Citing concerns over rising case numbers, Health Board recommends masks for all

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 12, 2021

SALISBURY — The Rowan County Board of Health voted Tuesday night to formally recommend everyone wear masks in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

The Board of Health’s mask recommendation applies even to those who are fully vaccinated. According to the CDC, individuals who are vaccinated but have had a breakthrough case of COVID-19 can still transmit the virus to others. 

“I strongly recommend wearing masks indoors — for all citizens, especially school-aged children — given that Rowan County has a high transmission rate and a large number of active cases at this time,” Health Director Alyssa Harris said in a news release.

The motion to vote on making a formal mask recommendation was brought forward by board chair Dari Caldwell, who said it was a way for the board to show support for the Health Department and, specifically, Harris.

“While we aren’t in the position to create a mask mandate from the Health Department,” Caldwell said, “I do think it would be helpful if we had a statement of recommendation that’s an official statement from the Health Department that basically says we need to wear masks when we are in public places, particularly indoors and so forth.”

The recommendation was passed unanimously and received vocal support from board member and Rowan County commissioner Judy Klusman.

“In light of the inaction of some people, I would say that having a (recommendation) would be very, very helpful,” Klusman said.

The board’s recommendation came on the eve of the first day of school for students in the Rowan-Salisbury School System. While the school board has made masks optional, the district will comply with an order from the Center for Disease Control requiring masks on public transportation, including school buses. Harris attended a school board meeting on Monday night and provided its members with an update on the state of COVID-19 in the county.

During the Board of Health meeting on Tuesday evening, Superintendent Tony Watlington commended Harris for her presentation to the school board.

I couldn’t have been more proud of the report that Mrs. Harris gave to the board of education last night,” Watlington said. “It was factual, it was positive, it was clear. She just laid out the data better than I’ve seen anybody do. Although there were differences of opinions, I think the board landed in the right place with our school buses and I’m so glad we’re going to follow the CDC guidance thanks to Mrs. Harris being there and helping to push that.”

With children going back to school and to a normal, five-day school week, Harris said she will be closely watching the number of cases among school-aged children and other indicators of COVID cases in the school system. Harris said she is anticipating a rise in the number of quarantined teachers as well.

Children under the age of 12 are not currently eligible for the vaccine and only 18% of children 12 to 17 in Rowan County are currently vaccinated, according to the state’s most updated data. The Board of Health is encouraging parents of children who are eligible for the shot to get them vaccinated. The board is also advising schools to help reduce rate of transmission by cleaning surfaces regularly, improving building ventilation, practicing social distancing whenever possible and encouraging good hand hygiene throughout the school day.

Since Harris delivered the COVID update to the school board Monday, the number of total cases in Rowan County over the last two weeks has increased from 879 to 944. Rowan County is considered by the CDC to have a high community transmission rate. That is not unusual, since 96 of the state’s counties have a high transmission rate.

Rowan County’s positivity rate increased slightly to 16.8%. Anything above 5% is concerning, Harris said, and anything above 15% is extremely concerning. The positivity rate is heavily dependent on the number of people being tested for the virus, but Harris said the county is seeing less people getting tested recently.

While Harris is encouraging everyone in Rowan County to wear a mask regardless of their vaccination status, she is particularly worried about those who have been not gotten the shot.

“Where we are concerned is we’re seeing the folks who are unvaccinated get pretty sick when they do get COVID,” Harris said. “That is really what we’re concerned about. Our folks who have been vaccinated are less likely to need hospitalization.”

With 97% of hospitals reporting, there are currently 478 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Triad Healthcare Preparedness Coalition, of which Rowan County is a part. There are 129 adult COVID-9 patients in the ICU in the region, including 71 who have been admitted in the last 24 hours.

The number of deaths related to COVID-19 in the county remained at 322 as of Wednesday. Harris said the Health Department has confirmed that the last person to die with the virus was unvaccinated. The person, she said, had no underlying health conditions besides being a former smoker. 

In other board of health meeting business:

• The Board of Health accepted $60,000 in grant funding from Cardinal Innovations Healthcare. The funding will be used by the county’s Post Overdose Response Team, or PORT, to pay for staff salary, medical supplies and outreach efforts.

• The Board of Health received a presentation from representatives from Queen City Harm Reduction, a Charlotte-based syringe service program that works to combat the opioid epidemic by providing people with sterile syringes and connecting them with resources. The organization has been providing services in Rowan County since the spring through mobile sites.

• The Health Department will be launching a new campaign encouraging the people of Rowan County to exercise regularly.