Governor Roy Cooper is looking toward June 1 to lighten restrictions that North Carolinians have been following throughout Covid-19, from business capacity and gathering limitations to social-distancing measures. Dr. Mandy Cohen, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services secretary, said masks and safety recommendations will be heavily ongoing through the next month to ensure the goals are reached.
“I plan to issue an executive order next week outlining safety restrictions for the month of May,” Cooper added.
A mask mandate will continue through May, but Cooper noted that after June 1, he aims for the mask mandate to only be needed for public indoor gatherings. It depends on a couple of things: Covid-19 numbers stabilizing and vaccines increasing. Realistically, he said, if two-thirds of the population has at least one shot, then there could be enough herd immunity to keep the virus at bay.
“Until then, we have to make sure we’re careful and responsible,” Cooper said. “We need businesses to keep paying attention to current executive orders and future health recommendations.”
This announcement comes when North Carolina’s percent positivity rate is hovering above health officials’ 5% goal — above 7%, in fact. Cases have plateaued as some numbers are rising.
“Our hospitalizations are slightly up over the last few weeks but hospitals have capacity,” Cohen assured.
Yet, because vaccinations have increased, officials said it keeps North Carolina in a good position to move forward in its dimmer-switch approach to reopening the state. The state has administered over 6.5 million vaccines to date, with 46.9% of adults partially vaccinated and 35.1% fully vaccinated. Seventy-six percent of people 65 and older have received one shot too.
“Vaccines are our way out of this pandemic,” Cohen said. “But masks are still going to be important as we vaccinate more and more folks, but we are making progress here.”
Cooper also pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) praising the Tar Heel State for having the fewest deaths and job losses per capita. To date, North Carolina has lost over 12,000 people to Covid-19 and has an unemployment rate around 6.2%.
“Keep wearing your mask in public so we can get to the trend we need to be,” Cohen said. “We are at an exciting moment; we have a vaccine for everyone. In most places, you don’t have to wait or find an appointment.”
Cooper echoed Cohen’s sentiments, noting North Carolinians can walk into practically any vaccine provider and get a shot nowadays. Enough supply exists across the state to fulfill demand. Yet, vaccine hesitancy still is worrisome toward the state backtracking.
In New Hanover County, public health opened first-dose appointments last Friday. They didn’t fill throughout the weekend, so on Monday and Tuesday public health hosted a Pfizer walk-up clinic. It also had scheduled appointments available still.
Brunswick and Pender public health also have had appointments open over the last week.
When counties don’t get rid of vaccine supply, they receive less doses from the state the following week. New Hanover and Pender had first doses decrease drastically from Apr. 5 through the 19, while Brunswick supply has lessened slightly, according to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services supply spreadsheet:
“We don’t know definitively why demand has slowed a bit,” New Hanover County Health and Human Services Director Donna Fayko wrote to Port City Daily earlier in the week, “but we believe some of that is due to the fact that initial groups of eligibility (i.e., health care providers and older adults) were more eager to be vaccinated based on their vulnerability or increased possible exposure to the virus. As we move into the general population, there is greater hesitancy to receive the vaccine.”
Fayko said 28% of New Hanover’s population is fully vaccinated and 34% are partially vaccinated. Those numbers, however, don’t include vaccinations given as part of the federal pharmacy program, such as through Walgreens, MedNorth or the VA. Fayko said it also excludes more than 18,000 people who have been infected with Covid-19 in New Hanover County.
“But, altogether, we are still not at herd immunity and must do all we can to get there so that people are protected,” she said.
New Hanover is at 6.92% positive cases, according to the CDC county tracker. Fayko said the level of transmission is too high. “This creates an elevated risk of variants forming and pro-longing the pandemic,” she said. “So we have more work to do. . . . We are concerned that people are relaxing their precautions, not wearing masks as often as they should, and we are seeing a lot more social activity in our younger age groups that is concerning. The virus is still here and spreading, so in order to get back to a more normal way of life, we must have more people vaccinated.”
Gov. Cooper iterated that it may take a nudge to neighbors, friends and family members to persuade them to get their shots. He also pointed out homebound folks who may need the vaccine brought to them.
“We know that there are a lot of people out there that will get this vaccine,” he said. “We just got to work a little harder to make sure they can do it and get it done.”
That reach may be expanding even more, as Pfizer is working on FDA emergency use authorization for youth 12 and up to receive a jab. State health officials said they’re already in the planning stages to get Pfizer to pediatrician offices should that be authorized.
Cooper said, realistically, he knows two-thirds of the adult population being vaccinated by June 1 is a lofty goal. However, he also noted he believes it can happen — or at the very least shortly thereafter. The state is launching a “Bring Back Summer Campaign” for two weeks in May and two weeks in June to encourage people to get vaccinated, in order to fully enjoy all of spring and summer’s offerings across North Carolina.
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