Member Ann Kiessling offered a modified version that would have deleted the word “mandate” and added language consistent with that used by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – specifically, “recommend” and “should” wear masks.
Her colleague Bea Brunkhorst said she would like to see if the trend continues until the board’s next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 25. Member Susan Schwartz also thought a change would be premature.
And that essentially ended the debate, because only three board members were present and approval requires a majority of a full board, not just those at the meeting. Kiessling said she will revisit the issue when they convene again.
Heidi Porter, director of the Health and Human Services Department, said she finds it “encouraging” that the most recent two-week local case count is 22. She added that the most recent 10 cases comprised four young children, four vaccinated adults, and two adults who weren’t inoculated. Four of the cases were in a single household. Last week there were three active cases in the schools; there have been 22 overall since classes resumed, she noted.
Kiessling said under a modified policy, businesses still would have the option of requiring face coverings. She asked Porter to find out from the Bedford Chamber of Commerce whether businesses have been affected. Porter stated that public health requirements sometimes inconvenience businesses. Schwartz added that some businesses may appreciate the mandate.
Porter also pointed out that the mask mandate approved by the board includes an “off ramp” metric that has not yet been realized: a CDC transmission level below “substantial.” Bedford case numbers, extrapolated per 100,000 people, is 66; Porter said when the total is 50 that is considered “moderate.” The national rate recently dropped from “high.”
Kiessling inquired about the origin of these categories and the numbers of infections on which they are based. She said “nobody at CDC can tell us where that guidance comes from.”
“I think it’s just bringing our language in line with what the CDC says, although I don’t think the CDC has handled this very well,” Kiessling commented. Porter said that’s the reason local boards established requirements for face coverings. They “took it to the next level based on local and regional data.” She said at least two dozen communities have implemented mandates, such as Lexington and Billerica. Kiessling pointed out that Burlington and Concord have not.
Brunkhorst noted that Hopkinton High School has reached the 80 percent student and staff vaccination rate that clears the way for lifting the state-required face coverings. She wondered how the process works. Kiessling noted that the Health Department dashboard reports an almost 90 percent vaccination rate among residents ages 12-19.
(Asked about this Wednesday, BHS Principal Heather Galante wrote, “As long as we have an indoor mask mandate in the Town of Bedford, the schools will also continue with the indoor mask mandate.”)
Kiessling also pointed out that the CDC reports that 5-10 percent of vaccinated people are reporting “breakthrough” Covid cases, but recent data in Bedford are more like 50 percent. Nevertheless, member Susan Schwartz said, “I am encouraged with the decline.” She said it is a result of “the combination of everything we are putting out there, the multipronged approach is helping.”
In answer to Brunkhorst’s question, Porter said she knows of no hospitalizations of local residents because of Covid-19. Kiessling said that since the local mandate went into effect on Aug. 27, there have been 97 positive cases and no hospitalizations. She cited a study from Bangladesh indicating that masks might have prevented 10 percent of the new cases.
Kiessling also withdrew her support for a Board of Health recommendation requiring vaccinations for all Bedford school personnel. She said the word “mandate” in the board’s letter to the School Committee was “overreach;” that type of message should emanate from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, she said.
Schwartz acknowledged that “mandate is a very strong, hard word” but she said that the ultimate decision is the schools’. A vote to approve the text of the recommendation letter was 2-1, so a revote will be scheduled for Oct. 25.
Kiessling also said she would oppose recommending a mandatory vaccination for town employees. She noted that with a 50 percent breakthrough rate, in the town, “testing is a much more powerful tool.” Porter noted that testing “has been a recommendation of the board for many months.”
Board members said the discussion will continue at the next meeting.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763