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Rowan County among communities where CDC recommends masks indoors

By Josh Bergeron and Carl Blankenship

news@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Labeled as an area with high transmission of COVID-19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rowan County this week found itself among communities where masks are now recommended indoors, including in schools, even for fully vaccinated people.

The CDC on Tuesday recommended people in communities with substantial or high levels of COVID-19 spread wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status. The guidance applies to a majority of counties in North Carolina and contrasts with a decision this month by the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education to make masks optional.

While an overwhelming majority of new cases in North Carolina and nationally are occurring in unvaccinated people, breakthrough infections in people who have received COVID-19 shots are possible, CDC officials said during Tuesday’s announcement. Previous variants of COVID-19 produced a lower level of virus in vaccinated people, but a study conducted by the CDC found “indistinguishable” levels of virus in vaccinated and unvaccinated people infected with the Delta variant. The study’s results were concerning enough that the agency shifted back to mask-wearing guidance eased in the spring, the Associated Press reported.

Rowan County is one of about 40 in the state in the “high” category because it has more than double the threshold of 100 cases per 100,000 residents and a test positivity higher than 10% in the previous seven days.

Federal guidance and whether state leaders follow suit could prompt a tough decision for Rowan-Salisbury Schools leaders — to hold fast to a vote that made masks optional or to change course. State data for Rowan County updated Wednesday showed 218 cases per 100,000 residents in the previous two weeks and 10.3% of tests coming back positive. Both numbers continue to climb.

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education on July 13 voted to make masks optional for the 2021-2022 school year, with board member Travis Allen, who proposed the idea, saying he wanted to be an example for the rest of the school boards in the state. The state also updated its guidance last week to say school districts “should” require certain precautions, which gave RSS the ability to stick with its vote.

Board of Education Chairman Kevin Jones on Wednesday told the Post the board will evaluate the best options for the district and that he’s not concerned about people being upset if RSS changes course because there have been many changes throughout the pandemic.

“For the past year and a half, there haven’t been many decisions we’ve made that haven’t had some people not happy with them,” Jones said.

Jones said people from the top down understood the need for masks at the beginning of last school year, but as the year wore on and the pandemic started waning it became more difficult to enforce.

“It’s not ideal for our students to wear masks, but it’s something we’ll continue to look at and see what’s the best option possible,” Jones said.

Gov. Roy Cooper plans to hold a briefing about coronavirus Thursday, when he could recommend changes to the state’s COVID-19 rules. His most recent COVID-19 executive order doesn’t require face coverings in most settings, lifts all capacity restrictions and eliminates social distancing requirements. It expires Friday.

In a statement provided to the Post, a spokesperson for Gov. Roy Cooper said the fact that the Delta variant is spreading almost entirely among unvaccinated people is concerning.

“The COVID-19 vaccines remain safe and effective in combatting this virus, and they are the best weapon we have to fight the Delta variant or other strains,” the governor’s office said in its statement. “Most all of the people getting sick and dying now are unvaccinated and that is why the governor is pulling out all the stops to get as many people as possible to get their shots. The governor and state health officials will review changes to CDC guidance and he strongly encourages schools and businesses to enact important safety precautions and unvaccinated people to wear masks until they get their shots.”

In other COVID-19 statistics:

• The percent of people in the county 12 and older with at least one dose of a vaccination is 41.9%. For both doses, the number is 36.2%.

• All of Rowan County’s neighboring counties also find themselves in a classification where masks are recommended indoors. Davidson and Cabarrus counties are also in the “high” classification.

• The number of deaths reported in Rowan County by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday remained 315.

• COVID-19 hospitalizations in Rowan County’s region, the Triad Healthcare Preparedness Coalition, increased again on Wednesday — from 193 to 200.

• The state considers three congregate living outbreaks active in Rowan County — Big Elm Retirement and Nursing Centers, Compass Healthcare and Rehab Rowan as well as the Rowan County Jail.

• NCDHHS on Wednesday reported 2,663 cases and 10.8% of tests coming back positive across the state.

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