said Zachary Horner, Communications Specialist for the Chatham County Public Health Department. "We ask that those visiting the sites be patient and respectful of staff distributing masks. They're working very hard to make sure Chatham residents have access to this important tool."

12:27 p.m.
COVD-19 metrics continue to improve in North Carolina.

NCDHHS says there are 12,385 new cases, down from 14,966 the previous day. The percent positive also fell, from 22.2% the previous day to the current 21%.

Hospitalizations are down, too, with 66 fewer patients than the day before. There are 4,490 in the hospital being treated for COVID-19.

Seventy new deaths were reported for a total of 21,097 since the start of the pandemic.

9:53 a.m.
Wastewater monitoring data from North Carolina is now part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention national COVID Data Tracker (CDT) website.

North Carolina was one of the first eight jurisdictions in the CDC's National Wastewater Surveillance System and is one of 13 jurisdictions currently participating in the NWSS and reporting wastewater data in the CDT.

Wastewater monitoring tracks COVID-19 trends at the community level and has become an important tool for tracking the COVID-19 pandemic as testing behaviors and access have changed during the course of the pandemic, NCDHHS said.

Wastewater measurements include everyone in a community regardless of whether they have been tested and can be completed at a fraction of the cost of clinical COVID-19 testing. The data can also provide an early indicator of COVID trends even before changes can be seen in the number of reported cases.

Wastewater monitoring can only be used in areas that have wastewater treatment systems, which in North Carolina, covers approximately 50% of the state's population.

Why monitor wastewater? NCDHHS said it is because people with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their stool. These viral particles are pieces of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 when still intact.

In wastewater, the particles are no longer infectious but can still be measured using sensitive laboratory techniques.
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