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As COVID cases rise, NC adjusts mask guidance for schools

Governor Roy Cooper

It feels like déjà vu all over again when it comes to the coronavirus.

Cases of COVID-19 are ticking upward with 1,434 new infections reported on Wednesday.

Governor Roy Cooper is again appealing to all North Carolinians to protect themselves and get vaccinated.

The problem is that most people who were anxious to get the vaccine have already done so.

As of Wednesday, 60% of North Carolina’s eligible adults had received one-dose of the COVID vaccine.

“The most important work our state will do next month is getting all of our children back in the classroom safely for in-person learning,” Gov. Cooper said. “We want their school days to be as close to normal as possible, especially after the year of disruption they just had.”

Because children under 12 are not eligible yet to be vaccinated, North Carolinians must come together to keep students safe from the virus, said the governor.

The updated StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit recommends that schools with students in kindergarten through eighth grade require all children and staff to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

The toolkit emphasizes schools with students in 9th through 12th grades ensure that anyone who isn’t fully vaccinated, including students, also wear a mask indoors.

“Studies have shown that masks can slow the spread of the virus among those who are unvaccinated. That has not changed,” Cooper said.

State Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen said the best COVID protective measure remains the vaccines.

HHS Sec. Mandy Cohen

“With only 24% of North Carolinians ages 12-17 fully vaccinated, and because anyone under 12 cannot be vaccinated yet, we still have a long way to go,” Cohen told reporters.

In addition to the guidance on mask-wearing the toolkit offers recommendations on physical distancing, PPE and contact tracing in the K-12 setting.

Sec. Cohen said this layered prevention strategy outlined in the toolkit is intended to make the return to school as safe as possible.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt called the new guidance ‘critically important’ while praising local-level decision making.

“As a proponent of local control, I’ve felt the decision on mask mandates should be made by those most in tune with their student population and know that Superintendents, parents, and school boards will act in the best interest of their students,” said Truitt in a released statement.

Dr. Cohen said 94% of  North Carolina’s new positive COVID cases are in people who are unvaccinated. About six percent are breakthrough cases with individuals who have been vaccinated.

“We have seen counties with lower vaccination rates have higher outbreaks, especially with this Delta variant,” said Cooper. “We’re in a race really against COVID-19 and the Delta variant.”

The challenge for health officials is that vaccine-acceptance varies widely across North Carolina.

Robeson County, where 26% of residents are fully vaccinated, has among the lowest rates in the state.

The Robeson County Health Department has hosted vaccination clinics at local libraries and schools to better distribute shots to rural areas. At some locations, people who get vaccinated and adults who drive them to clinics get $15 gift cards.

The Robeson County Church and Community Center is using a state Healthier Together grant to host two vaccination clinics. At the first, free food and school supplies will be available.

The center is also reaching out to churches, to get their leaders who are vaccinated and talk about it, executive director Brianna Goodwin said in a meeting Wednesday morning of NC Rural Coalition Fighting COVID-19.

Personal connections and word of mouth are what sway reluctant people toward getting vaccinated, she said.

If Jesus were on Earth today, he would take the vaccine, she said.

“It is to protect the people around us. Love God, love others. How can we love others if we expose them to something that can be so deadly?”

To date, North Carolina has administered more than 9.5 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Learn more about the state’s vaccine distribution at myspot.nc.gov. 

Reporter Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.

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