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Cooper stops short of mask mandate, recommends masks for everyone indoors, including K-12 public schools

Cooper issued a new executive order requiring state employees to be vaccinated or be subjected to weekly COVID-19 tests. He recommends private businesses do the same

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper didn't announce a new statewide mask mandate during a Thursday briefing, but he and state health leaders urged citizens to get a COVID-19 vaccine following the CDC's new guidance that recommends even fully vaccinated people wear coverings indoors due to a rise in COVID-19

At the beginning of the briefing, Cooper had a grim message for people who were unvaccinated: "Get a vaccine today." 

Cooper said he was hearing from ICU doctors who had patients on ventilators, begging for the vaccine when it was too late. With the recent spike in cases, Cooper said people who had not gotten a shot contributed to the spread of the virus.

Potential toll on healthcare workers

The pandemic has taken a toll on healthcare workers who have pulled longer shifts, risked their lives, and did it during a statewide nursing shortage. 

"It is absolutely a fatiguing element to see patients in front of you when you know that there was something that that person could have done to avoid that situation. That is hard to face," said Dr. Cameron Wolfe with Duke Health.

"Unvaccinated people are driving this resurgence and getting themselves and other people sick," Cooper said.

North Carolina health officials reported over 3,200 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday. This was the highest single-day case count since late February. Health experts say the majority of these cases are the delta variant, which has a higher viral load and a shorter incubation period compared to the regular strain of the virus. Nearly 1,200 people are hospitalized statewide due to COVID-19 with another big increase Thursday.

This spike in cases is happening faster than past increases and Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary for the state's Department of Health and Human Services, said one person can spread delta to six others.

"This virus doesn’t care about county lines but it does care about low vaccination rates," she said. "That is what we're very much focused on."

Cohen took time to specifically note cases increased by 200% for people ages 50-55, and that the increase in cases was the fastest seen in North Carolina since the start of the pandemic in 2020. The caseload, as Cohen noted, was now above the 5% threshold.

Cohen urged people who were already vaccinated to talk to loved ones about getting the shot, saying, "Vaccination is the only way out". 

Here's a list of vaccination sites throughout Mecklenburg County.

Push continues to increase vaccination rate

Cooper again took the podium and acknowledged that those who already got the shot are frustrated with the recent turn in case numbers. He took a moment to appeal to those vaccinated to step up again and act as messengers.

"Channel that frustration towards pushing your unvaccinated family and friends to do the right thing and get the shot," Cooper said. 

He even went as far as saying not getting vaccinated is irresponsible.

"The evidence is stark and clear. If you don't get vaccinated not only are you going to cause problems for yourself, you will cause problems for other people,"  he said.

Delta is such a "monster," Cooper thinks it will encourage some to go and get vaccinated. It's showing at Carolina Pharmacy. Both vaccination and testing have doubled in the last month or so.

"I was aware that cases were going back up so I just felt like it was kind of a good time to," Zach Vick said after getting vaccinated on Thursday.

Carolina Pharmacy decided to close down the inside of the store again, their parking lot a revolving door for shots and tests.

Testing in such high demand, Jonetta Mosley-Matchett had to try multiple places.

"They were saying they couldn't do the quick tests because of the rapid rise in COVID, it just really floored me," she said. She needs a negative test to be allowed back home to the Cayman Islands.

Travel was the main reason many people were getting tested all summer long but that's quickly changed.

"I would say our testing has doubled in the last month where we're seeing a lot more people coming in with symptoms," Kavel Bhathela, the pharmacy manager said.

North Carolina wants state employees vaccinated

Cooper has issued a new executive order requiring state agencies to report the number of employees who are vaccinated, and that all unvaccinated employees should wear a mask and be tested weekly for the virus. Amid his recommendations for masks and vaccines, this was the only required mandate he issued Thursday.

Cooper recommends masks in public schools

Cooper recommends masks for all students and staff, even those vaccinated, in public K-12 schools wear masks. The recommendation, which stops short of requiring it, aligns with new CDC guidance this week.  

The governor made an appeal to local school boards to look at mask requirements for students and staff. He asked school boards that have only decided to not require masks not school year to reconsider their decisions.

RELATED: Schools in Charlotte-area district make masks adjustments for upcoming school year for students, staff

Other Charlotte regional school districts, including Iredell-Statesville Schools, Union County Public Schools, and Gaston County Schools previously decided to make masks optional.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education is scheduled to discuss masks Friday.

Gibbie Harris, Mecklenburg County's health director, said the health department fully supports the new CDC guidance. Harris said masking up is still important, as about half of the county's population isn't vaccinated.

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Harris urged everyone, vaccinated or not, to wear masks indoors with others but stopped short of issuing a new mandate at this time. 

"We'll continue to try to help people understand why it's important to mask and vaccinate," Harris said. "It's not an either-or, it's a both right now."

Anson County Schools has decided to require masks for the upcoming school year.

State health officials say the highly contagious delta variant, which is sweeping across the country, is responsible for 70% of new COVID-19 cases here. Harris said fully vaccinated people can still have breakthrough cases. Most of those will have milder symptoms, but it's possible to spread the virus to others.

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.  Contact Briana Harper at bharper@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and InstagramContact Hunter Sáenz at hsaenz@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

RELATED: Vaccinated against COVID-19? Here's why you're still being asked to wear a mask

RELATED: Fact-checking misinformation after CDC updates mask guidance for COVID-19

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