Tuesday, August 9, 2022

County health board wants to take another look at an indoor mask mandate

An impromptu Pledge of Allegiance takes place during the previous public hearing on the mask mandate in November. (Port City Daily photo/Williams)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board has signaled that it wants to consider a revival of the indoor mask mandate at its next meeting on Jan. 18. 

The appointed board previously imposed a county-wide mandate in August, amid a local surge in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations attributed to the delta variant. The mandate lasted into November, at which point it was rescinded during a public meeting via board vote. 

During the past 14 days, 592 cases of Covid-19 have been reported in the county, an average of 42.3 cases per day. 

Tuesday morning, during the regularly scheduled health and human services board meeting, chairwoman LeShonda Wallace initiated talks on revisiting the mask mandate.

Wallace vouched for the mandate’s continuance back in November, but Julia Olson-Boseman — the board of commissioners chairwoman who served on the health board too — defeated that attempt to prolong the mandate through the holidays. A majority of board members sided with Olson-Boseman’s alternate motion to repeal the mandate. 

In the first 17 days of August, leading up to the formalization of the earlier mask mandate, there were 1,152 reported cases in the county, an average of 67.8 cases confirmed per day. Case counts peaked locally in mid-September, then waned until a few weeks ago.

Covid-19 case counts in New Hanover County. (Courtesy U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

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“The Health and Human Services Board is going to discuss COVID-19 metrics and trends, data compared to last year at this time, and other statistical analysis as it relates to where we are in the pandemic after the new year and whether we need to reinstate our face coverings health rule,” Wallace said in a press release Tuesday. 

State leaders warned Monday of an impending rise in cases this holiday season. Omicron, the newest variant of concern, has now become the dominant strain in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Monday evening.

Outgoing NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen predicted case loads peaking as high as 10,000 per day come January, but Gov. Roy Cooper said no statewide mandates are on the table at this time when pressed by reporters. 

Though omicron is reportedly more contagious than delta and the original Covid-19 strain, early evidence suggests the new variant could be associated with less severe illness compared to its predecessors.

After Wallace broached the idea of re-invoking the mask mandate — given the uptick in viral spread seen during the previous month — nearly the entire board voted to hold a formal public hearing on a mask mandate later next month. 

“This is a proactive conversation that the board plans to have, given our current increases in case counts and hospitalizations and the rapid spread [of] Omicron, to see where we are and if additional protective measures like face coverings are needed,” according to Wallace. 

New Hanover commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr. — who recently replaced Olson-Boseman as the commissioner representative on the health board — was the only member to vote against revisiting the mask mandate. 

“I feel like Covid is going to be here to stay,” Barfield said in an interview Tuesday. “And I would hate for us to get into a yo-yo process, where every time numbers go up and down we keep reacting.”

Barfield said he is pleased the county’s vaccination rate continues to rise. According to the CDC, 66% of the county population 12-and-older is fully vaccinated, and the vaccination rate for those 65-and-older is currently at 86.9%. 

“You’ve got folks who work in retail and grocery stores that are really afraid to enforce a mask mandate because people are getting very belligerent with those who ask them to wear masks,” Barfield added. “So that puts other people in jeopardy.” 

Tuesday, the health board also voted to form a subcommittee, which will include the fledgling pandemic operations team, “to develop a clear methodology of statistical analysis, including hospital, CDC and NCDHHS data, in order to make a data-informed decision related to the face coverings health rule and other protective measures related to the pandemic,” according to a county press release.

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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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