State health official: There are fewer COVID-19 clusters in school districts that require masks

There have been significantly fewer COVID-19 clusters in North Carolina school districts requiring masks compared to those that do not, State Health Director Betsey Tilson reported Thursday.

Dr. Tilson (pictured at left speaking at a 2020 briefing) told the State Board of Education (SBE) that in three counties without a school mask mandate between Aug. 26 and Sept. 26, there were 17.2 clusters per 100 schools. In the 89 counties with “consistent” mask mandates, there was an average of 6.9 clusters per 100 schools, Tilson said. Thirty-five of the counties did not report a cluster.

“There were about half as many clusters per 100 schools in those counties with a consistent mask mandate as opposed to those counties without,” she said.

Eight counties that reported clusters and changed mask mandates during the period studied were excluded from the report.

A COVID-19 cluster in childcare or school settings is defined by the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) as a “minimum of five confirmed diagnostic cases with illness onset or initial positive results within a 14-day period and plausible epidemiologic linkage between cases.”

Of the state’s 115 school districts, 106 of them now require masks.  Slightly more than 93% of the states 1.5 million K-12 students — 1.25 million — attend schools in districts with mask mandates.

Five school districts have made masks optional, including Harnett County Schools, which voted Monday to make masks optional over the objections of county health officials. The other four districts are in Union, Yancey, Lincoln and Pender counties, according to a map shared by Tilson.

The number of clusters in K-12 schools is as high as they have been since the pandemic began, Tilson said. There are currently 258 active clusters in public schools and 12 in private schools, she reported.

School mask mandates have become a political football in North Carolina and across the country. Parents have crowded into school board meetings to complain that masks interfere with the educational process, cause respiratory illnesses and deny families the right to decide what’s best for their children.

Board meetings have become such volatile events that the National School Boards Association asked President Joe Biden to help protect board members from angry parents who threaten school boards.

The Justice Department and the FBI were ordered this week to help protect school employees across the country against violence and threats over mask mandates and Critical Race Theory (CRT), an obscure academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. Most educators say CRT is not taught in K-12 schools.

In Greensboro this summer, the Guilford County Board of Education took threats against Superintendent Sharon Contreas and the board seriously. Security was increased to protect the superintendent and the board.

Gov. Roy Cooper has allowed school districts to decide whether to require masks. Several districts initially made masking optional but changed course after the virus’ more transmissible Delta variant took hold in the state.

What school boards must do

State health officials and the SBE sought to clear up confusion Thursday about school districts’ obligation to cooperate with local health officials when there is a COVID-19 outbreak.

SBE attorney Alison Schafer shared new NCDHHS guidance that spell out what school boards must do to comply with state law in their dealings with local health departments.

“There’s been a lot of confusion in the schools about what the legal requirements are,” said SBE attorney Allison Schafer. “First of all, under the law, schools are required to work with local health departments to identify, contract trace and exclude children who may have contracted the disease or are suspected of contracting the disease and to also identify those who have been exposed.”

Here’s a condensed version of the new NCDHHS guidance Schafer shared:

  • The law requires that school principals report to the local health department anyone within in a school who they have reason to suspect has a reportable communicable disease.
  •  Schools must promptly provide to the designated State and local public health authorities any and all records or information requested. This information can include, but is not limited to, people who were within 6 feet of the case for 15 minutes or more cumulatively in a 24-hour period, class rosters, contact information for staff, students, and parents, spatially accurate seating charts, attendance records, sports teams and extracurricular activity rosters and locker assignments.
  • When someone in the school is diagnosed with COVID-19, schools must promptly work with local public health officials so that local health officials can quickly identify individuals exposed to COVID-19 in accordance with CDC Guidance. In addition to providing required records, as described above, contact tracing also requires schools to participate in interviews and other information exchange with local public health officials as part of the case investigation to track exposures and identify close contacts.
  • Pursuant to CDC Guidance and as part of the written and required control measures in North Carolina, persons exposed to COVID-19 are directed to self-quarantine. If an individual fails to adhere to this requirement, then a local health director or designee may issue a formal quarantine order pursuant to NCGS § 130A-145. Formal quarantine orders are not necessary to create a legal requirement to comply with control measures. Schools are required to exclude students, teachers, and staff who meet the criteria to quarantine regardless of whether an order has been issued.

