RALEIGH — An executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper, effective at 5 p.m. July 29, directed his Cabinet departments to begin verifying the vaccination status of all employees and for those not vaccinated to undergo a weekly testing regime and mandatory indoor masking. The order also changed N.C. Department of Health and Human Services guidance to strongly encourage, but not require, that schools, local governments and businesses tighten masking and vaccination protocols in response to rising Delta variant case numbers.
“Until more people get the vaccine, we will continue living with the very real threat of serious disease, and we will continue to see more dangerous and contagious variants like Delta,” said Cooper at a July 29 press conference that he and NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen hosted to announce the order.
This change in guidance for North Carolina came on the heels of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announcement that it was recommending increased masking and vaccinations due to the Delta variant.
State Republicans also reacted to the CDC guidance, with Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) releasing a statement noting contradiction with comments by President Joe Biden two months earlier, when he said, “If you’ve been fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask. Let me repeat: If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask.”
Berger said that “whiplash on mask ‘guidance’ from the CDC may have the perverse effect of discouraging vaccination” because people will question whether the vaccine is effective if they need to put masks back on.
While Cooper didn’t require businesses to return to the mask mandates of past executive orders, he did strongly encourage them to “at a minimum, verify vaccination status for their workers as well.” He also called on people, both vaccinated and not, to wear masks when gathering indoors again, saying in the guidance, “Businesses are strongly encouraged to require guests to wear a face covering in indoor areas of offices, buildings and facilities.”
Many companies have started requiring vaccinations from employees and masks for anyone inside their premises since the announcement by the CDC and subsequent orders from states like North Carolina.
Weaver Street Market, a grocery chain with locations across the Triangle area, began requiring masks again in their stores on Aug. 3, a move being taken by many other retailers. Nationally, Disney announced they are joining other major companies like Netflix in requiring vaccinations for employees. Many of North Carolina’s hospital systems already announced last week that they are also requiring vaccinations for employees.
Two bars in Asheville, the Double Crown and the Lazy Diamond, announced the day after Cooper’s order that they would begin requiring proof of vaccination “to participate in all activities, inside or out,” at their establishments.
Masking in schools, which has been a particularly contentious area politically, was also covered in the order, with the guidance now saying that “all K-12 schools should require universal masking, regardless of vaccination status. NCDHHS is updating its guidance for schools to align with this recommendation.”
Cooper and Cohen were clear at the press conference that this was not a mandate, even if school districts are being strongly encouraged to require masking. At least 23 districts have now announced that they will make masks optional in the fall, creating a possible conflict with the new guidance.
NSJ asked Cooper during the Q&A whether there has been any clear data that children in schools are a significant cause of community spread of COVID.
“I think the Delta variant has shown a pickup there, but I’m going to let Dr. Cohen address that,” Cooper answered.
“What we have seen is that when we use our safety protocols that we’ve been using, and we’ve had a number of researchers that have published their studies, that when we use those safety protocols, our schools are very low transmission spaces,” Cohen said in response. “I will say, as the governor alluded to, we’re now in this new moment. Delta is more contagious, not just for adults, but for children as well. We’re seeing more cases in our kids than we had before. So we want to make sure that folks are following those protocols in order to keep those viral levels low to make sure the kids can stay in the classroom.”
During the press conference, Cohen went through slides showing increases in both infection rates and hospitalizations, but there was no data presented on whether mortality was up or down as the delta variant continues to spread.
Asked by NSJ if the Delta variant, despite being more highly transmissible, is less deadly than the original COVID-19 virus, Cohen seemed to suggest it was, or at least that mortality for COVID, in general, was dropping.
“Do I think it is more dangerous? I don’t think we know that for sure. But because of the high rate of contagiousness, we’re going to have so many more cases, so I think we’re going to see more hospitalizations and more death,” Cohen said. “But I don’t know that in and of itself it is more deadly. But I would say that one of the other reasons that we all need to get vaccinated is that I don’t want this virus to change again. I think a combo that is very contagious and very deadly, that’s the worst combination. Right now, we know we have more contagious.”
Cohen went on to say that better treatments, including monoclonal antibodies, are a major reason “we’re in a very different place in terms of mortality.”
“We’ve also learned a lot about how to treat folks who do have severe COVID, new protocols, how to treat them, to prone them — meaning to put them on their belly — and how to use oxygen in different ways,” Cohen said. “I think we’ve gotten a lot smarter, and our doctors have done a great job. So I think overall we’ve seen the mortality rate, meaning the number of people dying from COVID, going down over time. But, unfortunately, you see every day our death numbers do go up, so this is still a deadly disease. This is why we’re taking the steps we are today.”
Republicans have pushed back against what they see as inconsistency and fear about a disease with dropping death numbers, even if the Delta variant is more transmissible.
“Fewer North Carolinians died from COVID during the entire month of July than on a single given day in January. That’s because vaccines work, and most of the people at highest risk of death got the vaccine,” Berger said in his July 29 release. “That’s cause for relief. But all we’re getting from public health authorities are shifting rules and perpetual panic.”
According to Cooper’s announcement, 9.8 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have now been administered in North Carolina, with 61% of adults receiving at least one dose and 86% of those 65 and over.