Board of Health Feels Indoor Mask Mandate is Premature ~ Will Move Quickly if Cases Escalate

The Bedford Board of Health agreed Monday that it would be premature to declare an indoor mask mandate. But a consensus at an emergency meeting of the board Monday afternoon indicated that steps will be taken quickly if Covid cases escalate.

The board, which plans to meet weekly indefinitely, also concurred that its goals are to implement policies that “protect the Bedford community, prevent serious illness, hospitalization, and death.

“We want to keep our businesses and schools open and our families safe,” said member Maureen Richichi, noting, “Things could change on a dime within a couple of weeks.”  Her colleague Bea Brunkhorst agreed. “We are seeing these flareups. If we can prevent them by having masks on for a couple more months, we can do that.”

“We can mandate as a preventative, or hold off and continue to monitor,” Richichi summarized. “So we need to stay on top of the numbers and act in a very quick manner. Our job is to look after community health.”

Board Chair Anita Raj plans to share these conclusions with Town Manager Sarah Stanton at a Tuesday meeting the manager requested. Health and Human Services Director Heidi Porter, who was part of Monday’s virtual meeting, also plans to attend.

The School Committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday and talk about health and safety measures for the coming year. Porter on Monday noted that the schools can establish their own protocols.

Any future indoor mask mandate should feature “hard, fast criteria on what to evaluate, and how do we pull back,” board members concurred.

All members felt that decisions should be driven by data, and although local cases are on an upswing, they actually dropped from 19 to 15 over the most recent two-week reporting period, said Porter. Before July 22, there were barely any local cases, she said. Bedford’s positivity rate is 1.14 percent of tests.

Member Dr. Ann Kiessling pointed out that the actual positivity rate is likely much lower, because “people get tested for a reason.” Even so, she said, “we are at 10 percent of the national average.”

Members acknowledged that the population includes people who come and go between Bedford and other towns (“like mosquito control,” Porter noted). Raj noted that in recent days, several area towns have implemented indoor mask mandates, ahead of any statewide policy. Her colleague Susan Schwartz said attention should be paid to the town and the “surrounding Bedford ecosystem.”

Porter cautioned that, based on conversations with colleagues in the region, “We are indeed one cluster away from having a wide-scale response.”

The health director explained that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designates Covid risk for counties as moderate, substantial, or high. Middlesex County is considered substantial. Brunkhorst said the statistic that results in that designation is 93 positive cases per 100,000 residents. Kiessling pointed out that under CDC standards, Massachusetts is one of the lowest risk states.

Solid data on the transmissivity of the delta variant is still limited, said Porter, including the impact of face covering.

Kiessling offered that “a basic premise of virology” is that the milder the virus, the more likely it is to be transmitted. “This delta variant will be transmitted more widely as it makes people less sick,” she said. “Delta is not scarier.”

She also pointed out that at Emerson Hospital, there are two patients with Covid, but neither was admitted for treatment of the virus. “Our local community hospital has nobody sick enough to be in the hospital. That’s the key metric.” Schwartz replied that it is important to know the situation in other area hospitals as well.

Brunkhorst noted that cases statewide are increasing, mostly among unvaccinated residents. “To me, the bright horizon is when we have an approved vaccine for ages five or six and up.” Schwartz emphasized that “there are people who are immuno-compromised and they are still at great risk.”

“We just don’t know yet in terms of higher transmissivity of Delta,” said Richichi. “So I have concerns for our children and vulnerable residents not vaccinated.” She added she also is worried about cases of “long-haul” Covid developing from the variant.

There were areas of disagreement. Kiessling challenged the efficacy of masks in protecting from Covid. “There is a lot of data that indicate masks are not going to change very much,” she asserted. Richichi replied that her research shows that masks are part of an effective mitigation package that “has worked very well.”

Kiessling said, “I can’t find any good data that say masks have been particularly useful in schools.” Brunkhorst pointed out that “we had masks in school all year and only had to close once.” Kiessling said there are no comparable data without masks. Richichi said the situation has changed with the variant. Porter acknowledged in response to Kiessling’s question that there has not been an outbreak in a local school or business.

Raj stressed that the board’s decision will impact adults – business owners and customers, patrons of restaurants, fitness clubs.

Porter noted that her department has not yet filled the vacant position of public health nurse. Mark Waksmonski recently took a position with the state Department of Public Health.

At the start of the meeting, four residents commented. Patty Carluccio cited the town’s high vaccination numbers and low positivity rate. “We should be looking only at data in our town, in our area,” she said. “We don’t want to go backward here unless absolutely necessary. I don’t think we need to be fearful at this stage.”

Kelly Horton, in a prepared statement, said state agencies are not requiring masks in schools. “This is not a childhood disease,” she said, even with the variant. “There are zero reasons or data that supports universal masking,” which she called “a complete and unnecessary overreach.”

David DiGangi echoed those views, saying that any decision should not be based on “fear of what might happen.”

Resident Sarah Sjostrom, a nurse administrator in a geriatric facility, offered an alternative perspective. “The virus is changing, and that’s one of the scary things we face in our health care setting,” she said. “I would rather see us being proactive rather than reactive.”

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763


Keep our journalism strong! Support The Citizen Journalism Fund today. Contact The Bedford Citizen: editor@thebedfordcitizen.org or 781-325-8606

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

2 Comments
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rahim Semy
Rahim Semy
11 months ago

Cases are currently on the rise. We should put in mask mandates now.

mark figenbaum
11 months ago

poor choice in my opinion.

2
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x