The Board of Health would like to provide this brief summary of BOH/BOS meeting November 18 – specifically with regard to the agenda item “Indoor Mask Mandate” for MBTS.
The MBTS public health nurse presented the current and recent COVID-19 case data (slight uptick in numbers to 17, with 14 vaccinated) – and current vaccine statistics: 44 percent of the five- to 11-year-olds have already received their first dose of COVID-19-vaccine, and booster clinics for the eligible (elderly) population are readily available in the area. It was stated that this trend makes the BOH hopeful that the mask mandate can be lifted soon, since the original intent of the mask mandate was (and is) to protect the still vulnerable population in town from exposures outside of school.
Subsequently Martin Hahn MD presented an overview of where Massachusetts currently stands regarding seven-day moving averages of COVID-19 cases, Hospitalizations, Deaths, and Test positivity rates. It was noted that in these categories numbers are higher than during the summer, and appear to be similar to numbers in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021 – and that there are concerns about significant COVID-related hospital- and ICU-utilization rates in the Eastern part of Massachusetts.
Subsequently a long discussion ensued between members of the community, members of the business community and the chamber of Commerce, as well as members of the BOS and BOH regarding their respective perspectives on the merits of the indoor mask mandate:
Many members of the business community felt that abolishing the mandate right away is warranted due to the low numbers in our community as well as in surrounding communities (who do not have an indoor mask mandate). The effect of mandated masking on business activity was emphasized, with the general impression prevailing those businesses have seen significantly less customers due to the imposed burden of masking. The feeling of many was that businesses will suffer greatly, especially during the upcoming main shopping season until the holidays, if mandated masking has to continue.
The BOH and several other commenters were airing on the side of caution with the main argument being: the original objective of protecting the 5- to 11-year-olds and the elderly with waning immunity has not been met quite yet, although they are greatly encouraged by the progress that has been made on that front. Further arguments for maintaining a cautious approach were mentioned including the upcoming expected increase in travel around Thanksgiving, the lack of widespread testing data, which makes comparisons between communities difficult, the necessity to maintain the health of the workforce by reducing potential exposures, and the disturbing trend of increasing case numbers in vaccinated and unvaccinated populations in Eastern Massachusetts (and other states).
Given that MBTS is not isolated, but inbound and outbound traffic has grown significantly, it is very hard to interpret direct effects of a mask mandate. A compromise was reached with a decision to end the mask mandate after December 2 (barring any significant change in the COVID-19 case load and/or change in potential state guidelines). The BOH will hold a meeting on November 30 to reevaluate the data and issue a confirmatory (= mask mandate to be abolished) vote, or reassess the strategy in the unlikely event that new data will prompt a reversal. The results of this meeting will be communicated promptly, so the scheduled activities around the Friendship Tree lighting and Christmas by the Sea events in early December will be able to happen with clear information regarding such BOH recommendations.
Of course – an optional mask recommendation is always on the table and was also mentioned as a subsequent step for individual businesses to use, depending on their individual comfort level with current COVID-case levels.
Manchester Board of Health
Paula Polo Filias
Dr. Martin Hahn
Dr. Tonya Colpitts