From early to mid-July, the spread of COVID-19 has increased rapidly, with the number of counties with low transmission dropping from 30 (in the top map) to just nine (lower map) and the number with substantial or high transmission jumping from seven to 37. The top map shows the seven-day average of cases between June 25 and July 1. The bottom map shows the seven-day average from July 9-15.

TRIAD — Gov. Roy Cooper and state public health leaders urged the state’s public schools Wednesday to keep mask requirements in place when the new academic year starts in a month, though an area school board this week went on record calling for an end to the mask mandate in classrooms.

During his latest coronavirus pandemic update at the State Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, the governor said the state will strongly encourage local schools to preserve mask requirements but stopped short of saying the state would impose a mask requirement on local school districts.

In its guidance to the schools, state public health leaders advise all students and staff in kindergarten through eighth grade should wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. Students and staff in ninth through 12th grades who aren’t fully vaccinated should wear a mask indoors.

“The most important work our state will do next month is getting all our school children back into the classrooms safely for in-person learning,” Cooper said.

Earlier this week, the Randolph County Board of Education passed a resolution to end the mask mandate for the 2021-22 academic year.

The governor said he doesn’t plan to reinstate mask mandates for the general public, though he left open that possibility if the threat worsened.

“This pandemic isn’t behind us yet,” Cooper said.

The current pandemic emergency order will expire July 30. Cooper indicated that he would issue an amended order rather than let it expire.

The state is now up to 56% of the population fully vaccinated, with another 4% partially vaccinated, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

But after improving steadily through the spring and onset of summer, COVID-19 infection rates in North Carolina have taken an unwelcome turn during July. From the last week of June to the week of July 9-15, the number of counties with low transmission rates declined from 30 to nine, and the total with moderate transmission declined from 63 to 54 counties, but the number with substantial transmission rose from 5 to 27 and the number with high transmission increased from two to 10, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Counties in the greater High Point area — Guilford, Davidson, Randolph and Forsyth — remained in the moderate category.

The increase in COVID-19 cases corresponds to the spread of the delta variant, which medical professionals say is more easily transmitted than earlier versions. The delta variant has intensified from accounting for 1.2% of all new cases in North Carolina as of July 2 to 12.8% as of last Friday, according to the CDC. The delta variant accounts for 83% of all new cases nationwide.

During the briefing Wednesday, state Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said the trend with infections highlights the importance of vaccinations.

“Get vaccinated right now if you haven’t,” she said. “We are seeing the impact of the very contagious delta variant of COVID-19 and it’s hitting those who are unvaccinated hard.”

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