Everybody should still wear masks, Cumberland Co. Health Director says despite lifting requirement

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

6 p.m.
Doctors who spoke to ABC11 said that two things: vaccinations - and boosters - will be what get us through this pandemic and back to life somewhat as we knew it.

This comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to update its mask guidance as early as next week.

"We are looking at all of our guidance based, not only on where we are right now in the pandemic, but also on the tools we now have at our disposal, disposal, such as vaccines, boosters, tests and treatments and our latest understanding of the disease," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. "We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing, when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen."

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A look at moving forward from this pandemic. DeJuan Hoggard reports.



A UNC Health expert said we should follow the science on pulling back mask mandates.
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"We should make those decisions, not based upon things other than solid metrics. It can't be because we want to, it can't be because it's politically expedient. We should use science," said Dr. David Wohl of UNC Health. "We still have more deaths. We talk about 2,000 a day and that may be like well, 2,000 a day but it adds up; that's 4,000 in two days, that's 10,000 in five days. So we really got to think about this nationally that we've got a lot of people still dying. And here in North Carolina, we still have people dying."

Walensky said hospital capacity is an important factor.

"Our hospitals need to be able to take care of people with heart attacks and strokes. Our emergency departments can't be so overwhelmed the patients with emergent issues have to wait in line," she said. "We are assessing the most important factors based on where we are in the pandemic and will soon put guidance in place that is relevant and encourages prevention measures when they are most needed to protect public health and our hospitals."

Walensky also said hospital capacity would be her "barometer" on deciding how to address mask guidance.

As for vaccinations, health experts say they continue to be vital in the fight against the coronavirus.

"We really look again to the CDC counterparts to tell us the exact number,: said Duke Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lisa Pickett of the percentage of North Carolinians who should be full vaccinated. "But we want to get as close as 100% of people who have been fully-vaccinated or boosted or have the vaccine and recently ill with COVID and some natural immunity. The higher we can drive that, the better off we can be."

Dr. David Kirk, assistant chief medical officer and critical care physician at WakeMed added: "During the Omicron surge, the majority of the patients that came into the ICU are unvaccinated. The overwhelming majority of patients who died were unvaccinated. Those unvaccinated populations are the people that come in and flood into the hospitals. Those unvaccinated people are really the people that spread the disease."

-- ABC11's DeJuan Hoggard reported.

3 p.m.
Gov. Roy Cooper will address the state's mask guidance at a media briefing on Thursday afternoon.

Cooper and members of the state's Coronavirus Task Force will hold the briefing on mask guidance at 3 p.m. in the Emergency Operations Center.

You can watch the governor speak on ABC11 or streaming here on ABC11.com.

2 p.m.
While masks will not be required in indoor public spaces in Cumberland County starting Sunday at 5 p.m., the county health director said everybody over 2 years old should still wear a mask.

"This is not an indication that the pandemic is over--that we don't think masks work. The science and the data tell us that masks are an effective tool for reducing transmission in our community," Cumberland County Health Director Dr. Jennifer Green said.

Green said in reality many people had already stopped following the masking rules. Due to the difficulty in enforcing the rules and a desire to save resources, county leaders agreed to lift the public health order requiring masks inside public spaces.

Green said it was a very difficult decision. She said masks are still effective--especially ones that fit well and are certified, like N95s--at protecting people from the spread of viruses like COVID-19.

Despite the mask rules being relaxed, Green insists the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. She got emotional when asked about the decision to ultimately lift the indoor mask requirement.

"I wish that I could tell you the amount of sleep that I have lost. It's tough. I'm a mom with a 4- year-old. I'm a military spouse. I have nieces, I have nephews, I have grandparents. I get it. It is not easy," she said.

She also pointed out that everyone over the age of five should get vaccinated and boosted.

WATCH: Green's full comments on the decision to lift mask requirements
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Cumberland County's COVID-19 positivity rate has fallen down to around 25 percent from 40 percent a few weeks ago. That coupled with decreasing hospitalizations and rising vaccination rates show COVID-19 conditions improving, although all those numbers remain higher than they were before the new variant took over.

