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Stanly commissioners reject mask mandate for county employees as COVID cases continue to increase

During a contentious and at-times emotional Stanly County Board of Commissioners meeting Monday night, the commissioners rejected a proposed mask mandate for county employees.

Commissioner Peter Asciutto made the motion for the commissioners to adopt a resolution, which was passed by the Health and Human Services department Thursday requiring their employees to wear masks inside county facilities. Asciutto’s motion was to make the masking policy county-wide.

No other commissioner seconded his motion to take it to a full vote and so it failed.

Asciutto, who is a staunch mask proponent, was disappointed. He made the motion as a way to try and help curb the rapid increase in coronavirus cases in Stanly as a result of the highly contagious delta variant.

“I am really, really frustrated,” he said after his motion failed. “In three weeks from now, I hope I’m wrong. I hope in three weeks people are saying, ‘Commissioner Asciutto was being Chicken Little.’ But I’ll take that being wrong.”

Asciutto added, talking to his fellow commissioners: “But are you willing to be wrong, and then all of a sudden have Covid run through a department like it’s running through everywhere else…I mean this is a serious thing. This is worse than last time.”

In a brief interview with the Stanly News and Press following the meeting, Asciutto explained that he was “disappointed that in the middle of a pandemic that is raging through Stanly County, that I didn’t even get a second on the motion to discuss it (mask policy).”

Earlier in the meeting, Asciutto suggested the possibility of making the mask mandate part of personnel policy, adding that if employees did not follow it, they could get written up.

County Manager Andy Lucas said that such a move would likely be a “morale killer” for county employees. He also said that masks are “almost impossible” to enforce.

Lucas noted that though the health and human services board adopted a mask policy, they did not formally vote to recommend the policy to be implemented county-wide.

“I think our employees are very intelligent,” Lucas said. “I think they can make good, wise decisions and prudent decisions.”

Towards the end of the meeting, Commissioner Tommy Jordan, who was serving in the role as chairman in the physical absence of Bill Lawhon (who was available by telephone), noted that the pandemic is unlike anything anyone has seen since the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed about 675,000 Americans.

“I would love to be able to decide what people do for their own good health, but I was not elected and given that power,” Jordan said.

“I am taking care of a problem that is preventable now”

Asciutto brought a guest, Dr. Jenny Hinson, a hospitalist at Atrium Health Stanly, to speak about what it is like to care for Covid patients.

“I feel like this is a community that comes together and wants to take care of each other but I don’t feel like they might be fully aware of how dire things can get in the hospital,” she said as she appeared to be holding back tears.

Hinson discussed how when patients infected with COVID-19 are admitted from the emergency room, they are suffering from a lack of oxygen. Some are eventually transferred to the ICU. For the patients who are still struggling, Hinson intubates them and places them on ventilators. In the worst cases, Hinson has to give them medicine that “completely immobilizes them. They cannot move a finger, they cannot bat an eyelash.” She does this so she can totally control their breathing.

The worst part, Hinson said, is that the patients, who have tubes inserted throughout their body, are completely alone and isolated from their loved ones.

If Atrium Health Stanly can no longer adequately care for the Covid patients, they are transported to larger hospitals like Atrium Health Cabarrus in Concord or Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte. Her worry, though, is if the current surge gets bad enough, there will not be enough space in the larger hospitals to help care for the sickest patients at Atrium Health Stanly.

“We are at a point now where we are reaching numbers that we saw last winter,” she said. “I’m scared, I’m a little desperate and I don’t have anywhere left to put the pain and suffering I see every day.”

While earlier in the pandemic Hinson took care of older patients, that has since changed. “Now I’m taking care of people younger than me,” she told the commissioners. “I am taking care of a problem that is preventable now.”

Hinson spoke for about six minutes before Jordan asked her to quickly finish her thoughts. This angered Asciutto.

“I’ve been a commissioner for five years…and I’ve never had anyone during a real presentation cuts off a speaker like that,” she said. “We’re talking about life and death issues and you don’t want to talk about this.”

Covid by the numbers

Stanly County Public Health Director David Jenkins, who spoke to the commissioners for an update on the coronavirus, mentioned that there have been 536 cases, including 92 pediatric cases in the county since the beginning of July. The positivity rate is roughly 14 percent, the highest it has been since February.

There were 75 new cases reported over the weekend, with 18 people currently hospitalized, ranging from ages 15 to 82, with six in the ICU. Three new deaths occurred within the past week.

Across the state, daily COVID-19 cases spiked to roughly 6,900 cases over the weekend with almost 2,000 people hospitalized, numbers not seen in months.

“We’ve seen cases accelerate fairly quickly and that’s due to the delta variant that we’re experiencing now in the county,” Jenkins said. He noted the uptick in pediatric cases is “very concerning for us in public health.”

One reason he thinks delta has spread so quickly is that many people thought the pandemic was over a few months ago as vaccinations increased and cases plummeted. People went on vacations, interacted with friends, ditched masks and generally let their guard down, which helped the new variant grow.

“It’s really hard to transition back to that mindset that we need to take precautions again,” he said, noting the county is dealing with a totally different virus than even a few months ago.

He mentioned that other southern states including Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Florida are being “devastated right now” and “unfortunately we’re not that different here in Stanly County based on our vaccination rates.”

Only 36 percent of Stanly residents are partially vaccinated (state average is 51 percent), and only 33 percent are fully vaccinated (state average is 47 percent), both of which rank among the lowest county rates in the state. Only five counties have a lower percentage of people fully vaccinated.

While fully vaccinated people can still get infected, these breakthrough cases are very rare and usually result in only mild symptoms that don’t require hospitalization. Stanly has reported 47 breakthrough cases since last month, which accounts for roughly 13 percent of all cases. These cases have all been mild, Jenkins said.

With cases increasing in Stanly, Jenkins emphasized the need for people to wear masks, saying they are “more to protect others than the individual wearing it.”

“I’m here to sound an alarm tonight to say, hey we need to take this seriously,” Jenkins said. “Everybody in this community needs to take this seriously and do whatever we can to prevent this from spreading.”

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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