UNC System says all campuses should be mask-optional March 7 -- but there's a catch

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

4:10 p.m.
The UNC System announced that all system schools should be mask-optional starting March 7 unless their local guidelines require masks.

For UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, since the Orange County Health Department announced last week that the county's indoor mask requirement would remain in place, the university will continue to follow that guidance and require masks indoors on campus.

That policy will remain in effect for UNC-CH until Orange County drops the mask mandate.

UNC-Chapel Hill said the number of COVID-19 cases and positivity rates for the campus community continue to decrease.

12:30 p.m.
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported 4,887 new COVID-19 cases Friday while the percentage of positive tests remained low at just 7.1%.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 continues to fall, with just 1,861 people currently in the hospital statewide.

In total, 22,500 people in North Carolina have died from COVID-19.

11:30 a.m.
UNC Health celebrated administering more than 500,000 vaccine doses in just over a year this week.

"We can count a half million vaccinations administered but what we can't count is the huge number of lives that were saved, the ICU admissions prevented, and the families kept intact because of these unprecedented efforts," Dr. David Wohl, who has helped lead UNC Health's COVID vaccination campaign, said in a written statement. "Many of us would not be here right now if it was not for the hard work so many put in to make these vaccinations and boosters happen."

UNC Health representatives said the pace of vaccinations has slowed since last year, but the hospital system remains committed to vaccinated as many people as possible.

FRIDAY MORNING HEADLINES

Wake County's indoor mask mandate to slow the spread of COVID-19 will end at 5 p.m. Friday. Several cities and towns within the county, including Raleigh, Garner, Morrisville, Knightdale, Zebulon and Rolesville will also end their mandates.

Many of the county's towns have already lifted the mask mandate, including Cary, Fuquay Varina, Apex, Holly Springs and Wake Forest.

The mandate applies to indoor, public buildings, but individual businesses will be allowed to make their own decisions about requiring masks.

Cumberland County lifted its mask mandates last weekend. Durham County is expected to keep its guidelines in place until at least the end of March.

THURSDAY



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.
FCDC 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?
Copyright © 2022 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.