Cooper urges NC businesses to make workers get vaccinated or mask up

CHARLOTTE — In a Thursday afternoon news conference, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper recommended -- but did not mandate -- masks for people who are vaccinated and are in areas of high and substantial community spread.

Cooper said the state will be focusing its efforts in the fight against COVID-19 on getting more people vaccinated. According to state health officials, 80% of North Carolina counties have a high rate of COVID-19 spread.

“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,” Cooper said.

The announcement came one day before the state’s mask mandate was set to expire.

A lot has happened since the governor said he wouldn’t extend that mask mandate last week. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course and now recommends that everyone, including fully vaccinated people, wear masks indoors in areas where transmission is high.

The CDC also urged Americans to wear masks in school, regardless of vaccination status.

In accordance with the CDC, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is now recommending all students in K-12 schools wear a mask. A previous guidance said K-8 students should wear a mask along with unvaccinated 9-12 students.

NCDHHS updated its guidance, encouraging private sector businesses to, at a minimum, verify vaccination status for their workers.

The recommendations include requiring workers to either verify that they are fully vaccinated or wear face masks and be tested on a weekly basis. These measures also include recommending face coverings for fully vaccinated workers and guests indoors when other people are present.

Cooper also announced an executive order Thursday that directs state government cabinet agencies to verify whether their employees are vaccinated. According to the order, unvaccinated employees will be tested at least once a week and required to wear a mask.

According to Cooper, this executive order impacts about 50,000 state employees.

>> Click here for answers to frequently asked questions about the new executive order.

Channel 9 has already reported that some businesses have put mask mandates back in place.

This all comes two months after the CDC eased mask-wearing restrictions for those who are fully vaccinated.

The CDC defines places with high COVID-19 transmission rates as those where 50 to 100 new cases have been reported per 100,000 people in a seven-day period. Places with substantial transmission rates are reporting more than 100 cases in the same period of time.

The state confirmed more than 3,300 new cases on Thursday, with a positivity rate at 9.3%. That’s the first time daily cases have topped 3,000 since late February.

“There is only one way out of this pandemic and that is vaccination. Our trends are accelerating at an alarmingly fast rate and the highest rates of viral spread are happening in areas with low vaccination rates and among those who are not fully vaccinated,” said NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen. “If you are already vaccinated, I call on you to urge your unvaccinated family and friends to get their shot now. It is not an understatement to say that you will save lives by doing so.”

‘I hate that so many people have not been vaccinated’

Dr. Katie Passaretti with Atrium Health said it’s her belief that Mecklenburg County is currently an area experiencing high or substantial spread, which means based on CDC recommendations, all vaccinated people in the county should be wearing masks in public indoor settings.

Passaretti blames the new guidance on the contagious delta variant and the unvaccinated.

“If we had done an amazing job of vaccinating our community and had higher vaccination rates in the country, I think we would be in a different place and these recommendations would be different,” Passaretti said.

Christina Skiouris, who runs Open Kitchen in Wesley Heights, shares Passaretti’s sentiments.

“I hate it,” she said. “I hate that so many people have not been vaccinated.”

Skiouris said she has followed all of the guidance from the CDC and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. She told Channel 9 that she’s saddened at the current state of COVID in the community and hopes things turn around.

“We just prefer people do the right thing,” Skiouris said. “Get vaccinated and wear the mask until we have it under control.”

North Carolina’s mask mandate ends on Friday.

”This virus is still here and, if you’re unvaccinated, still deadly,” Cooper tweeted on Tuesday. “Talking to our friends and family about getting a shot is the best way to stop the spread.”

”This moment now is different than the last time we experienced rising trends,” Dr. Cohen said Tuesday in a statement. “Now vaccines are widely available across the state and 60 percent of North Carolina adults have received at least one dose of vaccine. 94 percent of the cases and hospitalizations we have now are in people who are not vaccinated. The Delta variant is not formidable. Vaccines are the best way to protect your health.”

