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As Covid-19 metrics show improvement, officials continue to evaluate need for mask mandate

New Hanover County staff administer the Covid-19 vaccine at an event this summer. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Six weeks since surging coronavirus spread prompted the New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board to formalize an indoor mask mandate of indefinite length, the data surrounding Covid-19 transmission has taken a positive turn. 

Despite improvements in key metrics, like hospitalizations and the positivity rate of Covid-19 tests, numbers are still higher in New Hanover County than they were in early summer.

READ MORE: Mask mandate affirmed at boisterous hearing, pitting riled up crowd against health officials

The positivity rate — the percentage of Covid-19 tests confirmed positive out of the total number of tests performed, not including antigen tests — was 5.27% last week in New Hanover County, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (The 14-day positivity rate is 6.1%, according to the county.)

When voting to adopt the mask mandate at the end of August, the health and human services board stated a desire to see the positivity rate drop below 5% and remain there. 

“Our community’s collective action in wearing masks is starting to pay off, but we still have more work to do to keep our community safe this fall and holiday season,” public health director David Howard said in a press release last week.

The board has assessed the Covid-19 metrics, in the context of the mask mandate, at each of its monthly meetings since the mandate was adopted and will continue to do so.

“It’s important that all of these metrics continue trending downward and remain low over time, so the board is continuously watching the metrics to inform their considerations,” a county spokesperson told Port City Daily.

Board of commissioners chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman — the commissioner representative on the health and human services board — told Port City Daily there should not be a rush to rescind the mask mandate based on short-term improvements. 

“This isn’t a sprint where we can just get to a single good data point and remove all of our protective measures,” she wrote in an email.

“We have to be thoughtful and look at all of the information to know how we can best sustain these positive results and not go through another awful spike like we had in late summer through September. I think we are looking better as a community because all that we have done, but it’s too early to know exactly what will happen or what decision may be made by the board. But we are, and will continue to, evaluate this.”

Howard, the health director, told WECT the health and human services board will have to pre-advertise a public hearing before it can take a specific action related to the mask mandate. The next monthly meeting is Oct. 19; since the public hearing needs 10 day notice, it would not be possible for the board to rescind the mandate at that time.

“We expressed in the past meetings that the board will review the trends at each meeting while the mandate is in place and make a collective decision about next steps, based on the daily percentage rate,” board chairwoman LeShonda Wallace wrote in an email.

September was the county’s deadliest month on record, with 62 Covid-19 deaths recorded. Among the unvaccinated deaths, the average age was 56. Mortality is a lagging indicator of severe spread, according to county health officials, often showing up in numbers later while other metrics show improvement. 

There were an average 32 patients hospitalized daily for Covid-19 at New Hanover Regional Medical Center last week, according to the hospital system. The daily average peaked at 132 in early September and has declined in the weeks since.

New admissions in New Hanover County hospitals decreased by 40.8% in the seven days leading up to Oct. 7, according to the CDC. NHRMC, owned by Novant Health, serves a seven-county region.

There have been around 400 or more reported cases in New Hanover County each week since mid-September; the weekly average was typically over 500 cases throughout August and early September.

Nationally, the CDC reported an 11.6% drop in the seven-day average of reported cases as of Oct. 6. 

The improving numbers in the county are likely reflective of a few factors, said Kent Locklear, chief medical officer of Cape Fear Clinic, which serves uninsured and underinsured patients in southeast N.C. 

The clinic offers Covid-positive patients monoclonal antibody treatments, which are effective at preventing hospitalization if administered quickly after the onset of symptoms. In mid-September the clinic received six to 10 calls per day from patients seeking the treatments; that number has since decreased to around one or two calls per day, Locklear said. 

READ MORE: Gov. Cooper tours Cape Fear Clinic to promote Covid-19 treatment

There is the continued administration of the Covid-19 vaccine to account for, Locklear said, which is likely not a major factor given that growth in the vaccination rate has largely plateaued. He added that the mask mandate has played a role, but so too has the rise in natural immunity across the population. 

In New Hanover County, approximately 57% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the latest state health data. 

“Of the people unvaccinated, more and more are getting sick, they’re catching it,” he said. “They are getting immunity through the natural acquisition of the illness.”

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