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Despite rising COVID cases, cities and counties continue to hold off on mask mandates

Published: Dec. 30, 2021 at 3:11 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - In the past two weeks New Hanover County has seen more than 1,000 new cases of COVID 19 and at the state level, the Department of Health and Human Services saw more than 9,000 positive cases in just one day this week. These numbers are leaving many people wondering why elected leaders in the area have not issued any sort of mask mandates, despite having the ability to do so.

Across the state, cities like Raleigh, Charlotte and counties like Buncombe County in Western N.C. have all left the decision up to Mayors and other elected leaders, but in New Hanover County, the Health Board took over making these decisions for municipalities and unincorporated areas of the county in August.

By implementing a health rule, the Health Board required masks for everyone, not just the jurisdiction of the elected leaders. By allowing the Health Board to make the decision, elected leaders are no longer responsible for the mandates, this can be seen as both a good and a bad thing.

“The Health and Human Services Board is a group of apolitical experts in their fields of medicine, health, and social services. It is our expectation that they will thoroughly and methodically analyze the data and understand where we are as a community as it relates to the virus,” New Hanover County Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman said.

Still, others have criticized the method as a way to remove responsibility from elected leaders. Regardless, the New Hanover County Health Board will consider implementing another health rule on January 18, 2022, to require masks once again, but that is still weeks away and the virus is currently surging.

Dr. Paul Kamitsuka, an infectious disease expert with Wilmington Health, says waiting almost three more weeks is too late.

“There should be a mandate in place right now. People are just not appreciative of just how contagious the Omicron variant, which is the variant that we are dealing with in this area, is. Omicron is as contagious as measles. And with measles for example, if I have measles right now and I leave the room, the air in this room is contagious for the next two hours,” he said.

Elected leaders across the county responded to questions about why they have given the responsibility to the Health Board instead of making those decisions themselves — for most of them, it comes down to unity.

“For the Commissioners to issue a mask mandate for the entire county, it would require the consent of the mayors of all municipalities within our county. Otherwise, the Commissioners’ order would just apply to the unincorporated areas of the county and that would not be effective,” Olson-Boseman said.

It was a similar response from Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.

“We felt, collectively, as a collective body of elected leaders here in New Hanover County that we should try, as much as we could, to speak with one voice,” he said.

In Carolina Beach, Mayor Lynn Barbee said, “I have spoken with the town manager and we are watching the situation closely. We generally follow the county on public health issues and we will review any decision they make on masking. In the meantime, the town is following the CDC guidelines.”

COVID-19 fatigue is becoming more common as there seems to be no end in sight for this virus, and for Olson-Boseman, it needs to be treated as such.

“From my perspective, it’s important that we begin viewing this virus as endemic — it is not going anywhere and we will have highs and lows — so we must be measured in how we approach new mandates, and focus on getting people vaccinated and maintaining the virus with the goal of keeping people out of the hospital and from becoming severely ill. People need to be smart in their choices, wear masks and not go out if they aren’t feeling well. We have to show good judgment as individuals,” she said.

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