North Carolina reverses course, urges masks in all schools

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday decided to reverse course from guidance he issued last week and will now urge all K-12 public school students and staff to be masked, even if they have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

The Democratic governor and the state’s top public health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, pinned much blame on unvaccinated people and renewed calls for them to get the shot.

“Our trends have turned sharply in the wrong direction,” Cooper said at a news conference. “Unvaccinated people are driving this resurgence and getting themselves and other people sick.”

But at a time when nearly all available metrics show spread of the virus at its worst levels in months, Cooper said he’ll let the statewide mask mandate expire on Friday.

In the two weeks prior to Cooper’s announcement last week that he’d let the statewide mask mandate expire and ease masking requirements for high school students starting July 30, cases had already more than tripled and hospitalizations had gone up over 69% — a move that frustrated the state’s largest lobbying group for teachers. It also confused some Democratic lawmakers and prompted several school districts to make masks optional for all K-12 students.

“I can’t get into the governor’s mind on why he felt that way,” state Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat representing Hoke and Scotland counties, said in an interview following Cooper’s decision to ease restrictions. “I will be honest about it. I’m just a little concerned with that because it’s kind of hard to tell people to take the masks off but get the shots. I hope that he can rethink that just a little bit because it will send a mixed message.”

Nineteen school districts have decided to make mask wearing optional for K-12 students, according to an Education NC analysis. Pupils under age 12 are not currently eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

While data has shown minimal transmission within schools, researchers recommend continued mask wearing.

Since Cooper’s announcement, spread of the virus has continued to skyrocket, largely fueled by the more contagious delta variant and those who are not fully vaccinated.

New daily COVID-19 cases surpassed 3,200 on Thursday for the first time since Feb. 25. More than 10% of test results on Sunday came back positive, the worst positivity rate since Feb. 1. Additionally, 1,141 people are currently hospitalized in North Carolina due to the virus — the highest count since April 22.

“Our trends are accelerating at an alarmingly fast rate,” Cohen said, adding that “this is a pandemic now of the unvaccinated.”

North Carolina is not unique.

The surge is happening across the country, which prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reverse course this week by recommending vaccinated people in most counties wear masks in public indoor settings.

The latest CDC data has all but 14 of North Carolina’s 100 counties showing “substantial” or “high” levels of transmission because at least 50 new cases per 100,000 people emerged over the past seven days. This means nearly all of the roughly 5 million fully vaccinated North Carolinians should continue wearing masks when they are indoors and out in the public.

Top North Carolina Republicans worry the abrupt shift in recommendations from state and federal health officials will prompt fewer residents to come in for a vaccine because they’ll still need to wear masks indoors.

“All we’re getting from public health authorities are shifting rules and perpetual panic,” Republican Senate leader Phil Berger’s office said in a news release. “The CDC offers more consistent guidance on consuming raw cookie dough than on masks. That’s a problem and here’s why: If the CDC erodes its credibility on masks, then it risks eroding its credibility on the far more important message of vaccines.”

Still, there were some signs of optimism that more people would come in for a shot, particularly as students prepare to return to school, adults grow increasingly worried about the delta variant and employers compel workers to get vaccinated.

More than 60,000 North Carolinians came in for a first dose of a vaccine last week, which is the highest weekly count since the week of May 24.

While the plans have drawn substantial pushback from top Republican lawmakers concerned about individual rights, 14 state-run health care facilities and several major hospital systems, including WakeMed Health & Hospitals, are compelling workers to get a COVID-19 shot if they want to remain employed.

Cooper announced Thursday that cabinet agency workers will be asked to show proof they were vaccinated. Unvaccinated officials will be required to wear a mask and get tested weekly, he said.

Cooper’s office issued the following statement after the CDC reversed course on mask guidance:

”The more contagious Delta variant that 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. 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.”

