When will North Carolina drop the mask mandate? Not anytime soon, Gov. Cooper says

Tuesday, Governor Cooper made it clear that despite decreasing COVID-19 metrics and increasing vaccinations, North Carolina has no plans to drop mask mandates.

"We are going to listen to health officials and across the board continue to want to make sure we have a mask mandate in place and that we wear masks to protect each other and ourselves. We are still working on getting people vaccinated. Our numbers are lower and that is great. We don't intend to lift the mask mandate in NC and we are looking forward to more progress as we get more people vaccinated," said Cooper.

The decision is supported by Triangle doctors who spoke with ABC11 on Wednesday.

"We've gotten real good at wearing masks. It's really easy. We've shown it's effective, there's good data to support that now in hospitals and in communities. So of all the measures, that's the most simple and therefore should be one of the last to be wound back," said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Duke Health.

In the past two weeks, North Carolina has administered more than 750,000 vaccine doses, accounting for about a quarter of its total since beginning in mid-December.

"We drive this down to a point where it's unlikely to really surge back once we're given a bit more time to get vaccines into the arms of people. And as we've seen as sort of the rollout of that is ramping up, it's only really been in the last couple weeks that we've had sufficient supply lines of the vaccine to really get a good number of doses into people and to really start making a dent in that," said Wolfe.

Through Tuesday, 10.9% of North Carolinians are fully vaccinated and an additional 6.8% are partially vaccinated. Increased supplies, and the addition of the recently authorized, single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, should help increase rates, but it could still be several weeks until the bulk of the general public is able to access the vaccine.

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Exactly two months ago, on Jan. 10, North Carolina reported 8,833 new COVID-19 cases; Wednesday, the state reported 1,861 new cases.

It's a drop, that's coincided with decreasing positivity rates and hospitalizations, though doctors stress precautions like masking and the 3 W's still need to be taken seriously.

"Although we have experienced lower transmission in the recent month or so, we continue to see transmission in new communities," said. Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett, the Director of Infection Prevention at UNC Health.

"We still have over a thousand people in North Carolina hospital beds today," said Dr. Wolfe.

While municipalities and businesses in states that have lifted mask mandates or significantly loosened restrictions can impose their own regulations, doctors are concerned about the impact other states' decisions can have on North Carolinians.

"To the extent that we're intermixing other communities where these strategies are not put into place, we really are at great risk at elongating this pandemic," said Dr. Sickbert-Bennett.

Instead, they, along with the CDC, is pushing for a layered, re-opening approach based off metrics and vaccination rates.

"It's not saying, 'Hey let's go and have the 100-person family reunion or let's go have 20,000 people at a football game.' It's a step-wise acknowledgment that we're getting there, we're doing better, but we're not quite there yet," said Dr. Wolfe.

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"It does worry me quite a bit when entire states are rolling back mask mandates, because it really is an important prevention strategy that needs to stay in place until this pandemic is behind us," said Dr. Sickbert-Bennett, who added it is "absolutely too soon" to take that step.

In late February, North Carolina allowed bars to hold 30% capacity indoors, a step towards reopening. Governor Cooper said he would look at expanding capacity limits in certain businesses in a future executive order, though did not provide a specific timeline or metrics that would lead to such action taking place.

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