Two of the few remaining holdout counties in North Carolina—Orange and Durham—will both allow their indoor masking requirements to expire next week. The announcements follow separate Durham and Orange County Board of Commissioners meetings where officials pointed to COVID-19 trends and data that have fallen below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) newly issues guidelines for requiring face masks. 

On Monday, March 7th, after midnight, face masks will no longer be required indoors or outdoors in Durham and Orange County.

On Orange County’s government website, Orange County leaders say their decision is contingent on whether “key COVID-19 metrics continue to reach medium and low community levels.”

The CDC-determined metrics for counties require new cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days to be less than 200, new hospital admissions to be fewer than 20, and staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID patients to be less than 15 percent.

In Orange County, according to the CDC which tracks the data, there were 150.87 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days, 28.29 confirmed COVID-19 patient hospitalizations through February 27, and the percentage of beds occupied by COVID patients is 12.86 percent. The county could reinstate the mandate if metrics begin to trend up again.

“While relaxing indoor masking requirements is a shift towards a ‘new normal’ of living with the disease, people should continue to choose risk reduction strategies such as wearing well-fitted masks in high-risk settings; staying home and testing when symptomatic; testing before gatherings; and improving indoor ventilation,” said Orange County health director Quintana Stewart in a press statement. “Staying up to date on vaccinations remains the most important way to prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death.”

Durham’s metrics show that there were 191.61 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days, 13.69 confirmed COVID-19 patient hospitalizations through February 27, and the percentage of beds occupied by COVID patients is 19.61 percent. The county’s laboratory testing positivity rate is at 4.8 percent, and in-patient bed count is currently at 134 across Durham healthcare facilities, Durham officials said in a health department press release. Durham’s COVID-19 data continues to trend downward and falls within the CDC’s guidelines.

“This continues to be a fluid situation,” said Durham Public Health director Rod Jenkins. “We will continue to monitor the data on case counts after the mandate is dropped. Also, if a new variant arises, it may be possible that we’ll need to take more aggressive action, including reinstating the mask mandate.”

Public officials, including Brenda Howerton, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, and Mayor Elaine O’Neal, urged Durham residents to continue to get vaccinated and boosted. 

“Even though we have a high number of residents who are vaccinated and have received their boosters, too many have not,” O’Neal said in the press statement. “We do know from the data that those who are unvaccinated experience more severe COVID-19 symptoms that can lead to hospitalization, which is a key metric that factored into our decision to lift the mask mandate.”

Wake County and Raleigh opted to lift the requirement for people to wear masks inside public spaces last Friday following Governor Cooper’s recommendation earlier this month that schools and other low-risk settings should lift their mask mandates before March 7.

All counties still require residents to wear masks in clinical and health care settings and on public transit, in accordance with CDC guidelines. 

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