Children under age five in local child care facilities licensed by the state are no longer required to wear facemasks indoors, under a mandate modification approved 5-0 by the Board of Health on Monday.
The revision says those facilities should follow state Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) guidelines, which “strongly recommend” masks but leave the decision up to the children’s parents.
The Bedford mask mandate remains effective for everyone at least two years old in other indoor spaces accessible to the public.
The change, which was approved unanimously, was proposed by member Ann Kiessling, after her original motion to exempt all children under age five from the mask mandate was unsuccessful, 4-1.
Katharine Dagle, assistant health director, reported that she sent a seven-question survey 10 days ago to 26 local licensees, but received only eight replies. The results were mixed – five of the eight said the young children should wear masks indoors, and five also said they found the mandate helpful. Dagle acknowledged that there may have been some duplicate addresses among the 26, many of which are home-based day-care operations.
Resident Doug Horton called for giving parents the masking discretion for children ages 2-4. During the public comment period, he said that in pre-schools and day-care operations, the educational harms outweigh any health benefits. “Being overly cautious in this regard has a cost,” he said.
Kiessling emphasized that “family discretion is what the EEC wants to use,” and that the agency also recommends that “young children wearing masks are supposed to be supervised. “I don’t think Bedford has any data points, any arguments, for keeping our little ones masked” stricter than state guidelines, she continued. “There is no justification anywhere in the world for putting masks on a three-year-old.”
Member Bea Brunkhorst said she feels strongly in favor of the overall mandate, but doesn’t know how many towns require face coverings for the youngest cohort. Health and Human Services Director Heidi Porter said towns in the “immediate vicinity” start at age two. She added that the age is also recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Member Susan Schwartz said she didn’t think the board should start dissecting the overall mandate.
Before the votes, Kiessling narrated a presentation that reflected what she said is her concern about “overdependence on masks. Masks are designed to collect bacteria, not to block viruses.” Kiessling, whose postdoctoral research explored relationships between viruses and cancer, cited outcomes from studies in Hong Kong, Denmark, Arizona, and Bangladesh, and among U.S Marines.
“There is no statistically significant reduction in virus transmission through the surgical face mask,” she stated. Indeed, she continued, studies show that a significant percentage of people don’t exhale virus at all.
She acknowledged that masks are “probably going to stop some passage,” and can be “very worthwhile in a health care setting.”
Board member Maureen Richichi responded, “My dining room table is littered with reports and studies. One of the biggest problems of this pandemic is we just don’t have enough good data.” She stated, “The general conclusion of all of them at the end is that we continue masking in schools as part of overall mitigation. It does do something. With all my research I still feel there a value to masking. And we still don’t have enough data on the Delta variant.”
Brunkhorst commented that “we are seeing transmission in households and the schools can be protected by having the community load go down.” Kiessling replied that this would warrant requiring people to wear masks in their homes.
Schwartz advocated the mask mandate as part of an arsenal of tactics to counter the covid virus, especially when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable. She stressed that the Board of Health will continue to review the data and responses at every meeting.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763