Gov. Roy Cooper speaks about his pandemic policies during a press conference on May 14, 2021.

About 50,000 state employees who work for cabinet agencies under Gov. Roy Cooper have until Sept. 1 to verify they are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or face weekly COVID-19 tests and mask-wearing mandates, the governor announced at a Thursday afternoon press conference.

Cooper urged private companies and local governments to follow suit. 

COVID-19 cases are climbing rapidly, and hospitalizations are seeing “the fastest increase since the pandemic began,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen, head of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, as she joined Cooper at the press conference.

Cooper and Cohen struck a dire tone. “This moment is different than the last time we were experiencing rising trends,” Cohen said.

With 57% of North Carolinians fully vaccinated, the delta variant of the coronavirus is “finding and infecting those who are still unvaccinated,” Cohen said.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have doubled in less than two weeks, with 1,141 people reported hospitalized on Thursday, according to the DHHS website. In that same time frame, the number of new positive cases each day has more than tripled, from 1,023 people two weeks ago to 3,268 reported Thursday.

Cohen said these cases were for the most part preventable: 92% of positive COVID-19 cases in North Carolina were among those who have not been vaccinated. Vaccines are available for anyone ages 12 and older.

Cooper also encouraged local school boards to require masks at their campuses in areas with high COVID-19 transmission, which in North Carolina is four out of every five counties, Cooper said. That’s much higher than the nation as a whole, where a little over a third of counties are experiencing high levels of community transmission, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“I know that hearing these messages is alarming,” Cooper said. “Until more people get vaccinated, this is the reality we have to confront.”

Cooper also urged people to follow the CDC guidelines, which call for people to wear masks in areas of high viral spread. 

Cohen said the delta variant of the coronavirus is far more contagious than the strain that dominated last year. “Back in April we didn’t have the delta variant, and now almost every single case is the delta variant,” she said. 

Last year, it could be expected that each person infected with COVID would infect two or three other people. With the delta variant, that number rises to six.

Meanwhile, members of the National Guard are going door to door in some communities looking for people who want to get vaccinated, said Mike Sprayberry, the head of the Department of Emergency Management, whose last day was Thursday.

“We really want to penetrate those communities where they have a high rate of vaccine hesitancy,” Sprayberry said. 

“We want to help people who have transportation issues.”

The American Medical Association and the American Nursing Association have both endorsed vaccination. “We have to use the strongest tool we have,” Cohen said.

The mandate covers the agencies in the Democratic governor’s cabinet but not other state workers like those at Republican Treasurer Dale Folwell’s office.

Folwell was stricken with COVID-19 in March 2020 and was even hospitalized.

“My lungs were completely affected,” Folwell told Carolina Public Press later Thursday. “I was in the ER for 32 minutes before they rushed me to the ICU and I stayed in the ICU for three days battling for my life.” There he was placed on oxygen.

“This is a very serious matter,” he said. Folwell said he has also been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Folwell said he encourages everyone to get vaccinated, including his 400 employees, who largely cut checks for the state government and oversee the health plan for the state’s current and retired workers.

‘People know what to do’

The statewide mask mandate ends Friday, and when asked at the press conference why he’s not extending it, Cooper said, “People know what to do. … We know the real way out of this is vaccines.”

Cooper is giving the agencies in his cabinet until Sept. 1 to set up a system to verify the vaccination status of their workers and to have a way to test workers who opt to not get vaccinated.

President Joe Biden announced similar measures for the federal workforce on Thursday. He said all federal workers and on-site contractors must get vaccinated or face regular testing and be subjected to travel restrictions.

He also asked local governments to pay $100 to anyone newly vaccinated using federal COVID-19 relief funds.

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Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at