In a one-hour webinar Monday afternoon, Durham County Health director Rodney Jenkins reflected on the county’s successes in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and answered viewers’ inquiries about the potential reinstatement of a county-wide mask mandate.

The webinar came as the highly transmissible BA.2 variant fuels an increase in cases in the Northeastern U.S., an area which has historically served as an indicator for upcoming trends in the rest of the country.

Reported case numbers in the Triangle remain low, but there are signs that the region may soon be facing another surge; last week, the CDC confirmed an uptick in COVID-19 particles found in North Carolina’s wastewater, and experts say state case numbers may be higher than they appear due to the increased usage of at-home testing kits, which are not factored into official counts.

Jenkins began the webinar by thanking county residents for their work in keeping the community safe and well-informed over the past two years. 

“I’m amazed by this vibrant community that has shown so much resolve, care and compassion throughout this pandemic,” Jenkins said.

COVID-related deaths in Durham County have yet to surpass 400, which Jenkins noted as “remarkable.” He expressed gratitude for school nurses, who stepped up to assist with contract tracing while schools were closed, and said he was “peacock proud” of grassroots organizations like Latin-19 and the African American COVID Task Force Plus, who ensured that testing and vaccines are made accessible to marginalized populations.

After concluding his remarks, Jenkins opened the floor to questions. One viewer asked if he planned to bring back the mask mandate, given the country’s recent spike in cases.

“The minute that our CDC level changes for a prolonged period of time, I will reimpose the mask mandate,” Jenkins said. “In the meantime… I think we can withstand a slight bump in cases.”

Another question interrogated the fairness of the county’s recent decision to remove the mandate, given that some immunocompromised residents are unable to get the vaccine. 

“We don’t want it to appear as if rescinding the mask mandate is an act of aggression,” Jenkins said. “[But] we cannot mandate our way out of this pandemic.” 

He added that continuing to wear a mask is “an act of kindness,” and stressed that for those who are able, getting a vaccine is imperative.

Halfway through the webinar, as Jenkins was reminding residents that the virus is “still with us,” The News & Observer reported that Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin has tested positive for COVID-19. The mayor said in a statement that she doesn’t have any symptoms.

“We need to continue to be careful and be vigilant,” Jenkins said. “That’s the way that we make our march toward an endemic state.”

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