GREENSBORO — Guilford County's nearly three-month old mask mandate has been rescinded.
The 8-0 vote Monday evening by the Guilford County Board of Commissioners — acting in their capacity as the Board of Health — marked the end of a sometimes contentious rule that had its origins in the mid-August wave of the COVID-19 delta variant, which turned a summer of celebration into a wary fall.
Commissioners announced two weeks ago they would likely vote to rescind the directive after Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious diseases expert from Winston-Salem’s Atrium Health, said that in the days preceding Thanksgiving, the pandemic should be in a “sweet spot” where many cities and counties across North Carolina could consider lifting their mask mandates.
However, he cautioned that a return to holiday gatherings could cause a COVID-19 resurgence — a trend since the pandemic began — but growing vaccination rates and a higher rate of natural immunity among people who’ve already been infected should blunt the severity.
Some saw the board's vote a foregone conclusion. COVID-19 trends locally and statewide have been declining for some time after a period where new infections ascended to sobering highs.
Dr. Iulia Vann, the director of public health, told the board before its vote that the county's COVID-19 positivity rate fell to an average of 4.8% for the recent 21-day period — a figure that has been a statewide benchmark in relaxing rules put in place to prevent the pandemic’s advance.
Vann said that other metrics used to track progress against the coronavirus have continued to look promising. Especially the number of hospitalizations, which stand at 48.
The percentage of residents who are vaccinated, though, could be improved upon. It's only 56%.
Experts say getting that number higher is crucial to protecting the county's population from a wave of new infections.
Although the board's vote went into effect immediately, Chairman Melvin "Skip" Alston said that any business could continue to require that patrons cover their faces. Still, he warned the county will respond as the pandemic changes.
"There is no set rulebook on how to mitigate a global pandemic," Alston said. "We've seen this pandemic take turns for the better only to be followed by a new and more challenging virus."
He stressed that children and adults should get their shot and that COVID-19 vaccines are safe.
Monday's action does not rescind the mask mandate in Guilford County Schools, which was approved by the school board.
Likewise, Guilford County will continue to require its employees to wear masks indoors.
The vote comes at a delicate point in the pandemic, where conditions seem to be improving but the holiday period and cold weather are ahead — perfect conditions for another surge of the virus, some experts say.