Cumberland County Schools decided this week to lift its mask mandate.

Shirley Bolden with the school system said there are still several COVID-19 protocols in place for children and teachers who are uncomfortable or sick.

She believes those school resources will help combat any difficulties students may have with this new policy.

WEDNESDAY MORNING HEADLINES
Harris Teeter announced that all of its locations will now be closing at 10 p.m.

The grocery store changed its hours back in January to close an hour earlier in order to focus on cleaning and restocking as COVID cases rose.

Wearing a mask is optional starting today inside classrooms of the Cumberland County Schools district.

However, anyone getting on a school bus must wear a mask--as required by federal law. School officials said social distancing will continue to be enforced and free weekly COVID-19 testing is available at each school location.

County leaders said they decided to end the mandate because of improving COVID-19 metrics. The mask mandate is scheduled to be rescinded Sunday at 5 p.m. for public indoor spaces.

TUESDAY
7:30 p.m.
The Cumberland County Public Health Director will rescind the Public Nuisance Mask Abatement Order effective Sunday at 5 p.m.

The Health Department said it still strongly encourages residents to wear a well-fitted mask while in indoor settings even though it won't be a requirement -- except in government buildings.

"The COVID-19 landscape looks different than it did two years ago. We know what works and what stops the spread of COVID-19," said Dr. Jennifer Green, Cumberland County Public Health Director. "Masks remain an effective strategy for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Despite the recension of this formal order, we continue to recommend masking in public indoor spaces, particularly and in settings with lower vaccination rates."

The current mask mandate was implemented on Aug. 27 during the onset of the Delta variant of COVID-19. This required people to wear face coverings in public indoor spaces.

Masks remain required in all Cumberland County government buildings, including the Cumberland County Department of Public Health and the Judge E. Maurice Braswell Cumberland County Courthouse.

The Health Department said residents should continue to comply with mask requirements in businesses, healthcare and long-term facilities, educational settings, and other institutions as appropriate.

1:23 p.m.
North Carolina has the lowest daily cases since Dec. 14, another good sign that the pandemic that has overstayed its welcome may be on its way out.

With just 2,888 new cases reported, the overall case count since March 2020 is at 2,543,260.

The daily total is a 67% reduction in daily cases since the start of the month.

Just two weeks ago, the daily case count was 8,727.

The daily percent positive also continues to improve. The percent test positive is 17.8%, down from 23.4% last week. It is the highest in five days but still much lower than most of the winter.

Hospitalizations are at 3,042, with 52 fewer patients than the previous day.

It's the lowest total since Jan. 3.

One note of caution, though hospitalizations are decreasing, the percentage of patients in the ICU and on ventilators are increasing.

There are 19% of adults with COVID in ICU (two weeks ago this was at 16%) and 12% of adults on a ventilator (two weeks ago this was at 10%)

There were 54 new deaths reported for a total of 21,835.

12:58 p.m.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its recommendations for COVID-19 vaccination for people who are moderately or severely immunocompromised.

For people ages 12 and older who are immunocompromised and who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or ages 18 and older who received the Moderna vaccine, the CDC recommends they receive three initial doses plus a booster dose at least three months after their third dose. This shortens the length of time between an individual's third dose and their booster, which was previously recommended at least five months after their third dose.

For people ages 18 and older who are immunocompromised and who received a single Johnson & Johnson, the CDC now recommends they receive a total of three vaccine doses, including the initial dose of the Johnson & Johnson primary vaccine, one additional dose of an mRNA vaccine (Pfizer or Moderna); and one booster dose (preferably of an mRNA vaccine) at least two months after their second dose.

9:11 a.m.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging North Carolinians to seek mental health support through the Hope4NC helpline (855) 587-3463) available 24/7 via call, text or chat.

"The pandemic has led to nearly every North Carolinian experiencing stress, anxiety, loss and other threats to their mental health and wellness," said NCDHHS Secretary Kody H. Kinsley. "No one should feel alone in this moment. Remember that speaking up and seeking help is an empowering first step toward recovery."

