FILE - Gov. Roy Cooper NC

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks during a briefing on North Carolina’s coronavirus pandemic response Friday April 17, 2020, at the North Carolina Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh, N.C.

(The Center Square) – North Carolina will start verifying the vaccination status of government workers under an executive order signed by Gov. Roy Cooper Thursday.

Cooper and health officials said the order is aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 and encouraging more people to get vaccinated. It comes as the delta variant of the coronavirus triggered a rise in COVID-19 cases. The order also changes recent guidance for mask wearing in K-12 schools.

"Until more people get the vaccine, we will continue living with the very real threat of serious disease, and we will continue to see more dangerous and contagious variants like Delta," Cooper said during a news briefing Thursday.

Starting on Sept. 1, state government cabinet agencies must verify whether their employees are vaccinated. The rule would apply to anyone who works at agencies that are part of the governor's office or is headed by the governor's cabinet members.

Unvaccinated employees will be tested at least once a week and must wear a mask indoors. Cooper said that state employees who break safety protocols would be penalized, but he could not provide details of the penalty. Cooper's order also encourages all state and local government agencies and private businesses to adopt the policy.

As of Thursday, North Carolina has administered nearly 9.8 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. About 57% of the adult population are fully vaccinated. Another 61% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The order also changes guidance on face coverings for public schools that was issued a week ago. It urges leaders at all K-12 schools to require students, visitors and school staff to wear face coverings at school, regardless of vaccination status, unless they have received medical clearance.

The health guidance issued by the North Carolina Department of Human Health Services last week encouraged school districts to require masking wearing only for K-8 schools, but it was changed Thursday to mirror the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) new guidance.

CDC officials on Wednesday said that face coverings should be worn by people while indoors in a public place and in areas of high risk of transmission. 

Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham slammed the new guidance Thursday. He said the "public health authorities are shifting rules and perpetual panic."

Berger believes the new guidance will discourage North Carolinians from getting vaccinated. He also pointed out that fewer North Carolinians have died from COVID-19 in July than on a single day in January, a handful of weeks following the vaccine rollout.

"The CDC offers more consistent guidance on consuming raw cookie dough than on masks," Berger said in a news release. "That's a problem and here's why: If the CDC erodes its credibility on masks, then it risks eroding its credibility on the far more important message of vaccines."

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for five years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.