RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – State Health and Human Services Sec. Dr. Mandy Cohen told state lawmakers Tuesday there are aspects of the new omicron variant that are “very concerning” but added “I don’t see” lockdowns or closures in the state’s future.
Cohen spoke to a committee looking into the state’s response to the pandemic, stressing that scientists are still aiming to learn more about the new variant.
“Early data shows that it is certainly more contagious, which the Delta variant already was more contagious than COVID version 1.0,” she said. “If omicron is more contagious, that is certainly very concerning.”
She added that early indications show that the disease it causes is potentially not as severe, echoing recent comments by Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“How well is our immunity going to hold up against his new variant? What we are seeing is a lot of breakthrough cases with omicron,” she said.
The variant has not yet been detected in North Carolina, but its emergence comes as the state is already seeing a rise in cases. Cohen said they’ve gone up by 71 percent this week compared to last week.
“I shared holiday celebrations with my extended family. I think it’s safe to do those things, but there is risk. There is risk ahead,” she said.
She faced several questions from Republican lawmakers about the future potential of statewide restrictions. While she did not rule anything out, she said the state is in “a much different place” this year compared to 2020 when there was no vaccine until the end of the year.
She also pointed out when cases surged this summer due to the Delta variant, Gov. Roy Cooper did not implement a statewide mask mandate or order business closures.
“You didn’t see us reinstate the stay-at-home restrictions or tell kids not to be in schools because I think we have the tools that we need to be safe. That can change. And, I want to say that out loud. We don’t know what can change with this virus,” she said.
Cohen also faced questions about COVID policies in schools. Sen. Todd Johnson (R-Union) noted his county’s school system has been mask optional all school year and said the recent COVID-19 metrics among students was roughly similar to other counties with mandates.
Cohen pushed back, noting the viral spread in the county more broadly.
“Their percent positive was 10 percent,” she said. According to the CDC, the county’s seven-day positivity rate is 10.7 percent, and the agency says everyone in Union County should wear a mask in public indoor settings.
“Any way you cut these metrics, Union County is not doing as well. And, I think it’s because folks are not using the tools,” Cohen said.
Johnson responded, “I’m talking about the student rate. I’m not talking about the general population.”
Cohen said, “Right, but students live in their county, right? I think we’re trying to show there is a lot more virus in Union County.”
She also talked about the effort to drive up the vaccination rate, particularly among kids. According to NCDHHS, 15 percent of kids age 5 to 11 have been vaccinated with at least one dose. That age group began receiving the vaccine in early November.
Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) asked her if there are particular targets for the vaccination rate among kids.
“Is that 100 percent of our kids that are vaccinated, that the schools are then safe?” she asked.
Dr. Cohen replied, “Once we’re getting into the higher numbers, we can start to understand and hopefully we’ll have more science to guide us as to what those parameters really are. But, it’s not 15 percent. So, we have a lot of work to do.”
She also faced questions about why North Carolina has remained under a state of emergency for more than 600 days. She said it gives the state flexibility to continue responding to the pandemic, for example allowing for a standing order to administer vaccines at pharmacies.
Cohen said last week she’ll step down as secretary at the end of this month. At the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, some Republican legislators commended her for working with them and gave her a standing ovation.