The Hope4NC helpline provides free and confidential emotional support and connects people with counseling referrals and community resources. Hope4NC can also help people who do not have insurance find behavioral health, mental health and substance use services.

"The Hope4NC helpline services, along with other efforts by the department, are intentionally designed to provide better links to care and support for individuals with mental health needs, recognizing that there are often unique challenges in historically marginalized communities," said Victor Armstrong, NCDHHS Chief Health Equity Officer.

The Hope4NC Helpline responds to texts and calls day or night, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Online chat is also available via the website.

TUESDAY MORNING HEADLINES
Local school districts are voting to drop the mask mandate despite state and federal guidelines still calling for children to wear masks in class.

Moore County Schools made masks optional starting Tuesday. Johnston County Schools voted to make masks optional starting Monday.

Chatham County Schools is letting athletes ditch the masks during sporting events but still requiring masks in classrooms.

Edgecombe and Franklin county school districts both voted to keep their mask mandates in place, but vowed to revisit the issue in two weeks.

Wake County Public School System will not drop the mask mandate for at least a couple more weeks. The next vote for WCPSS comes in March.

The key COVID-19 numbers across the state continue to improve, including improvements to the number of cases the percent positive rate and hospitalizations.

MONDAY
10:45 p.m.
As more states and school districts, nationwide, put pressure on the CDC to update its guidance about universal masking in schools, a growing number of school systems here in the Triangle area are choosing not to wait on CDC or state health recommendations to change. They voted to drop the masks at schools now rather than later.

It did not take long to figure out which way the vote was going Monday night in Moore County. Even before taking a vote about masks in schools, the school board members, long fed up with mandated mask-wearing, passed a motion to make masks optional at the meeting.

Several board members ripped their masks off minutes before they voted 6-1 in favor of ending Moore's mask mandate for students and staff -- effective immediately. Masks are now optional only.

In Edgecombe County, every resident who rose to speak on Monday night urged the school board to ditch the mask mandate.

"All I ask tonight is that you give my children, their friends and this community their normal back," one mother said.

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The school mask wars are heating up as several school boards across central NC held votes on whether to continue with face-covering policies.



Another Edgecombe mom added, "If parents want to send their kids to schools in masks, so be it. I don't care. But let me decide what I want; what's best for my child."

Edgecombe's board of education voted to keep the mandate in place. The panel pledged to revisit the issue again in two weeks.



Monday's most-decisive vote came at the Johnston County school board meeting.

"At this time I'd like to make a motion that we move to a mask-optional setting," said board member Mike Wooten.

The board voted unanimously to make masks optional for all students and staff, dropping a stipulation that less than 4% of teachers and students test positive for COVID-19 before ditching the masks.

And at the Chatham County school board meeting, Monday, the panel voted to keep its mandate in place -- opting to begin a gradual transition to optional masking. The optional mask policy starts with student-athletes at sporting events.

Chatham's school board says it will take up masks in the classroom at a meeting somewhere around March 7.

ABC11 discussed the school mask wars, Monday night, with UNC infectious disease professor Dr. David Wohl.

"Fortunately, we can even start having this as a rational conversation," said Wohl, pleased with the downward slope of the Omicron surge but wary of ditching the masks before hitting benchmark lows for COVID transmission.

"It's really just a matter of timing. So some states are saying, we're going to stop at the end of March, some states in the middle of March. Some are jumping the gun a little bit and stopping now," Wohl said. "I think we're close. And I think in another month or two this will be in our rearview mirror and we won't care."

-- ABC11's Joel Brown reported.

8:58 p.m.
The Chatham County Board of Education voted Monday to begin a gradual transition to an optional masking policy.

In the first stage, effective Tuesday, the school district will no longer require athletes to wear masks during sporting events. That proposal passed by a 5-0 vote.

By a 3-2 vote, the district approved a transition to optional masking in the classroom and CCS facilities. But that won't begin until on or around March 7.

