The Bedford Board of Health on Monday, Jan.4 will continue its discussion of social distancing and criteria for school closings and classroom quarantining in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The virtual meeting, which begins at 7 pm on Zoom, will spotlight a topic launched by member Dr. Ann Kiessling at the last board meeting Dec. 21. The agenda allows for a possible vote.
Kiessling maintains that the key to successful management of the virus is testing, especially as the only way to identify and isolate asymptomatic people.
Complicating her presentation was a 3-1-1 vote by the Board of Health earlier in the meeting calling for an opinion from the state Ethics Commission on possible conflict of interest. Kiessling is director of Bedford Research Foundation, which has been testing for Covid-19 since responding to a federal plea to private laboratories several months ago. (As of Thursday afternoon, it could not be confirmed that the request has been filed with the Commission.)
Beginning an hour into the Dec. 21 meeting, after an opinion from town counsel, Kiessling averted any mention of testing, pending a ruling.
Without using the word, Kiessling presented a slide calling for twice-weekly surveillance for faculty and staff and consideration of the same regimen for students. Minimum physical distancing would be three feet among students and six feet for adults, all wearing masks.
The School Committee and administration have said that six-foot physical distancing is non-negotiable, as part of a memorandum of understanding with teachers. Nevertheless, Kiessling told the board, “This is a plan I would like to consider for the Bedford schools.”
She also wanted the board “to talk about the possibility that the focus on six feet of distancing for students in the schools isn’t supported by any particular data.”
Kiessling said she planned to make her presentation to the School Committee, and board Chair Sarah Thompson told her, “You can go as a resident but not representing the board’s opinion.” Kiessling replied., “I was hoping the board would talk about it.” That discussion apparently will take place Monday.
Kiessling, whose doctorate is in biochemistry/biophysics, said she could not find research supporting the six-feet standard. “Of course it’s supported. It’s absolutely supported,” shot back Heidi Porter, Director of Health and Human Services. “It’s not just our directive. It’s a statewide and nationwide directive. It’s a combination that has been successful and it’s working here in Bedford.”
“What we know for sure is: very close contact over a period of time we know that is going to spread. What we don’t know is how else the virus is spreading,” Kiessling stated. “I think it’s really important for people to understand that you can’t solve communication of this virus simply by wearing a mask.”
She said information emanating from the state education department can be “confusing,” including the parameters of safe physical distancing.
“Anybody involved with children really wants them to be in school,” Kiessling declared, citing professional studies showing negative impact from school closures. “Getting kids back to school is really what Bedford should focus on.”
Children through high school don’t seem to be spreading the virus, Kiessling said; they are less likely to be symptomatic and “much, much less likely to have any severe disease.”
She maintained that in schools, six feet of separation is appropriate to protect teachers and other adults but “may not be so important for children.” In most countries, she pointed out, six feet of distancing precludes wearing masks. “Somehow those two things have gotten moved together,” she said. The World Health Organization said three feet of separation with masks is “a perfectly safe way to do it,” she said. “Little people definitely don’t need a six-foot clearance.”
“Wearing masks is useful if you are infected. You’re probably going to prevent spread,” Kiessling said, adding, “Wearing a mask will not protect you.” She cited results from studies at major Boston hospitals, in Denmark, and among a large contingent of Marines to illustrate that the differences in virus positivity between subjects wearing and not wearing masks was almost negligible.
The key, she said, is “to figure what the current infection level is in the community.”
“I cannot find one reference to mask prevention for SARS-CoV-2,” said Kiessling, referring to the Covid-19 coronavirus by a more technical name. “This virus doesn’t pay much attention to masks. Because you’re wearing one doesn’t mean you’re protected.” They can provide a false sense of security, she continued, and studies show they don’t prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses.
Porter replied, “It’s all the pillars of public health that are necessary to act together. No one has ever promoted just mask wearing.” Aerosol spread can travel “way farther” than six feet, “even among little people,” she said.
Kiessling stressed that “if somebody gets infected, it isn’t because they did anything wrong. We don’t really understand all the ways this virus is spread.”
Also on Monday’s agenda are reviews and possible votes on statements on testing and an overall statement on the pandemic.