Masking to become optional in 'coming days' for Wake County Public School System

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

9:55 p.m.
The Nash Board of Education will hold an emergency meeting on Monday at 5 p.m.

The board will discuss the mask mandate.in a blended format: in-person, remotely and electronically.

6:26 p.m.
Moore County offices will move to a mask-optional policy effective Monday.
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The county said it took Gov. Roy Cooper's support of dropping mask requirements into consideration, along with case metrics declining, and with support of the Moore County Health Department.

This change does not include county agencies/operations that are still required by state or federal requirements to continue with "mask required" policies.

The County will continue to make face masks available to those who want them.

3:42 p.m.
The Town of Morrisville said it will host a live virtual COVID-19 Q&A session on the Engage Morrisville community engagement platform on Tuesday from 2-3 p.m.

Dr. Nicholas Turner, a Duke University infectious disease specialist, will engage with community members and answer questions about the COVID-19 virus.

The engagement session will give residents and businesses a chance to gain the latest information about COVID-19.

Attendees must visit https://engagemorrisville.com/ and register on the platform to take part in the Q&A session.

3:01 p.m.
Orange County officials have decided to keep the county's indoor mask mandate in place and to continue to meet and reassess the situation on an ongoing basis.

This decision came despite the fact that key metrics in Orange County are dropping, including the number of cases and percent positivity for test results. Officials said extending the mandate for another few weeks will ensure those numbers continue to fall.

"We have a community responsibility to minimize strain on UNC Hospital because it serves as a healthcare hub not only for Orange County but for our entire region," said Renee Price, Chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. "We want to slow the spread as much as possible to protect children under 5 and adults who are unable to take a COVID-19 vaccine."

Hillsborough Mayor Jenn Weaver, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, and Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils joined Price in the decision.

Elected leaders and health officials will meet with other community partners in early March, including representatives from school systems, UNC Hospitals, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and first responders.

Price urged residents to get vaccinated and boosted if they are eligible.

"Most of the deaths and serious illnesses are among the unvaccinated. Vaccines provide the strongest level of protection from serious illness or hospitalizations due to COVID-19," she said.

1:15 p.m.
North Carolina has 4,871 new cases of COVID-19, 2.5 times fewer cases than last Friday.

The state has seen 2,559,793 since the start of the pandemic.

The percent positive is 10.3% also down from last Friday's 15.4%.

There are 77 fewer patients in hospitals for COVID-19 than the previous day. A total of 2,634 remain hospitalized, much lower than two weeks ago when the number was 4,492.

A total of 87 new deaths were reported. In all 22,148 North Carolinians have died since the start of the pandemic.

12:56 p.m.
A Maury Correctional Institution offender with pre-existing medical conditions, who tested positive for COVID-19, died Thursday night at a hospital.

"We are continuing our extensive efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in our prisons. The health and safety of the staff and the offender population is our top priority," said Todd Ishee, Commissioner of Prisons. "I urge the staff and offenders to be vaccinated and to get a booster dose as soon as they are eligible. It's important."

The offender, who was unvaccinated, tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 26. He was hospitalized on Feb. 2. His condition worsened, and he died late Thursday night.

The offender was a man in his early 60s who had underlying health conditions.

An initial review indicates that COVID-19 was likely the cause or at least a contributing factor to his death. Final determination of the cause of death will be made following a review by the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

He is the 58th North Carolina offender to die of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic nearly two years ago.

9:15 a.m.
Wake County Public School System plans to make masks optional for students and staff in the "coming days."

The district made that announcement Friday morning on the heels of recommendations from Gov. Roy Cooper and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Cooper and NCDHHS said improving COVID-19 metrics across the state meant it was safe to make masking optional in low-risk settings.

The decision also comes a day after the North Carolina House passed the Free the Smiles Act in a veto-proof, bipartisan vote.

"Today's announcement that Wake County Public Schools will no longer require masks on our children is great news for Wake County families," Rep. Erin Pare, R-Wake, said. "The announcement came less than a day after I voted with my colleagues for the 'Free the Smiles Act,' which would give parents the choice whether or not their child wears a mask in school. Parents should be making these decisions, not politicians and bureaucrats. This announcement is long overdue."

The North Carolina Medical Society issued a statement supporting the governor's recommendations. The society, whose members represent physicians and physician assistants said it's now time to use what we know to "critically and judiciously" plan the transition into an endemic.

That means more focus on individual behaviors and less toward public mandates.

THURSDAY
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.
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