NCDHHS Secretary says Union County Board of Education may face legal action if it doesn’t quarantine individuals exposed to COVID

North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mandy Cohen has requested that the Union County Board of Education rescind its recent motion eliminating COVID quarantine measures for most students and staff, noting that if Union County doesn’t take the step by 5 pm on Friday, September 17, it may face legal action.

First reported by WSOC’s Genevieve Curtis, Dr. Cohen’s letter notes that Union County’s 7-day case average for COVID is “more then five times above the CDC’s threshold for high level of transmission” and cautions that the board’s failure to adhere to state quarantine guidelines “places students, teachers, and staff, as well as those living in their households and communities, at significant risk of being infected with COVID-19.”

You can read Cohen’s letter in its entirety below:

Lincoln County school board prevents doctors from speaking at meeting, ends quarantines for COVID-exposed students and staff

One day after Union County’s Board of Education voted to stop quarantining students and staff who have been exposed to COVID unless they test positive or exhibit symptoms, Lincoln County has followed suit.

At its Tuesday night meeting, the Lincoln County Board of Education denied two Atrium Health doctors the opportunity to address the board, then voted to rescind the school district mask mandate and stop following COVID quarantine protocols outlined in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Strong Schools Toolkit.

The meeting began with Chair Mark Mullen striking two speakers from the agenda: Dr. Inga Kish, a Shelby physician who specializes in Emergency Medicine, and Dr Elisabeth Stoffel who practices Family Medicine in Denver, NC.

The two physicians had presumably attended in order to offer insight on COVID safety but were prevented from doing so because of board policy requiring speakers to sign up several days before the meeting. Board discussion later in the meeting indicated the policy allowed for exceptions, but a motion to allow the physicians to speak had been voted down.

In addition to making masks optional in schools, a motion introduced by Vice Chair Heather Rhyne said the following:

“In regards specifically to COVID-19, effective immediately, unless a student or staff member is positive for COVID-19 and is in isolation, is symptomatic, or has been given a written quarantine order from the local health department, they should be on school campus.”

The motion passed 4-2.

Lincoln County’s move to make masks optional and end quarantines for most students and staff comes one day after the school district confirmed the death of 44 year-old Lincoln County Schools teacher and pastor Cruceta Jeffeirs.

Jeffeirs taught third grade at Battleground Elementary, and family members said her death was the result of complications from COVID-19.

According to the most recent CDC data, Lincoln County is currently experiencing high community COVID transmission with a positivity rate above 15%. Only 45.3% of eligible Lincoln County residents are fully vaccinated against the virus.

Update: Please note the following correction which was submitted by a reader and Lincoln County resident:

As COVID infections and quarantines soar among its students and staff, Union County clings stubbornly to optional masks

Positive cases of COVID and quarantines among students and staff are skyrocketing in Union County, where the board of education is growing increasingly isolated in its stubborn insistence that masks in school buildings remain a matter of personal choice.

Friday marked the end of the second week of school in Union County. When compared with the reported numbers from a week ago (1873 quarantined/176 positive), the number of students and staff confirmed as infected with the virus has more than doubled, and quarantines have nearly tripled.

In one week.

With 41,500 students enrolled, these new numbers mean a whopping 13% of Union County’s public school children are stuck at home, unable to attend in-person classes.

The reality may be even worse.

One Union County high school teacher told me that significant numbers of students in her classes were absent this entire week but not reported as positive or quarantined. Other educators from the county have indicated that the individual breakdowns for positive cases and quarantines for their schools being reported on the UCPS COVID dashboard are well below what they know them to be–in some cases because COVID-related staffing shortages are leading to lags in data collection.

Despite these alarming trends, Union County’s Board of Education continues to allow students and staff to go to school unmasked. It’s one of the very few North Carolina public school districts to do so, and it’s by far the largest.

As of today, 110 of 115 districts are requiring students and staff to wear masks when inside school buildings. The five where masks are optional are Avery, Onslow, Polk, Union and Yancey. According to the Raleigh News and Observer, vaccination rates in those six counties average a full ten points below the state average (48% vs. 58%).

The Union County board hasn’t officially discussed mask policy since August 18, when it ignored pleas by the county’s Public Health Director and Assistant Superintendent for a mask mandate and voted 7-2 to keep masks optional.

At that meeting, Board Chair Melissa Merrell characterized a presentation of spiking COVID metrics as inaccurate, claiming without any evidence that numbers were actually trending downward.

Merrell’s delusional approach to pandemic school policy does not inspire confidence in the many Union County parents that just want their children to be safe and healthy while attending school in person.

Strong leadership in this moment would look like setting personal politics aside, mustering up a little humility, listening to state and local health experts and taking their advice on masks.

Instead, it’s worth monitoring whether the Union County Board of Education’s next move is in exactly the opposite direction.

The Union County chapter of the astroturf group Moms For Liberty is chaired by Britney Bouldin, and it’s a group in which Melissa Merrell is an active participant.

Rather than calling for measures which would slow the spread of the virus, Bouldin and others in her group are beginning to push for quarantine guidelines to be relaxed.

Because everyone knows that the best way to put out a fire is by pouring gasoline on it…

Union County’s Board of Education next meets Tuesday, September 7. The board’s agenda for that meeting indicates that discussions of both quarantines and face coverings are planned.