Thursday, January 27, 2022

Subcommittee of health and human services board talks mask mandate alternatives

Two weeks before a mask mandate hearing, a subgroup of the health board attempted to get on the same page about the path forward. (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — During a Friday afternoon meeting that included select members of the health and human services board, in advance of a mask mandate hearing later this month, the subcommittee foreshadowed what will transpire Jan. 18 — when the full board will decide whether or not to once more require face coverings indoors across New Hanover County. 

Four members of the health and human services board and top county health officials talked for over an hour about the types of data relevant in examining how New Hanover County fares amid the pandemic and also explored a series of policy alternatives to a mask mandate. 

County manager Chris Coudriet previously directed health officials to come prepared with such alternatives on Jan. 18, in hopes of having a range of options to work from. 

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

According to discussion at the Friday meeting, those alternatives will likely include bolstering the county’s information operation — more notices about public health guidelines and more announcements across-the-board alerting citizens to where they can be tested or vaccinated. Amid a national shortage, board member Stephanie Smith urged that more tests be made available for the public. 

The subcommittee meeting was initially scheduled as a private affair, but it was made open to the public following guidance of county lawyers. 

READ MORE: New Hanover County changes course on closed meeting about masks after realizing it should be open to public

Much of the subcommittee’s time focused on nailing down the specific metrics that would be used to guide the larger board’s future decision-making. HHS director Donna Fayko referenced a document from New Hanover Regional Medical Center that offered details on how the pandemic affected the hospital in this moment but said the document was not for public consumption. 

Smith said she heard NHRMC’s current issues are largely driven by residents presenting to the emergency room solely to ask for a Covid-19 test, in turn straining the staff and hospital infrastructure.

During the last week of 2021, NHRMC averaged 43 new Covid-19 patients per day, according to the hospital’s public dashboard (which disappeared for a few weeks, then resurfaced earlier this week). 

LeShonda Wallace, the chairwoman of the HHS board who also participated in the subcommittee meeting, appeared most willing to pursue additional measures in addition to a masking rule, rather than in lieu of one. 

Julia Olson-Boseman was the commissioner representative on the health board last year and played an integral role in blocking the mask mandate’s continuation in the November vote, where — after Wallace put forward a motion to prolong the mandate through the holidays — Olson-Boseman proposed an opposite motion that would do away with the rule immediately.

Jonathan Barfield Jr. recently replaced Olson-Boseman as the commissioner representative on the health and human services board; he cast the lone vote of dissent last month when the rest of the board voted to hold a formal hearing on a potential mask mandate revival Jan. 18. 

The day after the Dec. 21 decision to revisit the mask mandate, Chris Coudriet, the county manager, emailed the board of commissioners and health department officials. He instructed health and human services director Donna Fayko and the health team to identify policy alternatives to a mask mandate and to be prepared to move on them at the Jan. 18 meeting. 

READ MORE: County manager suggests ‘education, encouragement’ as mask mandate alternatives, unbeknownst to health board

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