By Anne Blythe
On Thursday, Gov. Roy Cooper encouraged school districts and local governments to drop indoor mask requirements by March 7 to give people the option of baring their faces as the state moves toward a new pandemic phase.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers who have often challenged the Democratic governor’s approach to the pandemic, especially in years with elections, were in session on Thursday to redraw electoral districts.
Amid that weighty topic, the lawmakers resurrected a bill called “Free the Smiles” that was introduced in the state Senate in 2021 and amended it to give parents the choice of whether their children wear masks while at school.
After the bill passed in the state House of Representatives on Thursday with support from some Democrats, Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) quickly issued a statement.
“All health care decisions for our students belong with their parents, not with politicians or bureaucrats. No one cares about these children more than their parents, and no one is better-suited to make these decisions,” said Moore, who is up for election and has considered a run for U.S. Congress.
Cooper’s term does not end until 2024, but the question of masking in schools has become a hot political topic in North Carolina and other states across the country. Republicans accused him of relying on “political science,” instead of the health experts, case numbers, data and science that have guided his pandemic response.
In North Carolina, some local school districts have been voting to roll back mask requirements as more people get vaccinated and the Omicron surge is on a steep decline.
“This pandemic has been difficult for all of us,” Cooper said during the briefing with reporters that was broadcast on North Carolina Public Television. “It’s been particularly tough on parents, teachers and school children. It’s time to focus on getting our children a good education and improving our schools no matter how you feel about masks.
“As we continue to shake the cobwebs of this virus and work to get more people vaccinated, our eyes are on a very bright horizon,” he continued. “Already, we’re emerging from the pandemic from a place of strength.”
Trending in the right direction
However, as state health Secretary Kody Kinsley pointed out earlier this week during a meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services, North Carolina is not yet in the endemic phase. Nonetheless, lawmakers encouraged him to develop an exit strategy.
“You know, endemic is really the concept of being in equilibrium or balance over time,” Kinsley said. “As we have seen with COVID, there can be curveballs and variants that really create pushes in different directions. We are moving in that direction over time, but we still have more to learn with regard to the cyclical nature of this virus, the tools we have in place to respond to it, and making sure that we can prepare. Endemic is about being prepared to manage overall, over the period of time. So we’re not there yet, but our department remains incredibly committed to taking each successive step in giving North Carolinians the best information that they need to protect themselves.”
Picking up where his predecessor Mandy Cohen left off, Kinsley, head of the state Department of Health and Human Services since Jan. 1, provided North Carolinians with an update on the state’s COVID-19 trends and metrics during the briefing with the governor on Thursday.
The number of people showing up at emergency departments with COVID symptoms has dropped dramatically, he said, as have the number of new cases and hospitalizations since the peak of the Omicron surge.
“As we emerge from the latest surge, the COVID-19 landscape looks different today than it did two years ago, or even two months ago,” Kinsley said. “We have learned more about the virus and now have several effective tools that reduce the risk for people. Vaccines and boosters are widely available and have protected millions of people against severe illness, hospitalization and death.”
Treatments are available for those at high risk for severe disease, Kinsley added, noting that DHHS had expanded a standing order so more people could gain access to the monoclonal antibodies and other treatments.
Kinsley said DHHS might phase out emphasis on one data point which had helped guide decisions earlier in the pandemic — the positivity rate. The percentage of COVID tests coming back positive compared to the total number of tests no longer has the same significance that it once did when people didn’t have widespread access to home COVID tests.
Still, Kinsley said, the department was relying on the science and data to announce as it adapted its response to the pandemic to encourage local governments and school boards to ease indoor mask requirements and leave it up to individuals and businesses in most settings.
Masking still in congregate care settings
Nursing homes, long-term care facilities, prisons and health care settings should continue to require masks, Kinsley added. People who have not been vaccinated and boosted, when eligible, should continue to wear masks, Kinsley said. Anyone who has tested positive for COVID or been exposed to someone who has should also continue to mask.
“If our trends continue to improve, beginning March 7, schools and other low-risk settings can consider moving to voluntary masking at the discretion of local authorities. We strongly recommend that schools promote vaccinations and boosters for students and staff, and that schools participate in our testing program.”
That recommendation to lift masking requirements applies to pre-school children as well, Kinsley said.
Kinsley and Cooper added that they themselves might choose to wear masks still at crowded indoor settings and other places.
“Our goal is to use the tools we have so that people can all get back to the people, experiences and places that we love,” Kinsley said, encouraging everyone who is eligible to get a vaccine.
Kinsley said the changes were being announced a couple of weeks ahead of time to give people an opportunity to get a vaccine if they needed one and allow organizations a bit of planning time.
“As we move forward, we will remain vigilant and we will respond to changes in the virus so we can protect the health and well-being of North Carolinians,” Kinsley said.
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:
- 22,061 people in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 2.5 million cases have been reported since the start of the pandemic. Of those, 2,711 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.
- To date, 25,384,444 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, 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. However, that does not reflect many thousands of at-home tests now being performed by North Carolinians.
- There are 2,620 ventilators in hospitals across the state and 1,030 ventilators in use, not just for coronavirus cases but also for patients with other reasons for being in the hospital. As of Thursday, 501 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.