Mecklenburg County’s positivity rate hit 4.99% this week, the first time that number dropped below 5% since the summer. That number is the percent of positive COVID-19 tests in the county.
Coronavirus case numbers jumped across the state in August, fueled by the more contagious delta variant. The state’s most populous counties, including Mecklenburg, instituted their own indoor face mask mandates. Most school systems in the state require masks for students and staff.
But if Mecklenburg County can keep its positivity rate below 5% for a full week, it will drop its indoor mask mandate. Everywhere except in public schools and mass transit, that is. County commissioners last week changed their emergency health order to say that the indoor face mask rules will expire after the county’s positivity rate drops below 5% for seven consecutive days.
On the other side of the state, New Hanover County is also considering dropping its mask mandate. As of the end of last week, the percent positive in New Hanover County and Wilmington was less than 3%. The county’s public health board has a meeting set for Friday morning to consider dropping the mask mandate.
In Guilford County, the mask mandate will automatically expire when the county’s vaccination rate hits 70% or the percent-positive rate drops below 5% for three consecutive weeks.
Gov. Roy Cooper ended the statewide mask mandate over the summer, leaving it to cities, counties and school districts to decide on their own mask rules. A handful of cities and counties around the state, mostly in North Carolina’s most densely populated areas, instituted their own mask mandates through emergency orders or public health orders.
That percent positive rate is a number public health officials and elected leaders have been watching closely. The higher the number, the more out-of-control the virus is spreading around the community. Lower numbers show the coronavirus situation improving.
Some school districts are also dropping indoor mask mandates. The school board for Caldwell County, just south of Boone, voted to end the mask requirements there this week.
School boards and county commissions across the state have faced protests over mask mandates. The decision has become as much political as scientific. As the school year got started, the Republican-led General Assembly passed a law requiring school boards to review mask policies once a month.
Statewide, the percent positive rate has hovered around or just below 5% for the past couple of weeks, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Updated DHHS guidance for schools says boards of education can consider lifting mask mandates when coronavirus transmission in the county is considered “moderate,” based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As of Wednesday, eight counties meet the standard for “moderate community transmission,” which is based on the number of new cases in each county and the percent positive rate. Those counties include New Hanover, Bladen, Orange and Swain.
The CDC still considers Wake and Mecklenburg counties to have “substantial community transmission” and the Triad still has “high community transmission.”
For the CDC rankings, high is either more than 100 cases a day per 100,000 people or a greater than 10% positivity rate. Substantial spread is 50 to 99 cases per day or 8% to 10% positivity rate. Moderate spread is 10 to 49 cases per day or a positivity rate of 5% to 8%.
Because the CDC takes whichever number gives the higher rating, North Carolina’s more populous counties like Wake and Mecklenburg will have a harder time improving their rankings.
North Carolina DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said she thinks it’s too soon for counties to end local mask mandates.
“What we know from our trends is that we still have a lot of virus here in North Carolina,” she said at a news conference Wednesday.
Cohen said the state as a whole is still in the CDC’s “red zone” with high community spread of the virus. But, she said, “We’re going down, we might be in ‘orange’ soon, which would be good news.”
“I think that our local entities can continue to look at their local trends, look at the state trends, and as we continue to come down, I do think it is right to revisit whether or not mandates are necessary, but we’re not quite there yet,” Cohen said.
Cohen said the state’s focus is on vaccines.
“Vaccines are what is going to put this pandemic in our rear-view mirror,” Cohen said. “It will help us continue our trends in the right direction and allow us to move away from needing to wear masks as much. But we’ve got to do the work on vaccines.