Log in Newsletter

Health director discusses reasons behind repeal of mask abatement order

'We are in a different place than we were two years ago,' Dr. Jennifer Green says.


Dr. Jennifer Green grew silent, her emotions no longer held in check as her eyes welled with tears.

The director of the Cumberland County Department of Public Health had been asked by a reporter how difficult it has been making decisions and recommendations during the pandemic with potential lives on the line in the community.

“Yeah, I wish I could tell you the amount of sleep I have lost,” she said Wednesday during a news conference at the Health Department.

Green let out the first of several deep sighs.

A long silence followed.

“It’s tough,” she said after the extended pause. “It’s not easy. I’m a mom of a 4-year-old. I’m a military spouse. I have a kid. I have nieces, I have nephews, I have grandparents. I get it. It’s hard. It hasn’t been easy.

“It’s tough,” she said again.

Green wanted to get her latest recommendation out to the public in hopes of educating the populace and, hopefully, protecting them at the same time.

During a meeting of the Cumberland County Board of Health on Tuesday night, Green announced that she would be in favor of rescinding the Public Nuisance Mask Abatement Order beginning Sunday at 5 p.m.

The health order, which does not supersede federal rules, has required masks in public indoor spaces.

She will make her recommendation to the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners but not to the county Board of Education, which has its own health professional - Shirley Bolton - who makes those decisions on the board’s behalf.

Last week, the Board of Education, in a 5-4 vote, decided to make face masks optional for the first time since students returned for in-school instruction in 2021.

That policy went into effect Wednesday.

Bolton - the Cumberland County Schools Health Services director - also met with reporters Wednesday morning outside Seventy-First High School.

“We’re open for business,’’ she said. “Parents have the option to send their children to school with masks or without masks.”

That said, masks are still required by a federal order to be worn on school buses and activity buses.

The school district, Bolton said, will continue to evaluate the COVID-19 metrics monthly. At this time, she said, the numbers in the county schools are in a slow decline.

“We’re asking the parents of children who have a fever to keep them home,” she said. “We’re counting on the community to help us with this.”

Until the Board of Education’s vote on Feb. 8, masks had been mandatory inside schools. The board is required by state law to vote on the mask policy each month.

Though Green expects to see the county’s public health abatement order rescinded, she continues to stand by her longtime recommendation that residents wear well-fitted masks while indoors.

She said Cumberland County, by a CDC definition, remains a high-risk community.

“So one of the things that we do as the Health Department is reviewing the most recent science, the data, the literature and making sure that our school board has that information,” Green said. “Making sure that they know the current correct recommendations from the CDC and our state health department, and they have all of those recommendations in place.

“So as we lifted our abatement order,” Green said, “we know that that impacts all our community members, including our schools and our childcare centers and other entities. So that certainly does have an impact, but the important piece is as we lifted the abatement order we still recommend that everyone in a public indoor setting wear a mask if you’re over the age of 2, regardless of your vaccination status.”

That, she added, is based on decreased hospitalizations, current vaccination rates and availability of treatments. “And while we’re making improvements,” she said, “we still have some work to do.”

Her recommendation, she said, hinges on those provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

The CDC order, which remains in place, requires face masks to be worn by all people at indoor transportation hubs and while on public transportation, including school buses and vans.

“We are in a different place than we were two years ago,” Green said. “And also even six months ago, and even at the time we have an abatement order in place. At the time we put it in place, we didn’t have vaccines for our children. We didn’t have authorized treatment options available. So some of those things have shifted, which allows us to start considering lifting masking requirements and maybe considerations for what masking in public indoor settings is going to look like.

“But this is not an indication that the pandemic is over,” she stressed. “That we don’t think that masks work. The science and the data tell us that masks are an effective tool for reducing transmissions in our community.”

So the recommendation to continue wearing masks indoors “still stands,” Green said.

“But the ability for us to be able to effectively enforce the order remains a challenge for us,” she said. “But we are rescinding the order because we know things are going to change over time. We’re not recommending that people wear masks forever. We’re recommending that we do continue to wear a mask while we’re in this high level of high transmissions. But we can make sure our hospital system is being taken care of, as well.”

Glenn Adams, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, issued a statement Wednesday in support of Green and the Board of Health.

“I stand by the Board of Health and Dr. Green for strongly recommending that people continue to wear masks indoors and get vaccinated against COVID-19,” Adams said.

Green’s recommendation on the abatement order aligns with Monday’s effective date for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services updated quarantine guidance for K-12 schools and childcare centers. It also allows time for organizations to update and implement their own masking policies and procedures, the county has said.

As for when Green might recommend that masks be taken off, she said there’s not one metric that the Health Department would look at and say, “If we hit this particular number, we are ready to lift the masks."

Instead, a combination of factors would determine that, she said.

Those would include:

– Where are the county’s vaccination rates?

– What’s the impact on the hospital system?

– Are we able to do a lot of surgeries?

– Are we able to staff our hospitals the way we need to?

– Can people go to the hospital’s emergency department and get services in a normal way?

– What is our testing capacity?

– What is normal life for our citizens?

– What’s the availability of treatment options in the community?

“They’re available now,” she said of treatment options for COVID-19 patients, “and that’s a good thing. But they’re not widely available.”

All in all, Green said, the area’s case positivity rate is declining at a current rate of 25% or 26%. That has improved over the last several weeks, dropping from about 30% or 40% to 25%, she said. The number of hospitalizations also has improved, decreasing from about 175 to about 106.

“It’s declined, but it’s still high,” she said. “But our case rate has dropped by about half. A few weeks ago, we were right above almost 2,000 cases per 100,000 population size - much higher than we need to be. We’re still elevated, but our metrics are improving. We’re seeing a rapid decline in our numbers, but it’s still elevated. We need to be cautious, but we are seeing improvements.”

Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at mfutch@cityviewnc.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

Cumberland County, Health Department, Cumberland County Schools, mask requirements, COVID-19