State officials say mask-wearing in schools a must, as youth vaccinations remain low

Dr. Mandy Cohen encourages people to talk to their doctors and medical professionals about getting the Covid-19 vaccine. (Port City Daily/Courtesy NC Department Health and Humans Services socials)

During Tuesday’s update from Gov. Roy Cooper and the Coronavirus Task Force, the focus remained on vaccinating more people against Covid-19. North Carolina is tracking at 11% in positive cases statewide, as vaccine rates continue to improve slowly.

“This week North Carolina marks an encouraging milestone: 90% of North Carolinians 65 and older have received at least one dose and 87% have been fully vaccinated,” Cooper said.

By comparison, 61% of ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated, with 63% 18 and older fully vaccinated. The task force, including North Carolina’s top health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, noted less than half of 12-to-24-year-olds have had a first dose.

Cohen said 38% of teens between 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated and only 42% of young adults ages 18 to 24 are fully vaccinated.

“All schools should require masks to keep people in school for in-person learning,” Cooper added.

The governor signed an executive order Aug. 31 that requires county school boards to vote once a month on whether students and faculty will be required to cover their faces during school hours.

In New Hanover, a mask mandate is in place countywide, which trumps any school board decision. Though, New Hanover County School board will vote once again in October.

Brunswick County Schools’ next meeting is Oct. 5. Currently, the county does not require masks indoors except in county buildings. Yet, the board of education voted Sept. 14 to require masks of everyone inside its buildings, regardless of vaccination status.

Pender County voted Tuesday morning to drop masks in schools. It also voted to no longer have school nurses make calls for quarantine and isolations and instead leave that responsibility to Pender County Public Health, as required in the toolkit.

RELATED: After a mandatory start, Pender County Schools makes masks optional

Cooper recognized a statewide trend of in-person school board meetings becoming heightened to a “fever pitch” among parents. He readily disavowed actions of bullying, intimidation and threats.

“None of this belongs in public schools, particularly by adults,” he said. “Being civil and respectful is more important than ever.”

Cooper said school systems have until Oct. 1 to submit virtual learning plans to the state school board, in the instance parents wish to keep kids out of school due to high transmission of Covid-19. He made it clear, though, the goal is for students to remain in the classroom.

“We have so many strategies to keep kids safe in schools,” Cooper said, referring to the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit.

Cohen said the demographic of 17 and younger made up a third of the state’s new Covid cases as of Sept. 18.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to mark every county in North Carolina red, indicating high transmission of viral spread. While the data is slightly improving, Cohen said, still, the numbers are tracking too high.

“From the end of July through today, we are averaging 6,000 new Covid cases each day,” she said.

People coming to the hospital with Covid-like symptoms are decreasing for the first time in a few months, as the trajectory of new cases was on a steep incline in August and September. It indicated the fastest cases had risen since the pandemic began in March 2020. Though, day over day, hospitalizations seem to be leveling somewhat; the state has been near or above 900 people requiring ICU beds.

“Hospitals are strained,” Cohen said. “Care is not readily available in other states for those seeking help not Covid related; we don’t want to follow that trend.”

FEMA has been offering assistance to states feeling the strain, by helping set up more monoclonal antibody treatment sites; North Carolina now has almost 200, according to Cooper. The task force confirmed North Carolina has applied to FEMA for 50 ambulances and 100 more personnel, but didn’t reveal which areas in the state were most in need of the services.

“We have not been approved for them yet,” Cohen said. “I am very hopeful, but it’s a small piece of [the] overall response.”

The task force said they will be talking with faith-based leaders to set up more vaccine clinics in communities statewide, while also doing more outreach to educate the unvaccinated, especially teens, and encouraging businesses to implement their own policies to help protect public safety and strengthen the economy.

Most importantly, Cohen suggested anyone with questions to avoid misinformation on social media and instead talk to a doctor, nurse or a medical professional.

“Go to reliable sources like the CDC, or the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services,” she said. “Get the facts to help make the decision. This disease is more contagious than ever. It makes the unvaccinated very sick at an alarming rate. . . . Vaccines are safe and effective and saving lives. It is Covid that is making so many people critically ill, leaving many with long-lasting symptoms and sadly killing more than 15,000 North Carolinians.”

“Most of these deaths now are preventable with life-saving vaccines,” Cooper said. “If you haven’t gotten the shot, it’s not too late.”

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