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With cases on the rise, CDC recommends masks for fully vaccinated people

With coronavirus cases continuing to spread across the country, the CDC announced this week that even fully vaccinated people should begin wearing masks in public areas again, especially in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates.

According to the CDC’s COVID-19 tracker, Stanly County is colored orange, signifying “substantial” transmission of the virus. Several nearby counties, including Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Rowan and Union, are red, signifying “high” transmission.

CDC officials also called for universal masking in K-12 schools including for teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status and community transmission of the virus.

“This is not a decision we at CDC have made lightly,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. “This weighs heavily on me.”

The new guidelines come as cases continue to rise in Stanly. The county reported 72 new cases last week, a 106 percent increase from the week prior, when there were only 35 new cases, according to Stanly County Health Department data. Through Tuesday, there have been 48 new cases with 10 people hospitalized.

Stanly’s COVID-19 positivity rate has continued to increase and is now around 10 percent, slightly below the state’s positive rate of almost 11 percent. Less than a month ago in late June, the rate was around two percent.

State health officials reported 2,633 new cases Wednesday, more than 1,000 more than the previous day and the highest number in months.

“We’re definitely in the accelerated phase of this virus in this fourth wave that we’re looking at,” Stanly County Health Department Director David Jenkins said, noting that he heard cases are doubling in North Carolina each week.

Even though vaccinated people are protected from getting seriously sick and dying from the new Delta variant, there have been more reports of them getting infected, though it is still rare. The health department is aware of at least 15 cases of these so-called breakthrough infections.

“It’s possible that we could somehow pick it up even though we’ve been vaccinated and carry it home to some of our unvaccinated loved ones, especially those 12 and under,” said Jenkins.

The influx of new cases comes as Stanly’s vaccination rate remains stagnant. A little less than a third of the roughly 63,000 county residents are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the state, according to the latest state public health data. Across North Carolina, 47 percent of residents are fully vaccinated.

Officials with the health department said they have noticed a recent spike in call volume for people making appointments and for the first time in a while, the department had to request additional vaccines from the state.

With the new CDC guidance, school systems across the state are deciding whether to require masks for the upcoming school year. Several local school boards, including Cabarrus and Union, voted to make masks optional, while others, like Anson, went the other direction and required mask wearing for all students and staff. Stanly County Board of Education will possibly make a decision during its meeting Tuesday.

“I look at masks as another tool in the tool box to protect ourselves,” Jenkins said.

He noted that any mask wearing discussions should take into account the changing environment that now exists.

“We’re not dealing with the same virus that we were dealing with six months ago,” he said. “This is a new virus and it’s a lot more contagious and a lot more concerning.”

Jenkins is also worried about the virus’ impact on young kids, especially those who cannot yet get vaccinated, noting that there’s been a recent uptick in pediatric cases. Though he doesn’t know the specific number, Jenkins is aware of at least 10 new pediatric cases in the county.

Of young people age 12 to 17 eligible to get vaccinated, few in Stanly have taken advantage of the opportunity, according to state data. Only 10 percent of the population have been vaccinated so far, well below the statewide rate of 26 percent.

Based on current metrics, Jenkins suggests it may be “a little ill-advised” for students and staff to be going into the new school year unmasked.

While Jenkins understands that people are tired of wearing masks, “if it means protecting myself and everyone else around me, then I’ll do what I have to.”

“There’s a lot of unknowns out there and concerns,” Jenkins continued, “…but at the end of the day, we’ve got to do what we can and use those tools to protect our children, colleagues and friends.”

In North Carolina, 50 percent of residents are at least partially vaccinated, including 86 percent of people age 65 and older, according to state data.

In Stanly, 35 percent of county residents are at least partially vaccinated as of Wednesday, state numbers show.

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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