Durham keeping COVID policies, including masks in place 'for a few more weeks'

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

9:14 p.m.
The Lee County School Board has voted to make masking optional beginning Feb. 21.

9 p.m.
Durham city and county officials said that they will continue to monitor Omicron variant case numbers a few weeks longer as they wait for new guidance from the NC Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control.

This announcement follows Gov. Roy Cooper's news conference Thursday when he encouraged schools and local governments to end mask mandates by March 7..

"Durham is the City of Medicine, and our priority, as elected officials, is to continue to keep our residents as safe as possible during the pandemic by relying on science and the recommendations of state and local health experts, including the Durham Department of Public Health," said Durham Mayor Elaine O'Neal. "Our community is definitely trending in the right direction with the metrics needed to determine lifting the mask mandate, and in just a few weeks, we should reach our goals."

The City and County leaders met following Cooper's announcement. Durham County Public Health officials said that the data shows "encouraging signs that the surge is indeed trending downward."

However, they recommended that officials continue to evaluate at least one of the following COVID-19 trends:
  • At least 2 incubation periods (28 days) have passed since the date of last holiday exposure* AND county transmission is at or below CDC's guideline for moderate transmission (50 cases/100,000 per week) in conjunction with a rate of transmission below 0.6; OR
  • Percent lab positivity at or below 5% for 14 days


"We're grateful to our residents for listening to the informed recommendations that have been shared around the importance of masking, distancing and finally obtaining vaccines and boosters to battle this pandemic," said
County Commissioners Chair Brenda Howerton. "We are so close to the place where we can safely begin to resume our pre-COVID activities such as shopping and dining at our favorite places. We ask for just a bit more patience to make sure we don't have any changes to our positive metrics."

From now until the end of March, Durham leaders will continue to monitor metrics and make a final decision about the mask mandates and other policies.

Durham current's order was put into effect on Aug. 9 as the Delta variant began to surge. That order remains in place until it is rescinded.

4:04 p.m.
The Wayne County School Board voted that on Feb. 21, all Wayne County Public Schools campuses will be mask-optional except on school transportation.

The board also said that staffers and students who have been out of school per COVID-19 protocol but are asymptomatic can return to school on Feb. 21.

The mask policy is an adjustment, as the school system has been mask-optional since Nov. 2. In January, the school board approved a two-week mask mandate requirement for any school reporting an 8% or higher exclusion rate. That was handled on a school-by-school basis and not as a districtwide mandate, a Wayne County Schools spokesperson said.

3:10 p.m.
Gov. Roy Cooper encouraged local officials and schools to end their mask mandates 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.

Read more here.

3 p.m.
The House Wake COVID-19 Financial Assistance Program is offering in-person support for residents who have a pending application awaiting a decision.

The community event will be held Feb. 26 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Southeast Raleigh YMCA.

Staffers from Telamon, the administrator of House Wake, will be on site to answer questions related to the status of applications and address any issues that may have delayed processing.

"We recognize that many people still waiting in the queue want to know why their paperwork hasn't been approved yet," said Wake County Commissioner Vickie Adamson. "This event will allow applicants to sit down face-to-face with eviction prevention specialists who can walk them through all aspects of their application, answer their questions and help move them through the process as quickly as possible."

This event is only for those who have an application in process or who are looking to recertify. No additional applications for assistance will be accepted.

1:58 p.m.
The Halifax County Health Department reports 120 new cases since Feb. 10 for a total of 13,698 total positive COVID-19 cases since March 2020. Five additional deaths have been added for a coutywide total of 173 (1.25% of cases).

1:11 p.m.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners will meet Friday to discuss the impact of Gov. Roy Cooper's remarks on easing mask mandates.

10:15 a.m.
Gov. Roy Cooper will encourage cities and counties to end local indoor mask mandates during his press conference Thursday, according to ABC11 sources.

ABC11's Jonah Kaplan reports Cooper will talk about improving COVID-19 metrics as a big reason why local mask requirements should be lifted.



In addition, Cooper is expected to encourage local school districts to also make masking voluntary for all students and staff.



10:10 a.m.
A new study finds that people who survived COVID-19 during the first few months of the pandemic had a significantly higher risk of developing mental health disorders, including opioid use disorder, in the year after their COVID-19 diagnosis.

The study, published in The BMJ medical journal, evaluated medical records of nearly 154,000 COVID-19 patients in the Veterans Health Administration, comparing their experiences to a similar group of people that didn't have COVID-19.

After recovering from COVID-19, people with no prior history of mental illness were more likely to develop anxiety, depression, opioid use disorder, neurocognitive decline, and sleep disorders.

In an accompanying editorial, one of the lead researchers of the study argued that the mental health consequences of COVID-19 should be treated seriously and society shouldn't "gaslight or dismiss long covid as a psychosomatic condition."

The study only looked at people who survived COVID-19 from March 2020 to Jan. 2021 -- before vaccines were widely available. It's not clear if these findings apply to people diagnosed with COVID-19 more recently.

-ABC News' Sony Salzman, Arielle Mitropoulos

THURSDAY MORNING HEADLINES
Health experts continue to suggest mask-wearing, but politicians are starting to roll back requirements across the state.

Gov. Roy Cooper will address the situation Thursday at 3 p.m. You can watch his press conference live on ABC11 or in the ABC11 North Carolina app on your connected devices.

Cooper's press conference comes as some state lawmakers look to pass a law allowing parents to ignore school district masking rules.

Masks 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 today about mask rules. This is the second straight week the group has called a meeting; last week a vote favored keeping mask rules.

Wayne County school leaders are also scheduled to have an emergency meeting today about masks.

Dr. David Wohl with UNC Healthcare said it's still too soon to be removing masks. He said many kids 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.

WATCH: NC Health Director weighs in on mask wearing debate
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Dr. Betsey Tilson answers questions about the pandemic and changes to health guidance.



Likewise, Cumberland County Health Director Dr. Jennifer Green spoke Wednesday ahead of her county ending its masking rules. She said the decision to lift mask requirements was based on finances and practicality--not health guidance. She said masks should still be worn by everyone in indoor public spaces, even if they're not technically required.

The Center of Disease Control and Prevention is also expected to update its masking 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."

North Carolina's largest county--Mecklenburg County--voted unanimously Wednesday night to make masks optional starting February 26. Businesses and venues still have the right to enforce their own mask requirements.

WEDNESDAY
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.

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.
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