By Anne Blythe

When Gov. Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, walked to the podium in the Emergency Operations Center on Friday something was noticeably missing.

Their masks.

Neither was wearing one, those symbols of the coronavirus pandemic that became a political flashpoint for some and an emblem of safety and community-mindedness for others.

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance for fully vaccinated people.

“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”

On Friday, Cooper announced that face masks no longer would be required in most indoor settings based on the new CDC guidance and the continuing downward trajectory of cases, recently released scientific data on the efficacy of the COVID vaccines, and a better understanding of how the virus spreads.

“This is a big step forward in living our lives the way they were before the pandemic,” said Cooper, who received the Pfizer vaccine.

The governor also lifted all mass gathering limits and social districting requirements with a strong plea to those not yet vaccinated.

“Now is the time to get vaccinated if you haven’t,” Cooper said. “It’s easy and everywhere.”

Sooner than expected

Several weeks ago, Cooper said he planned to keep the indoor mask requirement in place until two-thirds of the adult population were vaccinated, and acknowledged that such a goal might not be met by the first of June.

On Friday, he explained why he proceeded when only 51 percent of adults 18 and older have been partially vaccinated and only 45.9 percent of the state’s adult population is fully vaccinated.

“The CDC guidance is what has changed,” Cooper said. “We had said that by the end of this month, we had planned to lift all of the capacity, mass gathering and social distancing requirements.”

Cooper noted that the CDC did a lot of research and reviewed a number of studies.

“What they showed was that if you get vaccinated, you’ve got a lot of protection and you also don’t really transfer the virus to other people,” Cooper said. “The CDC said at that point, it’s just not necessary for people who have been vaccinated to wear masks most of the time.”

Masks will be required still:

  • On public transportation;
  • In health care settings;
  • At nursing homes;
  • In prisons, homeless shelters and congregate care facilities; and
  • In child care settings, schools and camps since most children cannot yet get a vaccine.

This week, the Food and Drug Administration and CDC authorized emergency use of the Pfizer COVID vaccine for adolescents, ages 12 to 15. Nonetheless, masks will be required in school for the foreseeable future.

“Up until yesterday, it was really only our high school seniors that were able to even be eligible to get vaccination,” Cohen said. “Starting yesterday, our 12- to 15-year olds are only starting to be eligible so that’s great news that they’re starting to get vaccinated but we know it’s going to take some time. That still leaves a large portion of our student body who’s completely unvaccinated.”

The CDC guidance issued on Thursday urges the unvaccinated to continue wearing masks and social distancing.

“Our student population is just that,” Cohen added. “They are largely, largely unvaccinated.”

‘This is where personal responsibility comes in’

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, some have eschewed face masks and some remain skeptical of the vaccines, simply have not made an effort to get one, or face access barriers to vaccinations.

Cooper was asked why he didn’t tailor his latest executive order so that masks were required for those who aren’t vaccinated.

“It’s more of a practical situation than anything,” Cooper said. “If you had a requirement only for people unvaccinated then you’d have to have a way of knowing who was unvaccinated and we don’t have a way to do that now.”

North Carolina is developing a method through which people who have been inoculated against coronavirus can get a record of that immunization if needed for travel, work or elsewhere.

Businesses still can require that masks be worn by customers and others inside their doors and can establish their own social distancing requirements. The difference is it won’t be ordered by the state.

“This is where the personal responsibility comes in,” Cooper said. “We’re going to expect people to do the right thing. Those who are vaccinated, we know you’re pretty much protected so this gives you that opportunity, whether you are outside or anywhere else that you want to be without a mask, that’s going to be a good thing for those who are vaccinated.”

“For those who are not, you still have a risk of getting COVID,” Cooper added. “We know that these variants we have seen are even more contagious than the original COVID-19 that came to our shores. So please get vaccinated, that’s the bottom line.”

Masking for the kids

Some who are fully vaccinated may not be ready to shed their masks, and those with compromised immune systems are encouraged to consult with their physicians to find out whether they should.

Public health officials continue to strongly recommend that masks be worn at large and crowded indoor events such as concerts, hockey, basketball and other sports gatherings.

Cooper said he planned to keep a mask on hand but would gladly shed it if not required or recommended at places he visits.

“I look forward to not having the mask on anyways as much as I did before,” Cooper said. “That’s a great thing about today. I think that’s a great thing for all people who have been vaccinated.”

Cohen, who received the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine and a mother of two daughters younger than 12, said she might wear a mask on occasions and in places where they may no longer be required.

“Over the last 24 hours since that CDC guidance came out, I’ve heard from a lot of parents,” Cohen said. “I would remind folks that I’m also a mom of a 6- and a 9-year-old, and obviously they are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. So I have two little ones in my home who the CDC will still recommend that they wear masks when they go to indoor public settings.”

North Carolina will echo that recommendation, Cohen added.

“As a parent, it’s really hard for my kids to understand, ‘Well mom, why aren’t you wearing a mask and I need to wear a mask because I don’t have a vaccine?’ So you are likely going to see me wear a mask when I’m with my kids to show that we’re in this as a family and they can understand that they are wearing masks because they are still unvaccinated.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

  • According to NCDHHS data, as of Friday afternoon:
  • 12,862 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 989,338 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,117 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
  • 950,929 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious. Nor does it reflect the number of so-called “long-haul” survivors of coronavirus who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
  • To date, 12,846,681 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, 2020, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so that figure includes all of the COVID-19 tests performed in the state.
  • People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (39 percent). While 14 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 82 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state. 
  • 251 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Wednesday, 253 coronavirus patients were in intensive care units across the state, with a total of 926 in the hospital. 
  • As of May 14, 3,975,823 people have had the first shot of their two-shot regimen, another 279,327 North Carolinians have received a single-shot coronavirus vaccine. In sum, 40.6 percent of the population has had at least one dose of vaccine.

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.