North Carolina mayors will be talking Friday about whether North Carolina should fall in line with new federal recommendations that say people who are fully vaccinated can go mask-free in most situations, Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said Thursday.
Gov. Roy Cooper has a COVID-19 update planned for 1:30 p.m. Friday that likely will address the CDC mask policy changes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to observe social distancing requirements in most cases, in addition to being able to go into most indoor public spaces without a mask.
Here’s the catch: North Carolina still requires indoor masking, and the new CDC recommendations do not change that.
But that’s under review, said Catie Armstrong, speaking for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
“The CDC announcement today on masks shows the important benefits of vaccinations,” Armstrong said. “North Carolina two weeks ago removed the outdoor mask mandate, but the indoor mask mandate remains in effect while we review the specific CDC recommendations.”
Joines said he wants to hear how other North Carolina mayors feel when they speak to each other on their weekly Friday call, but said “there is pretty good science” around the idea of removing some of the COVID-19 restrictions.
“My inclination would be to loosen up things if we can,” Joines said, adding that he was “a little surprised” to hear the news.
The CDC said fully vaccinated people can do all kinds of stuff: They can go to crowded outdoor events like parades, ball games and concerts and leave behind the mask. They can get together with friends from multiple households and eat at a restaurant without worry about social distancing.
Fully vaccinated people can sing in an indoor chorus, attend a full-capacity worship service, see an indoor movie and take part in high-intensity exercise indoors, all without masks, the CDC said.
People still have to follow local regulations on masking and keeping social distance, and that’s where conversations are likely to focus in Raleigh and in city halls across the state in the coming days.
The CDC said masks must still be worn in some settings, like hospitals, public transportation and airplanes, and in businesses that require them.
But domestic travelers who are fully vaccinated no longer have to get a COVID-19 test before or after travel, nor do they have to self-quarantine.
Forsyth Health Director Joshua Swift said Thursday evening that he, too, was surprised at the CDC announcement.
“It came out of left field,” he said. “We are in a holding pattern under (the state’s) executive order. Hopefully tomorrow (Friday) we will get some guidance.”
Noting that the new freedoms are only for the fully vaccinated, Swift said he hopes it encourages more people to get their shots.
According to state health officials, 146,576 people in Forsyth County have been fully vaccinated.
That’s 48% of the people here who are over 16.
“We have to encourage people to get fully vaccinated,” Swift said. “We still have a ways to go. But getting vaccinated is the way for us to get back to normal, and part of getting back to normal is not wearing a mask.”
People who are at least two weeks out from their second Moderna or Pfizer dose, or their one Johnson & Johnson doses, are considered as fully vaccinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 117 million Americans are in that category, including 3.49 million North Carolinians, about 45.5% of those ages 16 and older in the state.
The CDC’s latest policy decision appears to be an effort to highlight the social advantages to be gained from being fully vaccinated, as well as to address some criticism of current masking policies.
“We have all longed for this moment — when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”
However, Walensky said people who have weak immune systems, such as from organ transplants or cancer treatment, should talk with their doctors before shedding their masks.
Claire Calvin, the owner of three restaurants near central Winston-Salem, said Gov. Roy Cooper should make a decision based on what’s right for North Carolina.
If the masks go away, she said, businesses can’t be responsible should someone who is not vaccinated come in without a mask and get service like everyone else.
Calvin owns The Porch Kitchen and Cantina in the West End Mill Works, Alma Mexicana in Bailey Power Plant, and Canteen on Fourth Street downtown.
“I am for fully-vaccinated people not having to wear masks any more, I am for that,” she said. “If somebody says, ‘I don’t believe in vaccines, so I’m going to The Porch and not wear a mask,’ we don’t know if they are vaccinated or not and we are not going to ask. I don’t feel like I was the reason they got sick or didn’t get sick.”
For a whole year, she said, she had to monitor staff and customers and even shut down when someone tested positive.
“I’m in the mindset that it is part of my duty to maintain some semblance of public health and make customers wear masks when they come in, but I am ready to get rid of them (the masks) because you should go get vaccinated. I feel like at this point, there is a vaccine, I’ve done my part and I’m ready to move on to the next chapter.”
Three Forsyth deaths
Forsyth County reported three additional COVID-19 related deaths — the most in an N.C. Department of Health and Human Services daily report in two months.
DHHS lists COVID-19 cases and deaths on the day they are confirmed by medical providers and public health officials so people may have been infected or have died days before their cases were counted.
The last time Forsyth had three or more deaths listed in a daily COVID-19 report was five on March 11.
Four COVID-19 deaths have been reported for Forsyth in May. There have been 378 for the pandemic since mid-March 2020.
DHHS reported Forsyth had 41 new cases after 45 were listed in Wednesday’s report. Forsyth has had 35,824 COVID-19 cases for the pandemic.
There were 1,394 new cases reported statewide Thursday, down slightly from 1,493 reported Wednesday, but up from a seven-month low of 699 on Tuesday.
The overall case total for the pandemic is at 987,837.
There were 23 additional COVID-19 related deaths reported Thursday, raising the statewide overall death total to 12,853.
Local and state health officials have attributed part of the recent decline in the daily case count to a significant reduction in daily testing for COVID-19 from reduced community spread and higher overall vaccination levels.
DHHS lists a statewide positive test rate of 4% — the lowest level over the past month — based on 22,397 tests performed Tuesday.
By comparison, there were 40,569 tests as recently as May 6.
In Forsyth, the positive test rate was 5.2% of about 600 tests performed Tuesday. By contrast, there were 1,400 tests performed as recently as April 28.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, has said a statewide positive test rate of 5% or lower marks a decrease in community spread of COVID-19.
COVID-19-related hospitalizations were at 925 in Thursday’s report, down eight from Wednesday.
The 17-county Triad region reported 217 hospitalized COVID-19 patients Thursday, up one from Wednesday.
The combined number of first- and second-dose vaccinations in North Carolina has declined steadily since reaching a weekly peak of 511,934 during the week that began April 5.
By comparison, the vaccination count was 179,072 for the week that began May 3.
The number of weekly second doses provided has exceeded first doses since the week that began March 29.
DHHS said that as of noon Thursday, 51% adults in North Carolina have had at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and 45.5% are considered fully vaccinated. There have been 3.96 million adults with one dose and 3.49 million fully vaccinated.
Altogether, there have been 7.73 million doses administered in the state. Nearly 75% of people 65 and older are fully vaccinated.
DHHS said 163,540 people in Forsyth County — or 53% of the population over the age of 16 — are at least partially vaccinated.