The vaccination rate in Orange County is not as good as previously thought. In Swain, it’s a lot better

Some vaccination percentages on the state Department of Health and Human Services dashboard look a lot different today.

It turns out, the vaccination rate in Orange County isn’t more than 80%, and it’s a lot higher in Swain County than previously known.

DHHS said in a press release Friday that information provided from the CDC from the U.S. Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Indian Health Services, and the federal Bureau of Prisons was based on where people got their shots rather than on where they lived. The revisions correct that.

As a result, the percentage of fully vaccinated Orange County residents fell to 60%. The recalculated rate is down to 29% in Hoke County from the nearly 49% of residents who were thought to be fully vaccinated.

Swain County saw the biggest positive swing with this correction, up to 48% of residents fully vaccinated from the previously reported 36%.

About 82 counties will show increases, DHHS said, with the rest showing no change or small decreases.

Statewide, 53% of the state population is fully vaccinated, according to DHHS.

Vaccinations increased with the rise of the Delta variant but they’re stepping back down to pre-Delta lows. DHHS reports 113,508 first and second doses administrated last week, the least since the week of July 26.

The CDC reports nearly 56% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation , the Delta variant, reports of hospitals and ICUs filling up, someone they know getting seriously ill or dying, and the desire to participate in activities requiring vaccination were major motivators for people who were recently vaccinated.

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Considering a fake vaccination card? NC Attorney General advises: Better think twice.

It seems some people will do anything to avoid vaccine mandates, and that includes buying or trying to produce a bogus CDC vaccination card. But attorneys general nationwide are cracking down on the counterfeiters, noting that the practice is not only illegal, it threatens the public health.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, a Republican, share a strong bipartisan message about the illicit practice in the lead op-ed in USA Today.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in Memphis, Tennessee, recently made a strange but increasingly more common seizure: a package filled with counterfeit COVID-19 vaccination cards imported from China. More than 120 similar packages filled with thousands of fake cards, with typos and misspelled words, have been seized this year in Memphis alone.

As more municipalities, music venues, universities and employers institute vaccine requirements, many unvaccinated people are reevaluating their decision and are getting the COVID-19 vaccine. On the other hand, some are deciding to violate the law by creating fraudulent vaccine cards.

As chief legal officers for our states, we want all our constituents to understand that selling or using fake vaccination cards is illegal and can result in fines or jail time.
Fake cards across the country

Throughout the country, state attorneys general are responsible for enforcing consumer protection laws. Earlier this year, we led a bipartisan coalition of almost all of our fellow attorneys general in asking major e-commerce and social media companies, including Twitter and eBay, to prevent the sale of blank or fraudulently completed COVID-19 vaccination cards on their platforms. False and deceptive marketing and sales of fake COVID-19 vaccination cards likely violate consumer protection laws in many states, but more important, they severely threaten the health of our residents.

We’re in a nationwide COVID-19 wave caused by the delta variant that is largely affecting those who are not vaccinated. People who pretend they are vaccinated to enter businesses, workplaces, schools and other parts of society are putting themselves and others at risk of contracting a deadly virus.

As the pandemic continues and fake vaccination cards become more commonplace, attorneys general and other law enforcement agencies around the country have been forced to respond.

In Hawaii, the attorney general office arrested two travelers who allegedly violated the state’s COVID-19 mandates by arriving with falsified vaccination cards, a crime punishable by a $5,000 fine and/or up to a year in prison under state law. In California, a bar owner in San Joaquin County was charged with three felonies for allegedly selling fake vaccination cards to undercover agents from the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Fraud is a crime

In addition to any state law violations, individuals forging or using fake vaccination cards are also violating federal law. In March, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a public service announcement reminding the public that in addition to putting the card holder and others at risk of contracting COVID-19, using fake cards violates federal law prohibiting the unauthorized use of an official government agency’s seal, specifically the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seals that appear on every legitimate vaccine card.

As attorneys general, we combat all types of fraud and scams in order to protect residents within our jurisdictions and across the country. Throughout the pandemic, we have worked to educate consumers so that they don’t fall victim to bad actors perpetrating common COVID-related scams. You should file a complaint with your state attorney general if you witness this kind of fraud.

We want our residents to understand that selling or using fake vaccination cards not only puts other people’s health and lives at risk, but it’s also illegal.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery are co-chairs of the National Association of Attorneys General’s Consumer Protection Committee.

Read more in USA Today.