Sen. Thom Tillis issued the following statement:

”Since last year, I’ve been telling North Carolinians that vaccines are the most effective tool we have to return to life as normal and the scientific data has shown that to be true, with 94% of North Carolina cases and 97% of all U.S. hospitalizations occurring among the unvaccinated population. I am deeply concerned that the Biden administration’s contradictory decision will cause even more vaccine hesitancy, giving many Americans the false impression that the vaccines are not as effective as they were originally told. The data shows that fully vaccinated Americans are at a very low risk of a breakthrough infection and are at an incredibly low risk of serious complications. The promise of the vaccine was to protect Americans from the worst outcomes and allow them to return to life as normal. Now many local and state governments across the nation are bound to reimplement restrictions and mask mandates, even for Americans who are fully vaccinated. The Biden administration apparently doesn’t trust the science, and they clearly don’t trust the American people to take personal responsibility for their own choices.”

Novant Health sent Channel 9 the following statement:

“We know that masking greatly helps reduce the risk of contracting, and spreading, COVID-19, which is why we continue to require universal masking across Novant Health facilities regardless of an individual’s vaccination status.

When the CDC relaxed its guidelines for vaccinated individuals, community spread was down and the Delta variant was not the dominant strain. We supported their decision then, and we support their decision now with variant cases on the rise.

It’s important to keep in mind that no vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 and the virus can break through. Fortunately, these breakthrough cases are mild, and this is demonstrated by the fact over 90% of our COVID-19 patients today are unvaccinated.

The CDC’s recommendation should send a strong signal to all of our communities that the Delta variant is a real threat and must be taken seriously.

The only way we are going to get out of this pandemic and go back to living our lives without masks is for everyone to get the vaccine. If you don’t get vaccinated for the health and safety of you and your loved ones, get vaccinated for your neighbors and communities. We’re all ready to put the masks away.”

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control sent Channel 9 the following statement:

“Due to the rise in COVID-19 cases and the increasing threat of the Delta variant, the CDC on Tuesday is recommending public indoor masking for everyone, regardless of vaccination status. This includes masking for teachers, students, parents and visitors in K-12 schools. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) is adopting the federal agency’s updated guidance and is recommending all South Carolinians, including those who are fully vaccinated, wear their masks when indoors and in public settings.

According to the CDC, there has been a rise in breakthrough cases – ones where fully vaccinated individuals test positive for COVID-19 – that is likely being fueled due to the rise of the Delta variant. That is why updated guidelines are necessary, according to the agency. The updated CDC recommendations include:

In areas with substantial and high transmission, CDC recommends that everyone (including fully vaccinated individuals) wear a mask in public indoor settings to help prevent spread of Delta and protect others.

CDC recommends that community leaders encourage vaccination and masking to prevent further outbreaks in areas of substantial and high transmission.

CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place. In accordance with the previous CDC order, students are required to wear masks on school buses.

DHEC recommends all South Carolinians follow the same protocols. To be clear, this is not a mandate. State law prohibits the implementation of mask mandates in schools. However, DHEC strongly encourages individuals to protect themselves and others by wearing masks.

”Today’s change in guidance from the CDC reflects the very concerning trends we are seeing nationally and here in South Carolina regarding increasing case rates and a stagnant vaccination rate,” said Dr. Brannon Traxler, DHEC Public Health Director. “As a virus spreads, it mutates into more contagious forms, which explains the rise of the Delta variant. We were hoping to reach herd immunity to stifle the spread of COVID-19 to prevent this scenario, but public health urgency now makes it necessary to return to recommending universal masking in public indoor settings.”

Despite these changes in guidance, one thing remains clear: vaccinations are still the number one way to end this pandemic. Recent statewide data shows that, in the month of June, more than 90 percent of COVID-19 cases and deaths, and 86 percent of hospitalizations, were among individuals who were not fully vaccinated.

”This data shows that even with the threat of variants, vaccinations are working,” Traxler added. “If we increase our masking and our vaccinations, we can protect ourselves and fellow South Carolinians, and finally defeat COVID-19.”

DHEC is finalizing its K-12 guidance for the 2021-2022 academic year and will provide that guidance this week.

Vaccinations are available for ages 12 and up at many locations across the state. Visit DHEC’s information page for more information on the vaccines, and the locator page to schedule a vaccine appointment.”

(WATCH: How to know if you have the delta COVID-19 variant)