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NC Officials To Let Mask Mandate Expire Amid Rising Cases; New Vaccine Mandate For Some State Employ

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, speaks during a May 26 briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C.
Ethan Hyman
Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, speaks during a May 26 briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic at the Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C.

State officials delivered a COVID-19 briefing with a marked shift in tone Thursday afternoon. Governor Roy Cooper and State Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen expressed frustration with the steep rise in new cases and hospitalizations in the state as vaccines, they say, are now widely available to North Carolinians.

"Unvaccinated people are driving this resurgence and getting themselves and other people sick," Cooper said.

Cohen said that nearly all people currently hospitalized with COVID in the state are not vaccinated or not "fully vaccinated" — meaning they have not yet completed the recommended number of doses associated with their vaccine. She highlighted that vaccines are now plentiful across the state.

Cohen reiterated that individuals who are not vaccinated should continue to wear a mask in all indoor public settings. Officials stopped short of issuing another broad statewide mask mandate, and Cooper said he would not be extending a mask mandate set to end Friday that applies to schools, public transit, and healthcare settings.

Cooper encouraged vaccinated residents to encourage others in their communities to seek out the vaccine.

"Many vaccinated people are frustrated and mad," said Cooper. "Channel that frustration toward pushing your unvaccinated family and friends to do the right thing and get the shot."

In the afternoon briefing, Cooper announced a new executive order that obligates state government cabinet agencies to verify whether their employees are vaccinated. In those agencies, employees who are unvaccinated will be tested at least once a week and required to wear a mask, Cooper said. State government cabinet agency employees represent approximately 50,000 workers under the purview of the governor.

Cooper said he strongly urges other state government agencies and private businesses in NC to mandate vaccines or mandate weekly COVID tests for unvaccinated employees.

Following updated masking guidance issued this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cohen said the state is now recommending that K-12 schools require masks for all students and teachers. That is a policy shift from last week when the state recommended masks for students and staff in grades K-8 only — with masks recommended for unvaccinated grades 9-12 students and staff.

As of Thursday, North Carolina has seen 1,044,877 total COVID-19 cases, with 3,268 new cases reported since Wednesday, the most in a single day since February. More than 1,000 people are hospitalized with COVID, with a steep increase during the past two weeks. The number of people in North Carolina hospitals with COVID-19 is rising faster than at any point in the pandemic.

WUNC's Amy Jeffries contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Laura Pellicer is a producer with The State of Things (hyperlink), a show that explores North Carolina through conversation. Laura was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, a city she considers arrestingly beautiful, if not a little dysfunctional. She worked as a researcher for CBC Montreal and also contributed to their programming as an investigative journalist, social media reporter, and special projects planner. Her work has been nominated for two Canadian RTDNA Awards. Laura loves looking into how cities work, pursuing stories about indigenous rights, and finding fresh voices to share with listeners. Laura is enamored with her new home in North Carolina—notably the lush forests, and the waves where she plans on moonlighting as a mediocre surfer.