Percentage of positive tests drops to lowest rate since mid-December, hospitalizations dip below 2k

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

7:09 p.m.
The CDC will announce its new pandemic guidelines on Friday, ABC News has confirmed.

The guidelines are expected to set new metrics that would allow communities to drop mask recommendations and other restrictions as cases decline.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters last week that the agency was working on a plan to move away from case counts and to focus more on hospitalization capacity.

5:36 p.m.
Garner has joined other Wake County towns in ending the mask mandate.

The mandate will expire Friday at 5 p.m.

However, employers and businesses are free to maintain mask requirements on their premises.

Mask requirements will be lifted in all Town-owned facilities on Friday

"The pro-active engagement of many Garner residents and visitors was an important factor to help us overcome the many health challenges brought on by COVID-19," Mayor Ken Marshburn said. "I continue to urge all of our residents to remain cognizant of good health practices and recommendations for avoiding the severity of the virus. Hopefully, we can continue to celebrate our successes and avoid the worst possibilities of any lingering impacts of this pandemic."

5:29 p.m.
The Chatham County Board of Education in a special called session Thursday, voted 4-1 to affirm its plan and timeline to transition to optional masking inside school buildings beginning March 7.

This decision came after consultation with the state Department of Health and Human Services, the Chatham County Public Health Department, and the ABC Science Collaborative based on the rapidly declining number of COVID-19 cases.

The board approved a framework for transitioning to optional masking at its Feb. 14 meeting. The approved framework allowed optional masking for student-athletes, coaches and athletic event spectators beginning Feb. 15.

"That transition has gone smoothly," said Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson.

Masking on school transportation will still be required as that is a federal mandate.

"We are pleased to see our data trending in the current direction," Jackson said. "For those families who have been asking for this, we are pleased that we have reached this milestone. For faculty, staff or students wishing to continue wearing masks, you are welcome to. We will continue working with our local health department to monitor local trends and reserve the right to revisit these protocols if metrics deem appropriate to do so in the future."

3:04 p.m.
Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed the bill to allow parents to opt their kids out of any school mask mandate.

"I have encouraged local boards to lift mask mandates and they are doing it across the state with the advice of health officials who see that COVID metrics are declining and vaccinations are increasing," Cooper, a Democrat, said. "The bipartisan law the legislature passed and I signed last year allows local boards to make these decisions for their own communities and that is still the right course. Passing laws for political purposes that encourage people to pick and choose which health rules they want to follow is dangerous and could tie the hands of public health officials in the future."

The "Free The Smiles Act" earned bipartisan support, which may lead to votes to attempt to override the veto.

"I am disappointed that Governor Cooper has vetoed this common-sense bill. 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, "Actions speak louder than words, and the governor should do more than 'encourage' schools to lift their mask mandates. Return this decision back to parents."

Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, also reacted to the governor's decision.

"It's past time to return the decision-making power to parents who can best evaluate their family's needs," Ballard said. "Gov. Cooper continues to work against parents and ignore the science that shows children are at a lower risk for developing severe illness but are having development setbacks because of masking. That science hasn't changed for months. The only thing that has changed is the political science, and Gov. Cooper knows that."

1:30 p.m.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported 3,650 new COVID-19 cases Thursday. Despite the jump in new cases, the percentage of positive tests dropped to the lowest rate since mid-December, 7.9%. Just two weeks ago, it was more than double that rate at 16.6%.

Additionally, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has dipped below 2,000 for the first time since mid-December. A week ago, there were more than 2,700 people in the hospital with the disease and two weeks ago, there were more than 3,600.

59 more deaths were reported Thursday, totaling 22,449 since the beginning of the pandemic.

THURSDAY MORNING HEADLINES
Durham Public Schools leaders will vote tonight on whether to make face masks optional for students in the classroom. The vote comes as dozens of other local school districts, including Wake County, voted to make masks optional.

However, officials say there is no indication that Durham leaders will change their current mandate, making the district one of just a few that will still enforce masks in the classroom this spring.

RELATED: What's the risk of infection without masks in the classroom?

WEDNESDAY



3 p.m.
The Town of Morrisville will be lifting its mask mandate at 5 p.m. on Friday.

As a result, face coverings will no longer be required in Town facilities or anywhere else within the town. Smart Shuttle riders will still be required to wear a mask because of federal restrictions.

Employers can still require masks on their premises.

12:30 p.m.
For the eighth consecutive day, North Carolina is under 3,000 cases. On Wednesday, NCDHHS reported 3,470 cases. Just two weeks ago, the daily case number was 10,513.

The state has a total of 2,574,867 cases since the start of the pandemic.

The percent of positive tests: is 9%. Two weeks ago it was 20.2%.t

There are 2,123 people in the hospital for COVID-19. That's 92 fewer than the previous day and down from 3,812 two weeks ago.

There were 94 new deaths reported for a total of 22,390 statewide.

WEDNESDAY MORNING HEADLINES
The BA.2 omicron subvariant has been found in North Carolina, according to CDC data. While officials say the variant is not likely to cause more severe disease than the original omicron strain, it is even more transmissible than the highly pathogenic omicron variant.

CDC data showed in the four weeks ending on January 29, 0.33% of nearly 4,000 sequenced tests came back as the BA.2 variant--about 13 tests. The majority of samples were sequenced as omicron (96.8%), with a small percentage of Delta variants still floating around.

Across the country, 3.8% of cases are attributed to the BA.2 variant.

Officials say the best way to prevent against all variants, including omicron and BA.2, is to get vaccinated and stay up to date on booster shots.
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