Board of Health Not Ready to Phase Out Indoor Mask Mandate

The Board of Health Monday continued to grapple with challenges to the indoor mask mandate it voted more than two months ago.

But members did agree that a municipal Covid-19 testing site would be a major benefit, and Chair Anita Raj said she will approach her Select Board counterpart on ways to achieve that.

One topic was the “off-ramp,” meaning the criteria by which the board would agree to relax the face-covering requirement. At a recent meeting, members agreed that the threshold would be fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 Middlesex County residents for four consecutive weeks – a prevalence called “substantial” by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Member Ann Kiessling, who has continually questioned the public health value of the requirement, pointed out that “two-thirds of the people getting this virus are vaccinated,” so reaching the threshold “is going to be very difficult.”

“The real question is: How many people are getting sick?” she said, adding, “They’re not getting sick. No residents have been hospitalized for many months.” She also said, “The mandate is a real hardship on some people in Bedford.”

That case was reinforced by Jane Karpovsky, co-owner of Club 600, the fitness business on Wiggins Avenue. Speaking during the public comment period, Karpovsky said the mask requirement “is impacting not just our business but a lot of other businesses in Bedford.”

Karpovsky said she and her husband bought the business, formerly Summit Fitness, in January 2020. The center was closed for four months during the most intense period of Covid-19 and subsequently “we have lost about 50 percent of our members.”

“The mandate is negatively impacting our business. You can imagine how extremely difficult it is performing strenuous activities with a mask on,” she told the board. “Businesses in nearby towns that do not have a mandate are taking our business,” she said.

Resident Robin Steele echoed those concerns. “A lot of the businesses in our town have suffered a lot,” she said, advocating that each business be allowed to exercise a choice.

But there was no discussion of amending the requirement. Raj said she still wants to follow “public health policy.” She added that it also is an important goal to deter the extended symptoms known as long Covid. “We are not on an island, we are part of a much broader ecosystem,” said member Susan Schwartz, and face coverings are among “a list of mitigation strategies.”

But she said the board may want to consider an alternative “exit ramp,” such as Billerica’s, where one criterion is the percentage of vaccinated residents. State health officials also exempt schools from most mask requirements if students and staff vaccinations reach 80 percent.

Board members also expressed concern about the stagnation of local vaccination rates. Maureen Richichi pointed out that the number of residents over age 65 who are vaccinated has not noticeably changed for months.

“We really did well from an outreach perspective. I wish we had a better understanding of the mentality,” said Health and Human Services Director Heidi Porter. “If everyone is not vaccinated, we could see an uptick.” But Kiessling wondered whether the data, provided by the state from individual vaccination sites, are reliable. Perhaps some older residents were inoculated in Florida, she surmised.

Earlier messaging to encourage vaccination among the elderly “only works to a certain extent,” Richichi said. She added that studies have shown that other incentives didn’t work very well.

Porter told the board that from Oct. 21 to Nov. 3 there were either 14 (state) or 17 (town) new Covid cases. The discrepancy has to do with reporting deadlines, she said. More than half of the new cases were “breakthroughs” among vaccinated residents; there were two households with two or more cases.

Kiessling noted that Burlington and Concord are not mandating indoor masks. Richichi noted that Lexington has extended its requirement into January. “I don’t see any difference in any of the towns,” Kiessling said of Covid incidence.

She observed, “The reason this seems so outrageous is that millions of people got infected within three months. But as a disease, it’s not going to end up being as severe as the flu.”

People are looking for opportunities to be tested because they are concerned about exposure, Kiessling observed, but “it’s not easy to go to a free site. “Testing is so fundamental that it should be really easy.”

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

5 Comments

  1. If the vaccine works so well then why do the vaccinated continue to get re-injected??? This is a bunch of bull and so is the mask mandate it is rooted in hysteria!!!!

  2. The negative aspects of the mask mandate on businesses can’t be denied. There is a segment of the population, myself included, that have taken our business to surrounding towns that do not have mask mandates. Once these habits are established it will be difficult to get people to go back to their old habits. How long will the local businesses continue to put up with a mask mandate while they watch customers flee to the competition in mask free areas.

  3. It should also be noted that most of the breakthrough cases are occurring within households. Essentially, a single infected person (whether vaccinated or not) spent significant amount of time indoors with members of a household and they all became infected (again, whether vaccinated or not). This comports with the observations of the Provincetown Outbreak where a few infected individuals spent time with many people indoors (in that case, bars).

    That doesn’t mean that the vaccine is not very effective. It means that if you keep bombarding the body with enough virus particles, some may “break-through” and gain a foothold, even if only for a short period of time. Furthermore, it does not appear that there has been much spread beyond the household of these breakthrough cases.

    Get Vaccinated! Help end this pandemic!

    • If the vaccine works so well then why do the vaccinated continue to get re-injected??? This is a bunch of bull and so is the mask mandate it is rooted in hysteria!!!!

  4. With regards to opinions about whether or not the mask mandate hurts Bedford businesses, other surveys done by the health department and feedback, particularly of food establishments and day cares, have shown that a majority of the businesses support the mask mandate and feel that they are good for business. I know I wouldn’t want to go someplace where masks weren’t required at this time. Workers also want to work where masks are required.

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