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Editorial: Personal responsibility now reigns as king

New guidance last week about wearing masks indoors doesn’t mean the end of the virus, but it will bring about a new phase of the pandemic.

Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday said he was lifting the mask mandate for most situations and leaving it up to businesses and individual institutions if they’d like to continue requiring mask wearing. His order continues to require masks in public schools, day cares, overnight camps, airports, public transit locations, jails and prisons, health care settings and situations in which there are large crowds. The reality, though, is many people just heard or saw “indoor mask mandate lifted” and will model future actions based on that.

The bottom line: Cooper’s latest changes simultaneously bring life a lot closer to what it was in early 2020, result in fewer masks in crowded public places and raise the specter of a spike in hospitalizations and deaths. Rowan County and North Carolina are now entering a phase of COVID-19 in which personal responsibility is king.

People who have a sense of fatalism and insist it’s most important to live life have been waiting for this moment. They’ll get together with friends, attend large gatherings and enjoy the summer. Folks whose risk assessment gauge runs a little higher than average have been dreading it, and they are likely to be more cautious about going to big events and doing the same things as the first crowd.

Unlike the peak of COVID-19 in late 2020 and early 2021, both sides as well as the people who find themselves in the middle can take protective measures and be reasonably confident COVID-19 won’t result in long-term health problems, hospitalization or death: vaccinations and mask-wearing in crowded places. Vaccines will not guarantee you won’t catch COVID-19, but there’s a fairly high certainty it will resolve itself quickly without requiring a visit to a hospital. Mask wearing doesn’t prevent people from getting the virus by itself (it never has), but it sharply reduces the risk, particularly for folks who are vaccinated. If you’re vaccinated and wearing a mask in a tightly packed crowd — sporting events or concerts — you’ll be just fine.

However, COVID-19 has moved the anti-vaxx movement into the mainstream, and those preventative measures will never be accepted by a wide swath of the public. That’s why Cooper’s latest changes aren’t the end of COVID-19 and why people who work in public health think the coronavirus will become endemic — a constant threat that may continue to cause hospitalizations and deaths.

More than 40% of Rowan County residents and a larger share of North Carolinians have some measure of protection against COVID-19 because of catching it previously or getting vaccinated. Highly vaccinated communities such as Chapel Hill and Orange County as well as people who contracted the virus and never got tested probably put the statewide percentage at or above 50%.

That still leaves room for a worrisome spike in hospitalizations and deaths. COVID-19 was one of the leading causes of death in 2020, and less than one-tenth of the state’s population and about 12% of Rowan County’s population are officially recorded as testing positive

As the state moves into this next phase of COVID-19, it remains important for as many people to be vaccinated as possible to protect those who cannot medically receive the shot. Otherwise, people will need to make their own assessments about their health.

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