Thursday, September 29, 2022

New Hanover County expected to lift Covid-19 state of emergency

In February, staff works at the county’s new Pandemic Operations Center on Greenfield Street. (Courtesy New Hanover County)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — More than two years after it went into effect, New Hanover County commissioners are expected to rescind the local state of emergency for Covid-19.

In emails obtained by Port City Daily, county manager Chris Coudriet recommended Thursday that board members call off the emergency order at their next meeting on May 2. The action will likely receive approval as part of a sweeping motion to adopt the consent agenda.

“We must remember these declarations are around community threat and harm and exercising local police powers to ensure safety,” Coudriet wrote in one email to the county’s senior leadership. “I’m not suggesting the threat to covid is over. The need to use police powers, in my opinion, is over.”

First put in place March 20, 2020, New Hanover County’s order was amended on several occasions early into the pandemic as restrictions loosened. Neighboring Brunswick County repealed its declaration last month, and Pender County dropped its Covid order in May 2021.

New Hanover County spokesperson Jessica Loeper previously told Port City Daily the order was still in place because it aided with fast access to supplies.

PREVIOUSLY: NC, NHC remain in Covid state of emergency

At this point, the local declaration is largely symbolic of the county’s commitment to fighting Covid, while also leaving the door open for officials to implement more rigorous regulations than laid out at the state level.

Intended to enforce safety measures at the onset of the pandemic, Covid emergency orders evolved into a point of political debate as some legislators now view it as merely a power grab. In March, Republicans penned an open letter to Gov. Roy Cooper pleading for him to end his statewide executive order, which at the time had been in effect for over 700 days. State lawmakers also sent the “Emergency Powers Accountability Act” to the governor’s desk, which would require the Council of State to approve any statewide emergency declaration that exceeds seven days. The bill was vetoed.

Cooper has reasoned that North Carolina’s state of emergency — issued March 10, 2020 — allows for other executive orders to remain in place. It also provides health care institutions flexibility to distribute vaccines by waiving some regulations, according to the governor’s office.

Coudriet’s recommendation comes after a federal ruling struck down mask requirements on public transportation — one of the last existing Covid-19 mandates. Locally, that impacted services like Wave Transit and the Wilmington International Airport. Airlines still reserve the right to require face coverings on flights.

According to the internal emails, there was some debate between the administration and public health staff over the proposal to lift the emergency order. Health Director David Howard wrote it was unlikely the county would need the power to enforce more “broad community-wide protections” moving forward. In the past, Howard has supported remaining under an emergency state with the uncertainty of omicron and other potential variants looming.

“Public health and the administration are not in conflict,” Coudriet assured commissioners.

The county administration also does not anticipate dropping the order will affect its eligibility for federal or state Covid funding, emails show.

Ahead of the May vote, public health staff is tracking transmission data to discern whether the county is “holding flat, decreasing, or rapidly increasing the rates of infection.” Coudriet noted it was necessary to wait 11 days to see if the public transportation mask mandate is reinstated. The Biden Administration appealed the ruling Wednesday after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called it “necessary.”

From April 8 to 22, New Hanover County’s percent positivity rate — measuring how many Covid tests yield positive results — rose from 3% to 7.7%. The average number of new daily cases slightly increased from 10.7 to 13.7.

Still, those trends are way down from where the county was in January when the positivity rate surpassed 30%. That was around the time the New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board voted not to revive the countywide mask mandate. Another recommendation of the county manager at the time, Coudriet urged the board to consider other options.

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

“Over the past two weeks, New Hanover County has seen an increase in several indicators,” Ian Appling, the county’s newly hired epidemiologist, said in a news release Friday. “However, we remain in the low category for the CDC’s community level tracking at this time.”

The Pandemic Operations Team is reporting “positive” data right now, but it is still wary of the risk of severe illness from Covid-19. Last week, Novant Health NHRMC reported an average of seven patients were hospitalized for the virus each day over the previous week.

The county’s emergency declaration is effective throughout the entire county, including in all four municipalities where the jurisdictions are still authorizing it.


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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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