Editorial Roundup: North Carolina

Winston-Salem Journal. Aug. 2, 2021.

Editorial: NC COVID messages are dangerously misleading

Even as a deadly pandemic refuses to let go, some are still willfully spreading misinformation about it to make money and win votes.

For Exhibit A, see Fox News, which, despite some recent slight backpedaling, is still pushing distorted assertions that endanger its own viewers, a majority of whom are in the high-risk, over-65 age group.

Closer to home, the most powerful politician in North Carolina, who earlier this year extolled the virtue of vaccinations in a bipartisan PSA, now has sent out a fundraising email that not only questions the latest directive from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on mask use, but ridicules it.

In the emailed appeal, state Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, says:

“Yesterday the CDC announced everyone, including vaccinated individuals, should wear masks in indoor settings. Of course, the CDC also says you shouldn’t eat raw cookie dough, but we ignore that advice.”

A state GOP official attempted to explain that the email’s subject line was a mistake.

It shouldn’t have said, “CDC issues new guidelines to ignore,” N.C. GOP Senate Republican Caucus Political Leader Dylan Watts told The News & Observer of Raleigh. “... I think the headline probably should have said CDC issued new guidelines; people will ignore it.”

But that line is hardly the only problem with the email; its actual message is worse.

The email says: “This decision isn’t about science. It’s about Left-Wing bureaucrats playing political games and trying to control Americans (sic) lives. Dr. Fauci, our public health officials and the media just can’t stand people making decisions they don’t approve of.”

Berger goes on to congratulate himself for leading the fight against “executive overreach” (in a General Assembly that’s notorious for legislative overreach). But he needs “your help” (translation: your money) to continue the struggle. Etc., etc.

As COVID infections continue their troubling resurgence, this is not helpful. In fact, it’s irresponsible. And dangerous. There are lives in the balance.

And remember, it comes from someone who knows better. As recently as April, Berger took part in a bipartisan video encouraging North Carolinians to get vaccinated. He was as right then as he’s dead wrong today.

The taste we’ve gotten of life as we once knew it is in serious jeopardy if Americans don’t heed the advice of medical experts.

With vaccinations lagging, the new delta variant is gaining ground. North Carolina health officials reported on Thursday that there had been 3,268 new cases of COVID-19 in the state, the most since February. On Friday, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported 81 new cases and an additional COVID death in Forsyth County.

Berger’s not alone. One of our U.S. senators, Republican Thom Tillis, has sent an email of his own pooh-poohing the CDC’s directives.

“I am deeply concerned that the Biden administration’s contradictory decision will cause even more vaccine hesitancy, giving many Americans the false impression that the vaccines are not as effective as they were originally told,” Tillis said in the Tuesday statement.

The CDC’s advice has changed because circumstances have changed. The delta variant is taking hold because not enough Americans have gotten vaccinated.

And the best ways to cut the variant at its roots — and keep the economy open — are to get vaccinated and wear masks, even if you’ve already been vaccinated.

Tillis, incidentally, is not the most credible messenger on masks. In September 2020, he preached the gospel of wearing masks and then went without one during a function at the Trump White House. Tillis said was sorry — just as he’d said he was sorry the month before, for not wearing a mask during a Trump speech at the White House. In October, Tillis became infected with the virus.

Not to be outdone, GOP Senate candidate Mark Walker of Greensboro chimed in with a tweet protesting the CDC guidelines (“Liberty has a threshold”).

Bottom line: Whom are you going to trust: the CDC and state and local health officials, or a fundraising email from a politician that’s larded with partisan rhetoric?

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Charlotte Observer. Aug. 2, 2021.

Editorial: A lot has changed with colleges and COVID vaccines. Will UNC change, too?

After UNC-Chapel Hill made national headlines last fall for coronavirus outbreaks on campus, some fear the university might be headed in that direction once again. Despite increasingly worrisome trends in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, especially among the unvaccinated, the UNC System will not require the vaccine for students, faculty and staff at its 16 university campuses.

The decision was first conveyed in a memo from UNC System President Peter Hans in April, in which Hans wrote there was an “absence of clear legal authority” for a mandate.

The system has stood by that decision — but a lot has changed since then. Back in April, cases and hospitalizations were trending downward, and a seamless return to normal campus operations in the fall, with or without a vaccine mandate, looked promising.

That may not be the case anymore, however. Under threat of the highly infectious delta variant, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are climbing across the country, including here in North Carolina. Average new daily cases have increased more than sixfold in the past month, and the positivity rate has topped 10% for the first time since Feb. 1.

And as the need for a vaccine mandate grows stronger, the UNC System’s legal argument for not doing so is getting weaker. Earlier this month, a federal judge upheld Indiana University’s vaccine requirement for students and staff members. And in recent weeks, the California State University System joined the University of California in announcing they will require faculty, staff and students to be vaccinated this fall, with few exceptions. Both systems had previously said their vaccine requirements would be contingent on full FDA approval.

“We are moving back into another crisis phase, and I think everyone would like to see a vaccine mandate not only for students, but for faculty and staff as well,” Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill, said in a phone interview.

