Update: The subcommittee meeting is rescheduled to Friday and now open for the community to attend. New Hanover County legal staff determined Tuesday morning it should have been a public meeting. Read more here.
NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Members of the New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board say they were unaware the county manager had instructed the health department to come up with “alternatives” to a mask mandate the day after they vocalized their intention to revisit the policy.
On Tuesday morning, a team of health professionals is meeting with New Hanover County leadership in a closed-door discussion about the status of Covid-19 and the face coverings issue, during which the topic will likely be discussed.
“I’m pretty sure at that time we’ll be able to explore those things that were stated,” health and human services board chair Dr. LeShonda Wallace said on a call Monday.
A public hearing will take place in two weeks, immediately after which the board will consider reenacting the health rule.
The appointed health and human services board, which serves as the governing body for the county department, formed the subcommittee during its December meeting as a way for a smaller workgroup to discuss metrics and mitigation strategies. Dr. Wallace said the board members are interested in the quantitative data but also want to understand the qualitative impacts of Covid-19.
“In other words, what impact is it having in regards to productivity? In regards to our healthcare system actually handling the cases? What is the severity of illness? Hospital stays?” she said.
Other than masks, Wallace suggested evidence-based methods to reduce the spread of Covid-19 include limiting crowds or requiring proof of vaccination.
“I’m not familiar with other mitigation strategies that can be put in place that would be less restrictive,” Wallace said.
According to county chief communications officer Jessica Loeper, County Manager Chris Coudriet was speaking to a possible “set of policies around things like education, encouragement, and signage at establishments and businesses, that can be recommended to the HHS Board as a layered approach rather than just recommending or considering a mask mandate.”
The health department reportedly had nothing to announce or share in regard to Coudriet’s request as of Monday.
“The HHS staff is working to review a full spectrum of COVID-19 data and any possible alternatives to a mask mandate and will be developing information and options for the HHS Board to consider at its meeting,” Loeper said.
Attendees at Tuesday’s subcommittee meeting will include four health and human services board members –– chair Wallace, nurse Dr. Stephanie Smith, physician Dr. David Zub and dentist Dr. Delma Kinlaw –– as well health and human services director Donna Fayko and health director David Howard. Pandemic operations manager Jon Campbell, newly hired to run the county’s PanOps team, will also be present.
The health and human services board first announced Dec. 21 it would revisit the mask mandate and hold a public hearing almost a month later, Jan. 18. The only member to vote against the hearing was Jonathan Barfield, the board of commissioner’s representative. Commissioner chair Julia Olson-Boseman, who previously served as the representative, has also expressed interest in approaching new mandates in a measured way and led the November motion to repeal the mask mandate when cases had fallen.
Coudriet informed commissioners of his request to the health department Dec. 22.
Since then, Covid-19 cases have risen significantly, attributable in part to gatherings over the holidays and the highly contagious omicron variant. Statewide, the daily percent positivity rate is up to 27.4%, and New Hanover County’s testing rate is 20%.
Despite omicron advancing across North Carolina, the hearing was scheduled later in the month to analyze the impacts of the variant and Covid-19 trends in the new year.
“It’s such a fluid situation, so dynamic from day to day, hour to hour,” said health and human services board vice-chair Dr. Kim Thrasher Horne, who confirmed she was not aware of Coudriet’s request for “alternatives” until Monday. “I hope that most citizens understand that we, on the board, are working very hard to work with our hospital colleagues and our health department colleagues.”
The county manager does not have authority to overturn a local health rule implemented by the health and human services board –– nor could county commissioners.
Leading up to the required public hearing on the mask mandate, the county manager has the authority to consent to an interim health order, such as the one enacted in August upon rising numbers of the delta variant. The mandate would need to be affirmed by the health and human services board following a public hearing. Coudriet has already said he would not take such action again.
The county commissioners also have the power to enact their own ordinance to put in place a mask mandate, but it would only cover the unincorporated areas of New Hanover County. The health and human services board has broader jurisdiction over all the municipalities, according to the UNC School of Government.
While the county manager is within his rights to direct staff to brainstorm different moves, he did acknowledge his instruction could appear as an attempt to sidestep the board.
“I hope the county commission does not consider this thwarting the HHs board,” Coudriet wrote in his Dec. 22 email. “My objective is to ensure a range of policy options are placed before the HHS board for rigorous debate.”
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