Buncombe health director: Mask mandate no longer recommended as COVID-19 cases decline – Citizen Times

Buncombe Public Health Director Stacie Saunders is not recommending an extension of the mask mandate, which is set to end Feb. 16.
In a report Saunders emailed Feb. 14 to County Manager Avril Pinder, Saunders says COVID-19 cases have declined so rapidly in recent weeks that the “must” can now turn into a “strongly recommended.”
“Public health will not be recommending the extension on the requirement given the rapid decline in cases, transmission, and hospitalizations but rather will move to Strongly Recommending the continued use of face coverings in indoor public spaces by all individuals,” Saunders wrote in her email.
“We will also continue to encourage vaccinations with boosters, testing after exposure and staying home when sick.”
Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will discuss whether or not to extend the mandate during its Feb. 15 meeting. 
Omicron like a ‘wildfire’: Buncombe mask mandate extended, ‘really hard’ weeks coming
Masks: Buncombe commissioners approve $50K mask purchase for public buildings, employees
According to weekly metrics released by the Buncombe’s Health and Human Services, cases per 100,000 per week have dropped 523 to 386 between Feb. 7-14.
Saunders noted the per-100,000-per-week drop since Jan. 18 was approximately 67%.
Percent positivity has also steadily decreased from 19.6% to 15.5% in that same time frame. 
Since its local onslaught started in December, omicron caused sharp case increases, spikes in hospitalizations and the highest positivity rates since January of 2021. It was much the same across the nation, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Previous reporting: Omicron should ‘concern us all,’ says Mission medical chief; nurses call for OSHA safety
But the ease in cases is pushing local governments across the nation to reconsider their masking rules.
States ending their mandates in the second week of February included New York and Illinois.
“There are some signals that the next chapter in COVID-19 response is beginning and our response locally should likely evolve,” Saunders said.
The county will continue to encourage vaccinations, trying to push beyond the 70% of the population that has received a primary series of shots. Buncombe has hovered at that number for weeks.
About 56% of the population have received a third booster shot.
Deaths have not decreased like case numbers, Saunders told Pinder.
Of the 21 Buncombe deaths recently added to the North Carolina Health and Human Services dashboard, nine were from Feb. 7-14.
“It is likely that the death rate will fluctuate for several more days or weeks as deaths are the most lagging of all the indicators,” Saunders said. 
Pandemic coverage: WNC COVID-19 hospitalizations double in 3 weeks; most in patients who were unvaccinated
A total 516 Buncombe residents have died from COVID-19 by Feb. 14, according to the NCDHHS dashboard.
Hospitalizations, however, are on the decline.
“We’ve seen a considerable drop in inpatient hospital beds occupied with COVID-19 from last week to this week,” Saunders said. “Last week, this indicator was 13.4% and now is 8.8%.”
There were 104 patients with COVID-19 in the Mission Health network on Feb. 14, Saunder reported.
“Hospitalizations appear to have hit a peak three weeks ago with a total of 196 patients with COVID-19 in the system,” she added.
The discussion on whether or not to end the mask mandate Feb. 16 comes two weeks after the county agreed to spend up to $50,000 on masks for county employees and government buildings open to the public.
Mandate or no, masks continue to be heralded by medical professionals and organizations as “effective” against the spread of COVID-19.
A recent study published on the CDC’s website found the odd of being infected with the virus were lowered by 66% when wearing a standard surgical mask and 83% when wearing a N95 respirator.
Andrew Jones is Buncombe County government and health care reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter, 828-226-6203 or arjones@citizentimes.com. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.