With COVID-19 spreading at levels not seen since the height of the pandemic, Moore County has announced that face coverings will once again be required in government buildings.

The policy, which takes effect Wednesday, applies to all government employees and members of the public, regardless of their vaccination status. Exceptions will be made for children younger than five and individuals who may have difficulty wearing a mask because of a “medical or behavioral condition or disability,” according to an announcement from Moore County Public Safety.

The agency noted that Moore County has been designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “as having high community transmission levels of COVID.” Nearly 900 new infections have been recorded by the local health department since the beginning of August — more than double the number of cases recorded during the entire month of July. 

Last week, the Moore County Board of Education narrowly approved a staff recommendation to require masks in schools until at least the end of September. The board voted 4-3 in support of the mandate.

The highly contagious delta variant has fueled a national resurgence of COVID-19, prompting the CDC to reverse its earlier guidance stating that fully vaccinated people could forego face coverings in public. The CDC now recommends that masks be worn by everyone in areas with high levels of transmission.

All of the currently available vaccines are reported to be effective against the variant, but infection is still possible. Immunized people account for about 6 percent of new cases in North Carolina. 

Emily Sloan, director of public relations for FirstHealth of the Carolinas, said vaccinated individuals accounted for 11 of the 89 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across the company’s multi-county system on Monday. FirstHealth could not immediately provide The Pilot with detailed hospitalization data.

Penick Village, a long-term care community in Southern Pines, said Tuesday it will require residents to wear face coverings in communal spaces. In a memo announcing the mandate, Caroline Eddy, acting chief executive officer, said at least two vaccinated residents of the village had recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“Many in our surrounding community are not vaccinated, and mask usage is not as prevalent as it was six months ago,” Eddy wrote. “Therefore, to continue to create an added layer of protection for our residents and staff, we will require all residents and visitors regardless of vaccination status to wear masks in our common areas.”

Over 47,380 local residents, or about 47 percent of the county’s population, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. An additional 3,123 residents were waiting to receive their second dose of the two-shot vaccine on Tuesday.

Health Department to Offer Booster Shots

The Moore County Health Department said it will begin administering booster shots next week to vaccinated residents with “moderately to severely compromised immune systems”

Booster shots are available only to immunocompromised individuals who have received both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, according to the health department. The shots will be offered by appointment at the department’s office in Carthage beginning Aug. 24.

“With hospitalizations and case counts rapidly increasing over the last few weeks, we want to provide the most protection possible from vaccination, particularly to one of our most vulnerable populations — the immunocompromised,” Robert Wittmann, director of the health department, said in a news release.

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday amended the emergency use authorizations for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to allow booster shots for people with compromised immune systems. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, endorsed the shots in a statement on Friday.

“Emerging data suggest some people with moderately to severely compromised immune systems do not always build the same level of immunity compared to people who are not immunocompromised,” Walensky said. “In addition, in small studies, fully vaccinated immunocompromised people have accounted for a large proportion of hospitalized breakthrough cases.”

Local Death Toll Rises to 201

Moore County’s COVID-19 death toll has surpassed 200, with three residents dying of complications from the disease since Thursday.

The latest deaths were announced Monday by the Moore County Health Department. Matt Garner, public information officer for the department, said the deceased individuals were all white men older than 49.

They include a man in the “65-to-74” age range who died Thursday, a man in the “50-to-64” age range who died Friday, and a man older than 74 who died Sunday, according to Garner.

At least 201 local deaths are now linked to COVID-19. Of the 10,239 infections recorded in the county since the start of the pandemic, about 1.9 percent have been fatal.

A Pilot analysis of demographic data provided by the health department showed that 88 percent of the county’s deaths involve residents aged 65 and older. About 11 percent of the county’s fatal infections involved people aged 50 to 64.

White residents account for 76 percent of the county’s deaths, according to The Pilot’s analysis. Black residents made up 15 percent of the deaths. American Indians represented 4 percent; Hispanic residents represented 3 percent.

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