"Staff and students who want to continue to mask are welcome to do so," said Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson. "But we recognize others in the community want the option of removing the mask, and we believe it is now time to offer that choice. We do this with the understanding that the risk now shifts from district mitigation to individual responsibility."

The board will have a called meeting before March 7 to "review data available and affirm and authorize next steps."

"Numbers have been trending in the right direction," said Board Chairman Gary Leonard. "We believe as more people have gotten vaccinated and their boosters, as well as nearing the end of winter, we can provide our staff and students with the choice of whether they want to wear a mask or not."

The district said it will continue to monitor infection rates and will make policy adjustments accordingly.

"We work closely with our local Health Department to see how the community is faring with COVID-19," Leonard said. "We will continue to have those conversations with the department and look to it for guidance."

8:22 p.m.
The Edgecombe County School Board voted to keep the current mask mandate in place.

The school board plans to meet again in two weeks to revisit the mask-mandate policy.

7:42 p.m.
The Moore County School Board has just voted to make face masks optional effective immediately.

6:43 p.m.
The Moore County School Board voted 4-3 to make its Tuesday night board meeting mask-optional.

The decision was met with applause and several board members ripped their masks off their faces.

An amendment was also made in the meeting to vote on the mask mandate prior to listening to public comment. There were more than 30 people scheduled to speak. That amendment passed.

4:50 p.m.
Heading into Monday afternoon's school board meeting, many parents in Johnston County were prepping for their children to begin attending school under a mask-optional mandate beginning Feb. 21.

However, during the meeting, Johnston County Schools board member Mike Wooten made a motion to move to mask optional "without stipulation" starting next Monday.
That motion passed with a majority.

Here's how Johnston County fared with COVID-19 in the past 14 days:
  • 2,243 cases in the last 14 days
  • 1,071 cases per 100k people
  • 12,603 tests in the last 14 days
  • 29.1% positive
  • 490 child cases in the last 2 weeks
  • There was 1 outbreak in the last K-12 report with 7 cases in children and 1 in staff


"Forget all the other parents that run around here and say their kids shouldn't be wearing a mask," said Cleveland Middle School parent Shawn Washington. Someone, right now, today doesn't know if their kid sick or not. And they quick to send their kid to school about it."

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"I think the optional ability gives people the freedom we all deserve," one parent said.



Other parents chimed in as well.

"I think the optional ability gives people the freedom we all deserve," said parent Lynn Hellman. "Give (parents) the freedom to choose whether or not you want your kid to be masked or you don't want your kid to be masked. People who feel strongly about it will mask their kids. People who don't won't mask their kids."

Moore, Chatham, Edgecombe, Northampton, and Franklin counties are all meeting Monday evening to discuss how best to move forward with a mask mandate on their district campuses.

The state legislature requires school boards to bring up mask mandates monthly.

"I can tell you just from watching -- I can tell you half of them are not wearing this mask correctly," said another parent who only identified herself as "Tammy". And I think studies have kind of shown these little cotton masks aren't preventing much."

Washington said: "If you make it optional, you'll see a lot of teachers, a lot of kids who don't wear the mask. And eventually, you'll have an outbreak which will lead to kids carrying it home, teachers carrying it home to their families, their loved ones. You're still going to have an issue with it."

Students and staff will continue to be required to wear face masks on all buses and other school transportation.

-- ABC11's DeJuan Hoggard reported.

MONDAY MORNING HEADLINES
Five school districts will weigh in on the future of mask mandates for students and staff members today.

School boards in Chatham, Moore, Edgecombe, Northampton and Franklin counties all are scheduled to meet Monday.

Johnston County Board of Education is also meeting Monday to discuss recent changes to NCDHHS' COVID-19 guidance for schools.

The meeting is scheduled virtually for 4 p.m. NCDHHS is no longer recommending contact tracing in schools and relaxed quarantining guidelines for asymptomatic people exposed to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Cumberland County Schools are set to make masks optional Wednesday. Plus, officials with Lee County Schools are set to meet Thursday to talk about their mask policy.
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