Health Board rejects proposed revision for mask mandate

Published 9:17 am Friday, August 5, 2022

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At Thursday’s meeting of the Stanly County Health and Human Services Board, members voted 11-6 to deny a motion to exempt the county’s health and social services departments from a mask mandate currently in place for those agencies due to COVID.

HHS Director David Jenkins noted that he had been asked via e-mail by County Manager Andy Lucas to add the item to the agenda, noting that Lucas had expressed concerns about employee morale and with consistency of policies and procedures among county departments.

Federal guidelines for health departments require healthcare workers be masked when dealing with clients. Lucas, however, expressed concerns with the policy as it relates to some health personnel, as well as social services workers.

Both the health department and the social services department are housed in the same section of Stanly Commons.

“I acknowledge the federal requirement for masks in healthcare facilities. However, DSS employees and several Health Department employees (e.g., administrative, WIC) do not work in a healthcare facility,” Lucas’ email stated.

“Our funding and accreditation depends upon our following the federal guidelines,” Jenkins said, noting that as a result, “the health department has to be treated a little bit differently from other county departments.”

Board chair Jann Lowder affirmed Jenkins’ view that the health department must operate under more stringent guidelines than other departments.

“One size does not fit all,” she said, adding, “If we err, we err on the side of safety.”

Board member and county commissioner Tommy Jordan expressed that masking should be “part of the job” for health department personnel, but expressed his belief that DSS should be exempted from the mandate.

“DSS is not a healthcare agency,” he said. “We should extend the same courtesy to them as to other county employees.”

Board member Nancy Smoak expressed concern that the proximity of the DSS offices to the health department could put social services clients and staff at higher risk of spreading COVID should the mask mandate be lifted for the DSS offices.

“It’s a high risk situation,” said Smoak, “and the individual offices at DSS are extremely small, which could put both the client and the employee at risk.”

Social Services Director and Assistant HHS Director Dolly Clayton noted some mitigation measures have been implemented in social services interview rooms, such as plexiglass partitions between employees and clients.

“Telephone interviews are also an option,” Clayton added, noting, “We will do as we are directed, but it’s been tough the last week.”

Board member Dr. Jenny Hinson expressed understanding of morale issues, but expressed that safety must be of primary concern and suggested that explaining the rationale for the mandate could help.

“I have a lot of empathy for the discussion about morale,” she said, “it has gone on so long, and I can understand why everyone is beat down.”

Hinson went on to note that high COVID levels are not the only reason for CDC guidelines on masking.

“CDC guidelines incorporate hospital bed status into them,” she added. “As Mr. Lucas stated in his email, people have a lot of options available to them (to help mitigate the impacts of COVID). But, we still don’t have anything to protect hospitals except keeping levels low.”

By keeping the number of positive cases low through observing masking mandates, hospitals would be able to keep open beds for patients with illnesses other than COVID, Hinson stated.

“My concern right now is that we relay to people the reason behind what we are doing. We want someone who comes in with appendicitis, for example, to have a bed to go to,” she added.

“Right now, we are not, thankfully, at the point we were, where people were dying because we couldn’t give them the treatment they needed because we were full.”

Jordan, seconded by board member and County Commissioner Scott Efird, moved that the existing masking policy be modified to exclude the social services department.

After a voice vote was inconclusive, Efird requested a roll call vote, which resulted in an 11-6 vote against the motion (four board members were absent).

The result of the vote will be taken to the County Commission for final action.

County Commission meets Monday night. Jenkins is expected to discuss COVID-19 and Monkeypox.