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'We're facing our first challenge' | Top NC health official thinks, after schools, these businesses and venues could reopen next

NCDHHS Sec. Mandy Cohen discusses expectations for the school year, new health challenges coming in the fall, and when normalcy might come.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the new school year gets underway, North Carolina's top health official thinks the next couple of weeks will be critical to how the state proceeds with reopening.

"I think we can make progress, but it's gonna take constant work from all of us," said North Carolina Dept. of Health and Human Services Sec. Mandy Cohen.

Cohen sat down virtually with WCNC Charlotte, one-on-one, to discuss the state's coronavirus numbers, expectations for the school year, and when North Carolinians might expect to achieve relative normalcy once again.

As students and teachers in several districts across the state went back to class Monday, the school year's start was already plagued with virus cases.

RELATED: UNC-Chapel Hill suspending in-person undergraduate instruction following COVID-19 clusters

"We're monitoring things closely," Cohen said, pointing to the state's back-to-school guidelines issued earlier this summer. "If folks are going back in person, we wanted them to have the maximum number of safety protocols in place, which means masks for everyone, social distancing in place for everyone, cleaning protocols, screening protocols. All of those are meant to layer on top of each other to add additional layers of precaution."

Fortunately, she said, the state is entering this next chapter with declining numbers, a trend Cohen largely attributes to the state's mask mandate. 

RELATED: Coronavirus under control in 8 weeks if everyone wears masks, CDC director says

Monday, North Carolina marked its lowest one-day case jump since late May. Its average positive test rate over the last two weeks is around 6.6%, which is more than two-and-a-half percentage points lower than its peak last month.

Sunday and Monday, coronavirus hospitalizations were under 1,000, a first since early last month.

If the declines continue, Cohen said it is likely that further reopening can continue with places like gyms, museums, and outdoor playgrounds — with some restrictions in place.

Other venues might be more difficult to reenter without much more stabilization, she said.

"Things like bars... and some of our large venues that bring thousands of thousands of people together," Cohen said. "Those are going to be hard things to open while we have COVID."

Cohen said officials delayed Phase 2's expiration for a longer period of time than previous extensions — five weeks — specifically, to see how school reopenings impact the state's virus numbers.

RELATED: Gov. Cooper: North Carolina to stay in Phase 2 for additional 5 weeks

However, COVID-19 numbers are not the only ones health officials will watch this fall. Cohen said they will closely monitor how flu season interacts with the pandemic.

"I think you're going to start to hear me and others talk a lot about the importance of getting our flu vaccines as we head into the fall to make sure we don't have both flu and COVID attacking our population at the same time," said Cohen.

Colder weather might also impact behaviors that, in turn, affect virus transmission.

"I think we're facing our first challenge with school reopening, universities reopening, but as we get into the cooler time period, I think we will have new challenges as we do more activities inside," Cohen said.

Health officials have previously said that indoor activities are considered riskier for viral spread than outdoor ones.

Cohen said a large part of moving along in reopening comes down to safe practices, what she refers to as the "3 W's," the state's campaign to get North Carolinians to wear face coverings, wait six feet apart, and wash their hands frequently. Getting everyone to take on these practices has been one of Cohen's greatest frustrations of the pandemic. 

"What's frustrating is we know what works, and we can get back to almost all the things that we love doing, if we all do these activities together, but it does take collective action," Cohen said. "We all have to buy into it together. We all have to be role models to each other. Unfortunately, we've had some fits and starts with that."

As for when life could get mostly back to normal, Cohen thinks that will largely be tied to the development of coronavirus vaccines, possibly early to middle of next year.

"I do think it's going to be several vaccines over a period of time. Some will work better than others," said Cohen. "So, I think it'll be layers of actions. Our testing will improve, our compliance with the 3 W's continues to improve. Then, you add the vaccine on top of it. That will allow us to live with this virus the way we live with the flu."

"I can promise this will end," Cohen said. "We will defeat this."

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