Sunday, January 23, 2022

New Hanover County manager asks health leaders to explore ‘alternatives’ to mask mandate

New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet and health and human services director Donna Fayko at the HHS Annex Covid-19 testing event Thursday. The first-come, first-serve site went through 650 free tests by afternoon. (Courtesy NHC)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet is encouraging the Health and Human Services Board to consider options other than a mask mandate to slow the spread of Covid-19 ahead of a January public hearing.

During its Dec. 21 meeting, the majority of the New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board expressed interest in reconsidering a countywide face coverings order for indoor public spaces in light of omicron and rising Covid-19 cases. A public hearing has been set for Jan. 18, during a regularly scheduled meeting, to access metrics in the new year.

New Hanover commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr. was the sole member of the health board to vote against revisiting the mask mandate.

The appointed board revoked its previously imposed mandate in November. Though some members were hesitant to drop the provision ahead of the holidays, Commissioner Chair Julia Olson-Boseman, then the representative on the board, took the initiative and motioned to repeal the mandate following a lengthy discussion about keeping the protocol in place.

The day after the Dec. 21 decision to possibly revive the mandate, Coudriet sent an email to the county commissioners and health department leaders:

“Commissioners, I respect and applaud the HHS board for its vigilance, debate, and review. That noted, I also believe our community will expect that board to consider alternatives to a mask mandate.”

According to his email, the county manager has instructed health and human services director Donna Fayko and the health team to identify and be prepared to move forward with policy alternatives to a mask mandate. Though, the county manager did indicate he believes masking is a “key strategy” to mitigating Covid-19 spread, considering the local percent-positivity rate fell drastically while it was in place. He noted between August and November 2021, the rate dropped from 15% to below 2.5%, while vaccinations only rose about 1%.

“The HHS board does have narrow authority to consider such a rule, but as staff I believe we have a duty to surface options,” Coudriet continued in his email. “I hope the county commission does not consider this thwarting the HHs board. My objective is to ensure a range of policy options are placed before the HHS board for rigorous debate.”

Coudriet has made clear he would not consent to a health abatement in the days leading up to the Jan. 18 hearing.

To put in place a health rule, the HHS board must schedule a public hearing and give notice at least 10 days in advance. In the meantime, as they did in the case of the previous mandate, county leaders can declare an interim order and plan the hearing after the fact.

County chief communications officer Jessica Loeper told Port City Daily “a health abatement has not been discussed and likely won’t be,” and Coudriet wrote in an email: “even if the HHS board asked … to implement an order, I would not consent so it would not be in place as a bridge to any final action of the HHS board itself.”

In part due to the contagious omicron variant, Covid-19 cases have risen significantly since the last mask mandate was repealed in November and more since the health board voiced its intention to rethink the policy.

Over the Christmas holiday, between Dec. 22 and Dec. 28, approximately 32,000 North Carolinians tested positive for the virus. The state also shattered its record this week for the highest percent positivity rate to date. The metric reached 22% on Dec. 28, which means nearly a quarter of people who took a Covid-19 test that day received a positive result.

New Hanover County’s local rate is 13.1%. Throughout the pandemic, 5% or less has been considered the goal of health officials. The health board also previously considered it the benchmark at which it would consider rescinding the mask mandate.

In an attempt to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spread during New Year’s Eve gatherings, New Hanover County held a testing event Thursday where it gave out 650 tests –– the entire supply –– within four hours.

New Hanover County is collecting feedback online through noon on Jan. 14 about the potential for another mask mandate ahead of the hearing. Initial comments from the surveying, obtained by Port City Daily, show a large number of respondents were frustrated with the board for waiting until Jan. 18 to reconsider the health rule. Some suggested the damage would be done by then.

Other respondents shared concerns about vulnerable populations and Covid-19 spread in schools. The New Hanover County Board of Education removed its mask mandate in a split vote in December, just before winter break. If a countywide policy was in place, schools would need to reenact the requirement as well.

Many survey respondents also strongly opposed resuming the mask mandate, arguing it hasn’t worked so far to control the spread of Covid-19 and people should be able to make their own choices.

The Jan. 18 public hearing will start at 8 a.m. at the Health and Human Services building on Greenfield Street.


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Alexandria Sands Williams
Alexandria Sands Williams is a journalist covering the City of Wilmington, education and film. Before Port City Daily, she spent a year in the quaint city of Southport reporting for the award-winning State Port Pilot. Prior to that, she wrote for several Charlotte publications while studying at UNC Charlotte. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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