NEW HANOVER COUNTY – More than two years after its entry into force, New Hanover County commissioners are expected to lift the local state of emergency for Covid-19.
In emails obtained by the Port City Daily, County Chief Chris Coudriet on Thursday recommended that board members cancel the emergency order at their next meeting on May 2nd. The action is likely to receive approval as part of a comprehensive proposal to adopt the consent agenda.
“We must remember that these statements are about threats and injuries from the local community and the exercise of local police powers to ensure security,” Coudriet wrote in an email to the county’s top management. “I do not suggest that the threat to covid is over. In my opinion, the need to use police powers is over.”
First introduced on March 20, 2020, New Hanover County’s order was amended on several occasions early in the pandemic as restrictions were lifted. Neighboring Brunswick County repealed its statement last month, and Pender County dropped its Covid order in May 2021.
New Hanover County spokeswoman Jessica Loeper previously told the Port City Daily that the order was still in place because it helped with quick access to supplies.
At this point, the local declaration is largely symbolic of the county’s commitment to fighting Covid, while leaving the door open for officials to implement more stringent rules than set at the state level.
In order to enforce security measures at the onset of the pandemic, Covid emergency orders evolved into a point of political debate, as some lawmakers now see it as merely a grab for power. In March, Republicans wrote an open letter to Governor Roy Cooper asking him to end his nationwide order, which at the time had been in effect for more than 700 days. State legislators also sent the “Emergency Powers Accountability Act” to the governor’s desk, which would require the state council to approve any state-wide emergency declaration exceeding seven days. The bill was vetoed.
Cooper has reasoned that North Carolina’s state of emergency – issued March 10, 2020 – allows other executive orders to remain in place. It also gives healthcare institutions the flexibility to distribute vaccines by waiving some rules, according to the governor’s office.
Coudriet’s recommendation comes after one federal decision abolished the mask requirements for public transport – one of the last existing Covid-19 mandates. Locally, it affected services such as Wave Transit and Wilmington International Airport. Airlines still reserve the right to require face clothing on flights.
According to the internal emails, there was some debate between the administration and the health staff about the proposal to lift the emergency order. Health Director David Howard wrote that it was unlikely the county would need the power to enforce more “broad community-wide protection” in the future. In the past, Howard has supported staying in an emergency with the uncertainty about omicron and other potential variants looming.
“Public health and administration are not in conflict,” Coudriet assured commissioners.
The county administration also does not expect dropping the order will affect its eligibility for federal or state Covid funding, emails show.
Before the May vote, public health personnel track transmission data to determine if the county is “holding on, falling, or rapidly increasing the rate of infection.” Coudriet noted that it was necessary to wait 11 days to see if the mandate for the public transport mask is reinstated. The Biden administration appealed the ruling Wednesday, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called it “necessary.”
From April 8 to 22, New Hanover County’s percentage positivity rate – which measures how many Covid tests yield positive results – rose from 3% to 7.7%. The average number of new daily cases increased slightly from 10.7 to 13.7.
Yet these trends are far down from where the county was in January, when the positivity rate exceeded 30%. That was around the time the New Hanover County Health and Human Services Board voted not to revive the county-wide mask mandate. Another recommendation from the then county chief, Coudriet, urged the board to consider other options.
“Over the past two weeks, New Hanover County has seen an increase in several indicators,” Ian Appling, the county’s newly hired epidemiologist, said in a news release Friday. “However, we remain in the low category for CDC tracking at Community level at present.”
That Pandemic Operations Team reports “positive” data right now, but is still wary of the risk of serious Covid-19 disease. Last week, Novant Health NHRMC reported that an average of seven patients were hospitalized for the virus each day during the previous week.
The county’s emergency report is valid throughout the county, including in all four municipalities where the jurisdictions still authorize it.
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