The specter of COVID-19 continued to cast a shadow over the county’s elected leaders this week as they broke bread with the local school board and the county’s state legislators for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
These three groups ultimately spent more than three hours in each others’ company on Monday as they revived an annual breakfast that they had scuttled last year in favor of a purely online discussion about issues of mutual interest.
During Monday’s in-person gathering, the three sets of officials delved into everything from the school system’s search for a new superintendent to the state’s latest annual budget, which has provided both the schools and the county with millions of dollars to build and repair their facilities.
Yet, the conversation that morning inevitably found its way back to the subject of Covid – and in particular, the measures that the Alamance-Burlington school system has taken to halt the spread of this potentially deadly pathogen.
In the end, this foray into public health ate up nearly a third of Monday’s three-hour breakfast, as supporters of practices like vaccines and masking received a verbal mauling from their detractors.
At the receiving end of these skeptical broadsides was Alamance County’s health director Tony Lo Giudice, who appeared at Monday’s inter-jurisdictional meeting to provide an update on the current state of the pandemic. During his presentation, Lo Giudice acknowledged that the past month and a half has seen Covid cases in Alamance County skyrocket despite increases in vaccination rates as well as his own agency’s continued emphasis on face masks.
“Science has left you. You’re going to have to hang your hat on something else. The CDC tells me that masks don’t work. So, why are we doing that to our kids?” – County commissioner Bill Lashley
“My recommendation is still masking. I’m truly relying on the experts from the states and the CDC.” – Alamance County health director Tony Lo Giudice
The health director went on to attribute this trend to the highly virulent Omicron variant of COVID-19, which has proven more resistant to vaccines than other forms of the virus. Yet, his admission of rising infection rates struck county commissioner Bill Lashley as something of a referendum on the wisdom of the health department’s recommendations, and especially its encouragement of face masks.
“Science has left you. You’re going to have to hang your hat on something else,” the commissioner lashed out at Lo Giudice. “The CDC tells me that masks don’t work. So, why are we doing that to our kids?” “My recommendation is still masking,” the health director eventually replied to Lashley’s rebuke. “I’m truly relying on the experts from the states and the CDC.”
Lashley’s objections fed into an ongoing debate about masking among the members of the Alamance-Burlington school board.
Since the start of the current school year in August, a majority of the school board has consistently voted to mandate masks in classrooms and on school buses – in response to a state level directive that requires individual school systems to bring this issue to a vote once a month. Lo Giudice told the meeting’s participants that he expects the next month or so to bring the release of a study on the effectiveness of masks in a public school context.
This forthcoming report couldn’t come soon enough for school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves, who has persistently opposed the school board’s decisions to uphold the mask mandate. Ellington-Graves expressed a sense of hope that the study’s results will ultimately vindicate her dissenting position on masking.
Meanwhile, commissioner Pam Thompson asked the meeting’s participants to consider whether actual scientific evidence or mere Covid fatigue has caused public policy makers to turn away from once-vaunted measures like remote learning and quarantines.
“I’m just so glad we’re back to school,” the commissioner added. “But is our mindset changing?…Are we accepting some things [like high infection rates that were previously beyond the pale]?”
Thompson’s rhetorical inquiry about school closures eventually drew a response from state senator Amy Scott Galey. A Republican who served as chairman of the county’s board of commissioners before her elevation to the General Assembly, Galey urged the meeting’s other participants to weigh the concerns of public health against the potential side effects of precautionary strategies like public school shutdowns.
“What if we had a dashboard that showed us in real time what was happening to our children from school being closed?” she went on to ask. “Yes, the epidemiology is important, but there are other things that are just as important but are more difficult to measure.”
The priorities of public health nevertheless received a vote of confidence from state representative Ricky Hurtado, a Democrat who represents northern and eastern Alamance County in North Carolina’s state house.
“When our kids and our communities aren’t healthy our schools don’t function very well,” Hurtado said. “We need to make sure this stays in the forefront because we’re going to be dealing with the fallout of what’s happening now for the next few years to come.”