Chapman pointed out that while the path ahead may be concerning, the UNC System has the opportunity to avoid another disaster.

“The huge difference is that this situation is preventable,” she said. “And it’s preventable right now if we were allowed to put a vaccine mandate in place.”

Even if the legality of implementing a vaccine mandate for students were indeed questionable, the law is clear for employers: the UNC System does, in fact, have the authority to require the vaccine for the more than 48,000 faculty and staff it employs. Yet it hasn’t. Why?

When reached for comment, the UNC System did not directly say whether it would reconsider a vaccine mandate for students or employees, but pointed to Hans’s April memo as well as another memo, from May, that outlined COVID-19 vaccine incentive strategies. Meanwhile, UNC-Chapel Hill will require masks indoors for everyone and regular asymptomatic evaluation testing for unvaccinated students, UNC Media Relations said in an email.

At least some students and faculty are wondering if this is a political decision. After all, North Carolina Republicans do have a tight grip on the UNC System, and they’ve been lukewarm at best on vaccines and forceful in their opposition to mask or vaccine mandates at any level.

It is, of course, possible that the semester will still go smoothly. Perhaps enough students, faculty and staff have already chosen to be vaccinated, as the UNC System has “strongly encouraged” them to do. But that’s a risk the UNC System shouldn’t be willing to take — not when the cost of getting it wrong is so high. And if the events of last fall taught us anything, it’s that simply asking swaths of college students to voluntarily do the right thing isn’t guaranteed success.

Students are scheduled to return to campus in just a matter of weeks. It’s not too late for the UNC System to do the right thing, but time is running out.

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Greensboro News & Record. Aug. 2, 2021.

Editorial: Cone Health makes right call on shots

Of all the places in all the towns in all the world, you’d think that a hospital would require vaccinations for its workers during a pandemic.

You’d think.

And yet last week we saw and heard a group of Cone Health employees just say no to such a policy.

As the News & Record’s Jamie Biggs reported, they took to the street, 200 strong, to make their case.

“Essential to expendable,” one protester’s sign said.

“Stop the mandate,” said another.

“My body, my choice,” they chanted.

“They were heroes last year,” said yet another sign held by a Burlington man whose wife, he said, is a Cone nurse. “Now take an unapproved vaccine or get fired.”

“Idiots!” a passerby in hospital scrubs yelled from her car at the protesters.

We wouldn’t put it quite that way. But we certainly feel her frustration.

Unvaccinated workers not only place patients and co-workers at risk; they also jeopardize their own health and safety and the well-being of their own families.

As for the issue of “choice,” does anyone truly feel he or she is entitled to choose to infect others?

Cone Health officials announced on July 23 that workers must show proof they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 8. The new requirement will cover all employees, medical and dental staff, professional students and volunteers.

At the time of the announcement, 62% of Cone employees had been inoculated, the News & Record reported.

Cone is one of six health systems across the state that will require all employees to get vaccinations as the more infectious delta variant has fueled a troubling increase in COVID cases. The health system’s leadership cited recommendations from the American Hospital Association and the North Carolina Healthcare Association as reasons it decided to issue the vaccine mandate.

It’s in good company. On July 26, 58 health care organizations issued a “Joint Statement in Support of COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates for All Workers in Health and Long-Term Care.”

“This is the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all health care workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first and take all steps necessary to ensure their health and well-being,” the statement says. “Because of highly contagious variants, including the Delta variant, and significant numbers of unvaccinated people, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are once again rising throughout the United States. Vaccination is the primary way to put the pandemic behind us and avoid the return of stringent public health measures.”

Among those signing the statement were the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Nurses Association and the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

Even so, as mass vaccinations were gathering steam in February, nearly one-third of health care workers nationally said they were reluctant to get the shots. At the one of the first U.S. hospital systems to impose a mandate, Houston Methodist in Texas, some employees sued to block it, but the suit was dismissed. Out of a workforce of 26,000, 153 Houston Methodist employees ultimately resigned or were fired for refusing to meet the requirement.

Vaccine skeptics are right about one point: We don’t know everything about either COVID or the vaccines at this point.

What we do know is that the vaccines are working, and they remain the best chance to beat the virus and prevent it from spawning more resistant mutations.

And, yes, it is possible that even vaccinated people could be infected with the delta variant in what are called “breakthrough cases.” But fewer than .001% of Americans who are fully vaccinated have died in such instances. And fewer than .004% of Americans who are fully vaccinated have had to check into a hospital.

As for the skeptical Cone protesters:

You’re already required to get annual flu vaccines, among others, one of your co-workers, certified nurse-midwife Heather Hogan, told the News & Record in an email.

“In the end,” she added, “it comes down to science and evidence-based medicine.”

You also speak of the right to choose. You already did that when you chose to work at a hospital. Getting inoculated comes with the territory.

You, more than anyone else, knows firsthand the suffering and heartbreak this virus can cause. And you’re right: You and others like you performed heroically during the darkest days of the COVID crisis. We needed you then. We still need you now.

For your sake and ours, please get your shots.

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