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COVID-19 cases rise sharply a month before schools open

New COVID-19 cases are rising sharply in Buncombe County in the past two weeks, but public schools in Asheville and Buncombe County will resume in-person classes a month from now without requiring students, faculty or staff to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Most of the average 18 new cases a day — triple the number of early July but far fewer than at the height of the pandemic in January —are among people who have not been vaccinated for the coronavirus, doctors tell The Watchdog.

All children age 12 and older are eligible for free COVID-19 vaccinations — adults too — and Asheville and Buncombe County schools hosted free immunization clinics this summer. But COVID-19 vaccinations are voluntary, and any decision to make them mandatory for students, faculty, and staff ahead of the scheduled Aug. 23 opening would have to come from the state health department and the Department of Public Instruction, school officials said.  

Health officials say current vaccines are effective against the Delta variant, but only 51 percent of Buncombe County adults are fully vaccinated, according to figures updated Tuesday by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

As of Tuesday, “Asheville City Schools is NOT requiring our students or staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccine prior to the start of the 2021-2022 school year,” Ashley-Michelle Thublin, the system’s executive director of communications, told Asheville Watchdog via email.

“We will return to school in person, five days a week in August,” Stacia Harris, director of communications for Buncombe County Schools, emailed The Watchdog, adding, “BCS is not requiring COVID-19 vaccines for students or staff to begin school in August.” 

All students will still be required to have been vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, rubella, mumps, flu, chickenpox, hepatitis B, and meningitis. By state law, school principals are required to deny admittance to any student who has not been vaccinated for these diseases.

One-hundred years ago, before an effective vaccine against diphtheria was developed, the disease killed 1,864 North Carolinians in the period 1920-24. The North Carolina General Assembly made the diphtheria vaccine mandatory for schoolchildren in 1939. The disease is now rare.

North Carolina was the first state to make a polio vaccine mandatory for schoolchildren, in 1959. A decade earlier, in 1948, polio killed 143 children and adults in the state and crippled thousands more. Today the disease is virtually eliminated. — P.L.

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