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Orange County leaders making no mask mandate changes, will reevaluate in March

"The best tool at our disposal is the vaccine," says Carrboro mayor Damon Seils. Seils poses for a portrait in Carrboro on Thursday, Feb. 17, hours after a press conference where NC Governor Roy Cooper encouraged local schools and governors to end mask mandates.

After an announcement from Gov. Roy Cooper encouraging schools and local governments to end mask mandates starting March 7, Orange County leaders decided last Friday to keep the county's indoor mask mandate in place.

Still, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education has not yet made a decision regarding mask mandates, Andy Jenks, chief communications officer for CHCCS, said in an email.

Jenks said the district will provide an update at its March 3 Board of Education meeting.

Orange County leaders continue to monitor data

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said she and other leaders are focused on making decisions based on the best available data — rather than reacting to political or economic pressures.

She said the high vaccination rate in Orange County gives leaders some flexibility to potentially consider lifting the mandate, but the health care system's capacity is an important factor.

“We’re going to evaluate where the numbers are and see if it makes sense,” she said.

As of Wednesday, 79 percent of Orange County's population 5 and older is fully vaccinated, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hillsborough Mayor Jenn Weaver said in an email that she was somewhat surprised by Cooper’s announcement, but she recognizes that the governor is in charge of a state with many diverse communities.

She said she is particularly concerned about the burden on health care workers and emphasized that hospitalization rates are still too high to lift the mandate.

As of Wednesday, Orange County's 14-day average COVID-19 positivity rate is 13 percent, according to data collected by The New York Times. Hospitalizations are down 29 percent for the past two weeks.

“While all of our indicators of the COVID-19 public health impact are trending in the correct direction, we are not yet where we need to be (less elevated community spread, alleviated pressure on healthcare system) to lift the indoor mask mandate,” Weaver said in an email.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention places the level of community transmission in Orange County at "high" — the organization's uppermost level. 

Weaver said she understands that many Orange County residents want to see the mandate lifted. County leaders will be reevaluating the indoor mask mandate in early March.

“We ask the public to please keep in mind the immunocompromised in our community in addition to an entire age group — the under 5 set — who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated,” she said. “We need to look out for and take care of each other.”

Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils said leaders' main focus is to consider the strain on the health care system when making decisions.

"One useful thing about the governor’s announcement is that it sort of sets that March 7 date as something to look toward, and it sort of gives us a little room to see how our local numbers are looking and allow us to coordinate our countywide response appropriately," Seils said.

School district response

The Orange County Board of Education unanimously voted to make masks optional in schools. Masks will be optional for students within 72 hours of Orange County lifting its indoor mask mandate.

As for CHCCS, Jenks said the district will not be making any immediate changes to masking.

"As our community has come to expect from us, we plan to continue to do everything we can to keep our students and staff safe and healthy," Jenks said in an email.

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CHCCS board member George Griffin said he was surprised by Cooper's Feb. 17 announcement.

“Our positivity rate is still higher than what has been deemed acceptable all along here in the county, and transmission rates are still higher than we want to be, so let’s stay the course until we get it low enough,” he said.

Griffin said he recognizes that some parents and students are tired of wearing masks, but that the board is listening to local health authorities and relying on the information they provide.

“What we’re listening to are the authorities on the health aspects of COVID transmission, not people’s opinions,” Griffin said. “We respect that everybody has an opinion on it, but we can’t just change everything because of that.”

CHCCS Board Vice Chairperson Rani Dasi said in an email that declining rates of COVID-19 suggest the potential to reduce mask protections in the near term.

"I think Orange County leadership has been responsible in focusing on protections to keep our community safe and healthy," Dasi said in an email. "In addition to local health, they have the additional responsibility of considering potential impacts to our local hospitals and the potential effects that could be felt across the state if our hospitals are overburdened."


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