New Hanover County will join the list of municipalities in the state going back to an indoor mask mandate.
The county health board on Tuesday voted unanimously to move forward with a proposed health rule mandating face coverings inside. The rule does not go into effect for at least 10 days to allow for public notice and comment, but an abatement order moves up the masking requirement to 5 p.m. this Friday, according to a news release
from the county.
Under the order, the county will require anyone 2 years old and older to wear masks while in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status. It includes “offices and workplaces, business establishments (including private clubs), public transportation facilities and vehicles, and any place the public is invited or allowed to assemble,” the order states.
The policy has New Hanover County joining other areas including Cary, Winston-Salem and Charlotte that have implemented indoor mask mandates in recent days. Officials in other North Carolina cities have said they are encouraging masking but stopping short of making it mandatory.
Earlier this month, New Hanover County had reinstated face coverings for people inside county-owned buildings.
Brunswick and Pender counties have not issued any rule changes for public spaces as of Tuesday.
Pender County is continuing to follow the state’s lead, which currently calls for only unvaccinated state employees to wear masks inside.
“We continue to practice social distancing, frequent handwashing and using hand sanitizer,” county spokeswoman Tammy Proctor said.
Brunwick County does not currently have a mandatory mask requirement for county buildings and facilities unless they are a clinical setting, said county spokeswoman Meagan Kascsak.
"The CDC does encourage individuals wear face coverings in indoor settings where there is significant spread regardless of vaccination status," she said in an email. "The County encourages all its employees to get vaccinated if they have not done so already and any county employees that have not been fully vaccinated should continue to wear a mask."
Last summer, a statewide indoors mask mandate went into effect in June. The general mandate was lifted this May along with the easing of some other COVID-19 restrictions as the spread of new cases dropped. The arrival of a new strain of the virus throughout the U.S., however, has changed the numbers.
The return of indoor masking mandates for some areas comes as the delta variant ushers in a new wave of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state.
In June, there were 217 COVID-19 cases reported in New Hanover County, according to county officials. In July, that increased to 705 cases. "And in the first 17 days of August, there have been 1,152 new cases reported in the county. And the county’s 14-day percent positivity rate is 10.1 percent, which is an increase from 1.5 percent in mid-July," Tuesday's news release stated.
“We are on track to have almost ten times the number of cases this month as we did just two months ago,” David Howard, New Hanover County's public health director, said in he release. "And even more troubling is the number of people who are hospitalized with COVID-19. The cases are overwhelming our health system – with our hospital surpassing record numbers of COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began, their staff once again is stretched to their limits. The rapid rise in hospitalizations must be slowed."
Statewide, nearly 3,800 COVID-19 cases were reported Monday, and more than 2,600 people are currently hospitalized, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services
Last week, Novant Health officials reported that New Hanover Regional Medical Center and Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center were both seeing an influx
of COVID-19 patients in levels similar to or exceeding the uptick during this winter before vaccines for the virus were widely available.
Most – about 90% – of those hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, said West Paul, senior vice president and chief clinical officer for Novant Health Coastal market. About 47% of New Hanover County residents are not fully vaccinated.
As of Friday, NHRMC’s average daily number
of hospitalized COVID-19 patients was at 71 – more than double from a month ago as numbers climb because of the delta variant, which has been found to spread more easily than the original strain.
Researchers are still looking
at how likely it is for the delta variant to spread among vaccinated people. One recent study
– which has not yet been peer-reviewed – showed that while the mRNA vaccines were effective in preventing severe infections, the viral loads, or the amount of virus detected from nasal swabs, were high for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Those with higher viral loads are seen to be more likely to transmit the virus to others. The study, however, showed that those elevated viral loads dropped off quicker for those who were vaccinated.
Public comments about New Hanover County Health and Human Services board's proposed health rule can be submitted here
through noon Aug. 30.
Here are exemptions to the county's order for indoor face coverings, according to Tuesday's announcement:
• Anyone with a medical or behavioral condition or disability, including difficulty breathing;
• Children under 2 years old.
• Children under 5 years old, if a parent, guardian or responsible person has been unable to place and maintain a face covering safely on the child’s face;
• Anyone who is actively eating or drinking;
• Anyone who is seeking to communicate with someone who is hearing impaired in a way that requires the mouth to be visible;
• Anyone giving a speech or performance for a broadcast, or to an audience, where they maintain a distance of at least 20 feet from the audience;
• Anyone at home or in a personal vehicle;
• Anyone who must temporarily removing their face covering for identification purposes to secure government or medical services;
• Anyone who would be at risk from wearing a face covering at work, as determined by local, state or federal regulations or workplace safety guidelines or who has found that their face covering is impeding visibility to operate equipment or a vehicle;
• Anyone alone in an enclosed space, such as a room, office or vehicle;
• Anyone participating in worship, religious, spiritual gatherings, funeral ceremonies, wedding ceremonies and other activities constituting the exercise of First Amendment rights.