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Mask mandates lifted amid plummeting COVID-19 numbers

Mask mandates lifted amid plummeting COVID-19 numbers

New COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are falling toward the lowest levels seen since the pandemic took root. 

As of May 16, only 815 North Carolinians were hospitalized with COVID-19, 252 of those were in the ICU. The past week is the first time since September the daily hospitalization figure has dipped below 850. 

Meanwhile, new COVID-19 cases in North Carolina rolled in at 688 May 17, the second time in a week that number has hit the lowest level since 610 new cases were reported Oct. 4, 2020. Macon County did not report any new cases May 11-17, with only two in Swain and five in Jackson during that same time period. Haywood came in significantly higher, at 28. 

Health officials work to boost vaccinations 

The drastic decline in cases comes as vaccinations continue to slow, with 39.2 percent of people in Haywood, Jackson, Swain and Macon counties having received at least one dose as of May 17 — up just 0.4 percent from May 11 and a couple percentage points lower than the 41 percent partially vaccinated statewide. 

That rate could pick up some in the coming weeks, though, after the May 13 authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for youth 12 and older. Previously, no vaccines were approved for people younger than 16. 

“Having a vaccine for our younger teens brings us that much closer to being able to end the pandemic,” N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy K. Cohen said in a press release. “By getting more teens vaccinated they are protecting themselves from the impact of COVID, and they are protecting their families and their communities by stopping the spread of the virus.”

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Haywood County Health and Human Services is partnering with Haywood Community College to host a vaccine clinic for teens 12-18 and their families, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 19, on the HCC campus. The mobile clinic will offer the Pfizer vaccine on a drive-up basis, with no appointment necessary, though students under 18 will need parent or guardian consent to get vaccinated. 

Going forward, HCHHS will offer the Pfizer vaccine on a walk-in basis. Western Carolina University is administering vaccine to people 12 and up as well, with appointments available on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Some Walgreens locations offer it too. 

However, due to the Pfizer vaccine’s more stringent storage requirements as compared to other COVID-19 vaccines, many vaccine providers are not able to offer it at this time, including public health departments in Swain and Jackson counties. These vaccine providers have ample supplies of other vaccines, however. 

Even as health departments and vaccine providers work to reach this new population approved for vaccination, they’re also making an effort to reach members of the community who have long been eligible for vaccination but have thus far elected not to receive one. 

“We continue to remind the community that we are here and have vaccine available,” said Haywood County Health Director Sarah Henderson. “We are doing community outreach with local churches and congregate living situations as well as offering the vaccine five days a week on a walk-in basis.”

Likewise, the WCU clinic is offering extended hours and walk-in clinics to remove scheduling barriers, and Jackson County is using a variety of tactics, including vaccine promotion through various media sources, outreach events with partners and offering the vaccine more frequently onsite and to anyone seeking health department services. 

Because COVID-19 is a novel virus with evolving variants, it’s unknown how many people must be protected through vaccination or prior infection to achieve herd immunity. Experts put the number between 70 and 90 percent, and while the approximately 40 percent of Americans currently vaccinated falls far below that threshold, it’s unknown how many unvaccinated people have previously contracted and recovered from the virus. 

Many mask mandates lifted 

Amid falling case numbers and vaccination slow-downs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a game-changing announcement May 13, updating its guidance to say that, with a few exceptions, fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or practice social distancing. These exceptions include healthcare settings, public transit, correctional facilities and homeless shelters, as well as anywhere they’re required by law or policy, including workplaces and businesses. The guidance also states that fully vaccinated people don’t have to take a COVID-19 test following a known exposure unless they’re residents or employees of a homeless shelter, or of a correctional or detention facility — though testing is still required for people who show symptoms. 

A day later, on May 14, Gov. Roy Cooper issued Executive Order 215 , which largely follows the CDC order lifting all capacity limits, social distancing requirements and mask mandates within the state, except in the same special cases laid out in the CDC order. 

Cooper noted that the order was made possible by the state’s progress in vaccinating its citizens. 

“We can take this step today because the science shows our focus on getting people vaccinated is working,” Cooper said in a release. “But to keep moving forward — and to make sure that we keep saving lives — more people need to get vaccinated.”

That state-level announcement prompted Principal Chief Richard Sneed to issue a May 14 executive order lifting masking requirements on the Qualla Boundary, with the exception of healthcare settings; daycares, schools, childcare facilities, day camps and summer camps; detention centers and transit services. However, the order notes, people who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 or have a compromised immune system are still “highly encouraged” to continue wearing a mask. 

Jackson County followed suit with a May 18 announcement lifting masking and social distancing requirements in county-owned facilities — with the same exceptions contained in Sneed’s order — noting that “unvaccinated people put themselves at great risk if they do not wear Face Coverings and social distance.” 

Also on May 18, WCU announced that it was lifting all capacity limits and physical distancing requirements in campus facilities but that indoor mask guidelines would remain in effect “pending additional information from state and system officials.”

Other jurisdictions are still reviewing their masking policies. As of press time, Haywood, Swain and Macon counties were still requiring masks in their facilities. 

Staff writer Cory Vaillancourt contributed to this report. 

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