Cooper announces end to mask mandate, urges people to get vaccinated

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Jul. 22—RALEIGH — Gov. Roy Cooper and the state's top health official urged state residents Wednesday to get vaccinated to protect themselves against COVID-19 and the Delta variant while announcing the mask mandate will end at 5 p.m. July 30.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, about 60% of the adult population has received at least one dose of the vaccine and 56% of adult population is fully vaccinated in the state. As of noon Wednesday, there were 1,434 newly reported cases, 694 hospitalizations and 13,550 deaths across the state since the pandemic began.

The daily percentage positive rate is 7.9%, with the stated goal being 5%, according to NCDHHS.

Robeson County has a positivity rate of 7%, and about 28% of the county's population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to Robeson County Health Department Director Bill Smith.

"The best way to combat this pandemic is the vaccine," Cooper said during a press conference in Raleigh.

Dr. Mandy K. Cohen, NCDHHS secretary, said 94% of cases and hospitalizations are occurring in unvaccinated people.

"Get vaccinated right now if you haven't. We are seeing the impact of the very contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 and it's hitting those who are unvaccinated hard," Cohen said. "Schools need to use the additional safety protocols outlined in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit to continue to protect students and staff as we enter the new school year."

The Toolkit has been updated with the new COVID-19-related guidance.

The new recommendations announced by Cooper and Cohen urge K-8 schools to require masks for students and staff while they are indoors but allows fully vaccinated high school students and staff to be unmasked.

"The Toolkit also updates additional measures for schools related to quarantining after COVID exposure, physical distancing, testing, transportation, cleaning and other considerations," according to the governor's office.

Social distancing of 3 feet when possible should take place.

"Anyone who is fully vaccinated and does not have symptoms does not have to quarantine after a close contact with someone who has COVID-19. In addition, unvaccinated students do not have to quarantine after close contact if students were appropriately and consistently wearing masks," Cohen said.

Only 24% of 12-17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, according to Cohen.

Toolkit guidance is aligned with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics, "both which urge that everything possible be done to keep students in the classrooms," she said.

"They emphasize that with proper safety prevention measures, the benefits of in-person school outweigh the risks in almost all circumstances," Cohen said.

The Public Schools of Robeson County will continue to enforce the wearing of masks for all students, according to Gordon Burnette, PSRC's Chief Communications Officer.

"PSRC administrators have had several conversations concerning district operations for the upcoming school year. Robeson County is currently seeing an increase in the number of positive cases of COVID-19, and the Delta variant also poses a serious threat to our community," he said in a statement.

"In addition, Robeson County ranks third behind Onslow and Hoke counties as the least vaccinated counties in the state of North Carolina. The health and safety of our students and staff members is our top priority. Due to this, the district will be requiring all Pre-K-12th students and staff members to wear masks at all times while in the school building," Burnette said.

Unvaccinated residents are urged by state health officials to follow CDC and NCDHHS guidance and wear a mask indoors, according to the governor's office.

"When Executive Order 220 expires at the end of July, North Carolina businesses and other entities where masks are required will make their own decisions about requiring masks, with strong guidance provided by NCDHHS. Everyone, regardless of vaccine status, should still wear a mask in certain places such as public transportation and health care facilities," the statement continues.

The Robeson County Health Department reported 241 new COVID-19 cases in the seven-day period from July 13 through Monday, which comes to 17.2 cases per day. Four virus-related deaths were reported in the county during that time, which is the most in a seven-day period in Robeson County since May 28 through June 4.

There have been 17,862 reported virus cases in Robeson County over the duration of the pandemic, with 277 virus-related deaths.

"If you look at the occurrences that are driving the latest surge, they are unsurprising. Camps, ball games, and church events are three that jump out. With a quarter of the local population vaccinated, the unvaccinated and more vulnerable crowd is way too large," Bill Smith said.

The Delta variant poses risks to residents by being more transmissible than the previous strain, he said.

"Simply this variant is more transmissible and much more viral than last year's variety and vaccinating was the key to reducing deaths and hospitalizations. We should not see the numbers seen in January, almost a thousand a week in this county, but the hospitalizations/deaths per case may rise," Smith said.

The Health Department director agreed with Cooper and Cohen that the best way for county residents to prepare for the variant is to protect themselves through vaccinations.

"The population has been asked to prepare , and the best way was to get vaccinated, but prevention is not something that locals want to do. There are many reasons that Robeson is ranked as the least healthy county in the state and not taking preventive measures is one of them," Smith said.

"Maintaining distance (away from crowds), masking and sanitizing remain the optimal ways to thrive," he added.

Reach Jessica Horne at 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected] Sports Editor Chris Stiles contributed to this report.

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