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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

After debate over metrics, New Hanover health board votes 8-4 to drop mask mandate effective immediately

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Effective immediately, as of 10 a.m. on Friday, November 12, New Hanover County's mask mandate has been lifted by the Health and Human Services Board.

Some board members initially proposed extending the mandate into January. A substitute motion, made by board member and county commissioner Julia Olson-Boseman, ended the mandate — but provided for continuing monitoring of key metrics.

The New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board initially approved the mandate in August, following an emergency abatement put in place by Health Director David Howard. And, as with the board's August meeting, many residents showed up to condemn the mask requirement — some made sweeping allegations about the pandemic, vaccines, and government overreach, while others had more focused concerns about how the health board was evaluating the effectiveness of the masking.

According to the county, the original mandate was aimed at hitting several goals: a positivity rate (the percentage of Covid tests that come back positive) under 5%, a rolling average of under 100 new cases daily, and in general decreased hospitalization rates at New Hanover Regional Medical Center (which serves New Hanover and six other counties).

The most recent metrics are very favorable, according to data presented by Howard to the board. The positivity rate is currently 2.7% (still trending down from mid-October), the rolling average is 15 (down from 32 several weeks ago), and hospitalizations were down to under 10.

Despite the generally positive outlook, some board members expressed concerns about another wave of cases in the future — either from a future variant or from the onset of colder weather (which is already driving a slight increase in some northern cities and in Europe), which often sees more people congregating inside. Other board members, including Dr. Virginia Adams, expressed concern about staffing, especially nurses, at NRHMC — noting that the hospital is currently relying on traveling nurses, as many as 150 at present, which may be unsustainable.

After some debate about which metrics would be used, Olson-Boseman pushed for a motion to end the mask mandate immediately. Olson-Boseman noted, as did some other members, that the public had been given a sense of what numbers the county wanted to see — and those goals had been hit.

"We told the public to do the right thing, and they've done it," she said.

She also noted that the availability of vaccines for children also made her more comfortable.

The motion to end the mask mandate immediately passed 8-4. The motion also commits to continued monitoring of the metrics initially used to evaluate the mandate, as well as hospital capacity — and the board noted it may reconsider the mandate in the future if those numbers trend in the wrong direction.

Below: Watch the Nov. 12 mask mandate discussion and public comments during the Health and Human Services Board.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.