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.

The voting rights struggle: State lawmakers report on where things stand

Democrats unite around ‘climate corps’ that could employ youth, prevent fires

Report: One in seven North Carolinians behind on their rent with eviction moratorium set to expire

Image: The Pew Charitable Trusts — Source: National Equity Atlas, PolicyLink, USC Equity Research Institute

A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts news outlet Stateline offers more sobering findings on the national rental housing situation. According to data compiled in the National Equity Atlas, a data and policy tool maintained by the University of Southern California and the research firm Policy Link, the number of U.S. renters behind on payments has doubled from 2017 to 2021.

In North Carolina, from May 24 to June 7, the percentage of renters behind on their payments stayed at 14% — a strong indication that rental assistance is not reaching the hands of struggling North Carolinians fast enough with the end of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) eviction ban set for July 31. The report found a total nationwide rent debt of upwards of $20 billion and more than 5.8 million renters behind on their payments as of June 7.

While the CARES Act and two other emergency rental assistance packages enacted by the federal government have directed billions of dollars to individual states in hopes of getting rental and utility assistance into the hands of Americans in need, the distribution process has not been going smoothly in many places — chiefly because state and local agencies were not adequately prepared to deal with the distribution of such large sums in such short order. As a result, the timing for approval of an application for rental assistance can take anywhere from hours to months, depending on where you are located and what organization is helping you.

Since September 2020, the CDC eviction ban has served as a safety net preventing evictions for these renters. The ban has been extended multiple times, but with final expiration now just days away, many advocates and experts foresee a tidal wave of evictions and other negative consequences throughout the country. These fears would appear to be well-founded. When North Carolina didn’t have an eviction ban in place for the 11 weeks prior to the advent of the CDC’s order, the state saw in excess of 15,000 COVID-19 cases and 300 COVID-19 deaths related to evictions according to a study published by the Social Science Research Network. When the current eviction ban expires on July 31 this influx of cases and deaths could happen again.

Despite the recent sobering data, it’s important to note that the current rental housing affordability crisis predates the pandemic. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in March of 2020, (i.e., pre-COVID) only 36 affordable and available rental homes existed for every 100 extremely low-income renters in need. But, of course, the pandemic made things significantly worse. Almost seven in 10 Americans who are behind on their rental payments lost employment at one point during the pandemic according to the research done by the National Equity Atlas.

While the current bleak situation is forcing families to make tough choices between paying the rent, putting food on the table, and paying the electric bill, there are policy options that would go a long way toward protecting renters from short-term and long-term harm. Here are two:

  1. Evictions in North Carolina should be paused while every effort is made to make sure landlords and tenants access the hundreds of millions of dollars of rental assistance that remain available in the HOPE (Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions) program to resolve non-payment of rent eviction cases.
  2. The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should act to seal the eviction records and rental debt of those hardest hit by this pandemic. Doing this would make that information private and help prevent tenants who have struggled during the pandemic to pay rent  from being rejected for future housing applications based upon pandemic related financial hardships.

Raquel Harati is a Housing and Health Policy Intern at the N.C. Justice Center.

Once planned for North Carolina, Active Energy’s wood pellet experiment in Maine hits a snag

Source: Active Energy investor chat webinar

Active Energy, the company behind a controversial wood pellet plant in Lumberton, has produced only a fraction of the amount it promised to deliver from a quickly assembled operation in Maine.

Because of delays in North Carolina, Active Energy in early June began a trial run of of CoalSwitch pellets in Ashland. The company was on a contractual deadline to deliver 900 to 1,000 tons of pellets to PacifiCorp, which plans to burn them at its Hunter Power plant in Utah, according to company correspondence with investors.

So far that’s not gone well. Eric Kennedy, director of licensing and compliance with Maine’s Bureau of Air Quality, said that during the trial period the company has produced only about eight tons of pellets that it had promised to PacifiCorp.

In response to questions from Policy Watch, an Active Energy spokesman said via email that “Active Energy Group will not be making any comments at this time.”

Nonetheless, in a video message to investors in June, Active Energy CEO Michael Rowan said the company had made the “first deliveries” of CoalSwitch pellets to PacificCorp, but did not specify amounts.

In Maine, the CoalSwitch technology had been added to a recently permitted log extruding plant owned by Player Design. The company, which is also Active Energy’s engineering consultant in North Carolina, manufacturers fireplace logs. The facility is smaller than the one under construction in Lumberton, according to a description of the project provided to Maine environmental regulators.

Environmental regulators in Maine had originally scheduled the temporary air permit to expire on July 31. The company has requested an extension of the trial period through Sept. 29, which the Maine Bureau of Air Quality has granted, Kennedy said.

Active Energy CEO Michael Rowan told investors in a letter on May 20 that the company hopes the Maine facility will be a second CoalSwitch plant, and eventually receive approval to produce up to 35,000 tons of pellets per year.

The company has heralded CoalSwitch wood pellets as a game changer for utilities. The patented technology creates a pellet that can burned alongside coal or as a standalone fuel in traditional power plants with no loss of heat. Utilities that use CoalSwitch pellets wouldn’t have to spend millions of dollars to retrofit their facilities. And because the manufacturing process uses steam to explode the pellets to remove some contaminants, they burn cleaner than coal.

However, the pellet production process itself can emit tons carbon monoxide, particulate matter and hazardous air pollutants. Kennedy said Maine regulators don’t yet have emissions data from the trial period, but expect to after it concludes. This data could be instructive for the NC Department of Environmental Quality, which has questioned the accuracy of the company’s most recent emissions estimates.

Source: Active Energy Group investor webinar

DEQ granted Active Energy an air permit last year, over strenuous public objections and concerns about public health and the environment. Shortly afterward, the company began tinkering with the technology, ostensibly to reduce potential emissions. Instead, the changes appear to increase them. DEQ issued a Notice of Violation to Active Energy on May 5  for construction new equipment and changing the process design without state approval.

When Active Energy announced in May that it would manufacture wood pellets in Maine, conservative lawmakers were quoted in the Carolina Journal blaming, without evidence, the NC Department of Environmental Quality for the company’s decision. Active Energy still owns the Lumberton plant, but has not produced pellets there.

Division of Air Quality spokeswoman Zaynab Nasif said in May that the company’s amended application, filed in late April, “appears to indicate an increase in potential emissions due to these control and process modifications. The department has also found inconsistencies in the emissions estimates.”

The most significant upticks are for carbon monoxide, the emissions of which are projected to increase 104%, from 7.9 tons per year to just over 16 tons. Particulate matter — essentially fine dust — would increase dramatically from 0.1 tons per year to 26.7 tons, according to the permit applications. Hazardous air pollutants, classified by the EPA as those that can cause cancer and other serious health problems, also increased: 6,263 pounds a year, up from 4,963 pounds.

The Division of Air Quality asked Active Energy for more information. However, Nasif told Policy Watch today that the department has not received any updates since May 21, including any information regarding testing in Maine.

Active Energy was running a sawmill at the Lumberton facility, but that operation is also in doubt. “We’ve ceased saw log exports from Lumberton because it doesn’t fit our ethos with what we’re trying to achieve,” Rowan said in the investor presentation. “We’ve kept the sawmill under review. We have produced the feedstock for future activities.”

The company had been awarded a $500,000 grant from the Department of Commerce to upfit the old Alamac Knits factory in Lumberton. The grant was contingent on meeting job creation benchmarks of 40 to 50 full-time positions. As of March, the Commerce Department had yet to deliver the funds to Robeson County, the pass-through agency, because the paperwork had not yet been completed.