Courtney Barton, a registered medical assistant, wore her mask Sunday afternoon while doing laundry with her 14-year-old at The Wash House at Lakewood shopping center in West Durham.

Barton, who is fully vaccinated, said she heard about Durham’s new state of emergency.

“But I never stopped wearing a mask, even after I was fully vaccinated,” Barton says.

And she offered a backhanded compliment for the Durham leaders’ decision to mask up in the face of the Delta threat. 

“People who are supposed to be leaders aren’t leaders when it comes to what we’re supposed to be doing. It sounds like they’re winging it.”

It turns out that the COVID-19 Delta variant is so dangerous, health officials recommended that even vaccinated people need to wear a mask indoors, as vaccinated people can transmit the virus—and become infected—just as unvaccinated people can. (Such so-called breakthrough cases are rare, however, and the likelihood of getting seriously ill is much lower among those who have been vaccinated.) 

Durham’s new mask mandate went into effect on Monday. At a press conference announcing the new rule, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said he felt he had to reinstate the mask mandate and will re-evaluate its necessity every week. While Schewel acknowledged that there have been a small number of breakthrough cases, he called the pandemic that we are experiencing now “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

“If you are unvaccinated, the chances are good that the virus will find you,” Schewel said. 

The new mandate comes as intensive care units in Triangle hospitals are reaching capacity, with waiting rooms overflowing with patients. And while Wake County has required that people wear masks inside county buildings, it hasn’t required an indoor mask mandate across the board, though the county has seen more than 4,000 new cases of COVID-19 over the past two weeks and has one of the highest case rates in the state. 

Dara Demi, the county’s communications director, told the INDY on Monday that she is currently not aware of any plans to reinstate a mask mandate like Durham’s. For such a mandate to work for all of Wake, all 12 of the county’s municipalities would have to sign on to the order. After the INDY went to print Tuesday, both Orange and Chatham counties announced indoor mask mandates similar to Durham’s. 

In the face of a COVID variant that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) described in an internal report as being as contagious as chicken pox, Durham County health officials reported a decline in vaccinations since June, when the number of fully vaccinated residents increased by about 8.5 percent over the previous month. (During May, the number of fully vaccinated residents grew by some 15 percent). The drop was even more dramatic in July, when the number of fully vaccinated residents grew by less than 2 percent.

Durham County health officials reported a 3 percent increase in COVID-19 cases between July 1 and July 26, according to the latest available data on the county’s website as of Sunday. In Wake, the number of cases has grown by more than 6 percent since July 1. 

Durham’s state of emergency is in concert with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC’s call for all people, including those who are vaccinated, to wear masks in indoor spaces when they are around people they do not live with, in order to reduce the spread. 

The Bull City’s new state of emergency comes a little over a week after Governor Roy Cooper allowed the state’s mask restrictions to end on July 30. But Cooper, as with several governors across the country, urged residents to follow updated CDC guidelines about wearing masks inside.

COVID-19 metrics from the last 14 days show that Durham reported 264 cases per 100,000 residents and 241 COVID-19 deaths; 173,950 people, or 54.1 percent of the population, are fully vaccinated as of Monday. Wake County reported 459 cases per 100,000 residents and 752 deaths, with 615,671 people, or 55.4 percent of the population, fully vaccinated. Orange County, where COVID spread is moderate compared to Durham and Wake, reported 230 cases per 100,000 residents and 101 deaths. The county has a vaccination rate of 60.9 percent. 

This story was updated from an earlier version

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