RALEIGH, N.C. — The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday major changes to COVID-19 safety measures inside North Carolina schools, updating the Strong Schools Toolkit on Thursday. This comes as COVID-19 metrics continue to drop.
The state is no longer recommending the contact tracing of individual cases. State leaders said it is less important to perform this now that omicron has produced widespread transmission. They also cite a large number of asymptomatic cases and access to at-home tests as additional reasons to discontinue contact tracing for individual cases.
Students or staff exposed to COVID-19 no longer need to stay home before returning to school as long as they don’t have symptoms. These asymptomatic cases previously had to quarantine at home for days after possible exposure.
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The state also changed its definition of what being “up to date” on COVID-19 vaccines means. The new definition includes booster shots.
To be fully vaccinated, in the eyes of this update NCDHHS guidance for schools, someone would have had to receive three shots of the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA coronavirus vaccines - or two shots of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
Earlier in the day, Governor Roy Cooper hinted at changes to the mask policy.
“We’re going to have the department of health and human services, a little later, be issuing an updated school toolkit to talk about that. And so, I’m pleased and hopeful that we can get back to normal lives with the understanding that we’re all going to need to do things to make sure that we protect ourselves, dependent upon the risk,” Cooper said.
But, there were no changes in the toolkit on masking. The recommendation is to continues to follow CDC guidance, which suggests masking in schools in communities where the percent positivity rate is over 8%.
On Thursday, North Carolina Speaker of the House Tim Moore sent a letter to Cooper, asking him to end policies that would have students mask up in the classroom. And while it seems it still could be considered, doctors warn against moving too quickly.
“School settings are still higher risk because of low vaccination as well as fairly crowded conditions,” Dr. Charles Bregier with Novant Health says he doesn’t have a clear number in mind for when it is a good time to pull back mandates.
The CDC recommends masking in areas with high community spread. Right now, that’s 98% of the country, including the Carolinas and Mecklenburg County.
The latest data shows 18.5% of tests in the Charlotte area are coming back positive. Still, Mecklenburg County Health Director Dr. Raynard Washington said he could get rid of the mask mandate next week. That would open the door for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools to do the same.
“Certainly, places that keep a positivity rate in the 20s should consider mandatory masking in my opinion,” Bregier said. “I think when we get a positivity rate that’s down below 10%, we’re in a much better place than we are right now.”
In an interview with WCNC Charlotte, Dr. Cameron Webb with the White House COVID-19 Task Force said the federal government views the CDC guidance as it’s “north star,” and that for now, masking is still appropriate in schools.