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NC Department of Health & Human Services secretary gives update on pandemic as holiday season begins

Newsmakers

RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) — It’s hard to mention the COVID pandemic in North Carolina without mentioning Dr. Mandy Cohen.

As Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, she runs a department that has an annual budget of $20 billion and 17,000 employees.

On this page, see on-demand both the Newsmakers piece that aired in our 10 p.m. newscast on Nov. 15 as well as the web extra for the full scope of my conversation with Dr. Cohen.

During the past 18 months, through her many print and broadcast interviews and her regular appearances at Gov. Roy Cooper’s pandemic media briefings, Cohen has — in many ways — become the public face of the pandemic in the state.

“I hate they’re associating me with such a hard time,” Cohen told me during our first face-to-face meeting recently. (I interviewed her via Zoom in November 2020.) “But leading us through this hard pandemic, I wanted to give people good information and to talk a lot because things are changing so often. And so I recognize that I was in living rooms. What an honor.” 

Now as the pandemic appears to be entering a new phase after the delta variant upsurge and as we head into the holiday season, here are her takes on some of the major COVID topics:

ON WHERE WE ARE IN THE PANDEMIC:

“When I think back to just a year ago and where we were last November of 2020 trends were going up, we didn’t yet have vaccines. We didn’t have widely available treatment. So we are in so much of a better place right now, but are we done with this? No, I don’t. Unfortunately, this virus is not done with us yet.”

ON WHETHER LOCAL GOVERNMENTS SHOULD LIFE MASK MANDATES:

“I do think we’re moving into hopefully a new phase. Things are going in the right direction. Our kids can get vaccinated. We have more treatments, but — let me just — a word of caution is we are going into the holidays. We are going into winter. So I do think folks want to be cautious as they’re looking at it.”

ON ENDING MASK MANDATES IN SCHOOLS:

“So what I would say is it’s a great milestone we’ve reached that our 5- to 11-year-olds can get vaccinated. Great. So now we need a little bit of time though, right? Remember, it’s a two-dose regimen and so our kids are just getting their first dose and then it’s a couple of weeks after that that you are technically fully vaccinated. So we want to give folks some time. Get vaccinated. Get your kids protected. That’s the most important thing right now. Then we should definitely come back and readdress what do we need to do with other layers of protection. But I think it’s too early to know quite yet.”

ON PARENTS STILL HESITANT FOR THEIR CHILDREN TO GET VACCINE:

“I have two daughters who are 7 and 9. I had the opportunity to look at the scientific data myself and make sure to know that this vaccine is not just safe, but it’s also effective. And I think the other thing parents need to know is that kids are vulnerable to COVID. We saw a lot of hospitalizations this summer in our kids from COVID and even some died. And so when you have a safe tool to help protect your children, that’s what I want them to hear from he is take advantage of this safe tool now.”

ON PLANNING TO VISIT RELATIVES AS WE HEAD INTO THANKSGIVING:

“What I would say is absolutely be vaccinated, right? I hope that you are vaccinated, but also your family members are vaccinated. So you could protect yourself and each other. I will say there’s an additional layer of protection you can take which is also doing one of the home rapid tests or even a PCR test ahead of that family gathering. Would use it as a belt and suspenders, get vaccinated and also get tested before you see your family members.”

ON THE TOOLS WE HAVE AVAILABLE TO PREVENT AND TREAT COVID:

“So if you do have COVID symptoms, get a test right away and make sure you’re talking to your doctor about available treatments and then use other protections and layers of protection — masks, social distancing, washing your hands. But things are moving in the right direction so we can get back to the people and places we love. We’re moving in the right direction, but we’ve got to do and use some of those tools that we know work.”

For more information, head to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services COVID Dashboard

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