At a special meeting Tuesday, the Manchester Board of Health agreed with its decision two weeks ago to let a three-month town wide mask mandate for all public businesses and buildings expired on Thursday, Dec. 2.  

Town Hall Notebook

The decision came with the assurance of robust local vaccination rates—especially among those five years old and older, as well as vaccine boosters among the vulnerable, 65 and older resident population.  But it said it will continue to monitor COVID data locally and in surrounding towns, and it will create a specific benchmark for Manchester that will be reviewed at its next meeting on Dec. 9.

Going into the fall season, local towns have been girding themselves for an expected seasonal upswing.  And while COVID positivity rates have risen at a consistent rate to this time last year across Cape Ann, hospitalization rates have remained low, especially compared to hospitalization rates for the same period last year.  

What’s credited for this?  Strong vaccination rates.  In Manchester, 79% of residents over age five have been fully vaccinated, and 56% of kids from 5-11 have received their first vaccine dose.  No Manchester resident has been hospitalized in the last year from COVID.  In Essex, 70% of residents over age 12 have been fully vaccinated and and 49% of those age 5-11 have received their first vaccine dose.

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Hospitalization rates among those with COVID are low, and strongly skew to those who are unvaccinated.  (In fact, Massachusetts COVID hospitalization rates for fully vaccinated residents is just .05% as of Nov. 27.)  

Top of mind for the BOHs in both Essex and Manchester this fall has been COVID’s new variants, the Delta variant appeared this past summer, and current vaccines have been seen by public health officials as effective in protecting against it.  The latest variant is “Omicron.”  

For people who are fully vaccinated, it appears at this early stage that this new variant is not a game-changer.  But, say local health officials, the game may indeed change.  On Tuesday, Tonya Colpitts of the BOH volunteered to create a data benchmark specific to Manchester that can be used to evaluate the board actions regarding public recommendations or mandates.

Last week, the Baker-Polito Administration announced that effective immediately, all Massachusetts residents aged 18 and over are eligible to get a COVID-19 booster six months after receiving the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or two months since receiving a Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccine.  This expanded from its initial prioritization of those over age 65 or who work in what are considered essential environments. 

Vaccines opened to residents age five and older earlier this month.  On Tuesday a public vaccine and booster clinic was conducted at the Sacred Heart Church on School Street for those over five years old (first and second vaccine doses) as well as boosters for everyone else. 

The clinic was fully booked.  Other weekly clinics are running in Essex, Hamilton, Manchester and Gloucester.

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Two weeks ago when it voted to let the mandate expire, the Manchester BOH faced businesses that said the mandate has made things challenging, especially since Manchester was the only town locally with a public mandate (driving customers and employees to neighboring towns for their needs).  They said the state’s “strong recommendation” for COVID safety guideline will ensure safety while supporting them.  And, they said, vaccination rates are strong, and most residents are compliant.

“The Board doesn’t want to impose hardship on anybody,” said Paula Polo Filias, chairman of the Board of Health at the time.  “But they want to be conservative.”

Whatever the case, vaccination rates are key.  Widespread vaccination for COVID-19 remains the best protection from severe illness and death, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.  Both the Manchester and Essex Boards of Health recommend that everyone ages 5 years and older get a COVID-19 vaccine and strongly recommend continued vigilance with basic but critical safety practices such as spacing in groups, wearing a mask in public buildings, and frequent and thorough hand washing.

The next meeting of the Board of Health is Thursday, Dec. 9 at 8:30 a.m.  

Visit the Manchester or Essex town websites, or tap into Massachusetts Department of Public Health resources (vaxfinder.mass.gov or dial 211 from a cell phone.)