Kiessling called for changing the criterion for relaxing the board’s mandate because she feels it is based on an unrealistic Covid case number. She also wanted to exempt certain businesses that don’t have general public access. Board members voted against both of her motions on Monday but agreed to address them fully in two weeks.
Kiessling asserted that cases “aren’t a reasonable metric,” as Bedford’s numbers are higher than Burlington’s, which does not require face covering. “It isn’t clear what the mask mandate is for,” she said. “If you want to keep the mandate, then come up with an alternative off-ramp.” Other towns employ vaccination rates, daily incidence, or transmissibility data.
“It’s a great idea. I’m just not ready to vote,” said Board chair Anita Raj. “I want to hear more.” Her colleague Susan Schwartz added, “I think we’ve all been thinking about when the timing is right.” Bea Brunkhorst said she would be interested in what metrics other towns are using. Maureen Richichi also agreed although she feels masks have made a difference. “It would be interesting to see what other towns are doing and consider that at our next meeting.”
Kiessling pointed out that almost all new infections originate in households and “there are zero transmissions in many businesses. I think we are putting a real undue burden on our businesses,” she said, calling for relaxing the mandate for gymnasiums and manufacturing firms.
Heidi Porter, Director of Health and Human Services, countered that “some people took jobs because there is a mandate. There are folks that may choose to go to a gym because protective measures are in place.” Others from outside also enter a workspace, such as vendors or public safety personnel, she added. Kiessling replied that individual businesses can impose their own policies.
Schwartz said she would “consider doing changes but I want to look at the mask mandate line by line.” She added she was “uncertain how to differentiate among businesses.” Members asked Katharine Dagle, Assistant Health Director, to try to categorize businesses that could be impacted.
“There’s no indication that the masks have not done anything but make people miserable at work,” Kiessling remarked. Richichi pointed out that other communities recently imposed mask mandates in response to a surge in cases. She added that Burlington opted against a mandate because the Board of Health felt it would be unenforceable.
Porter told the board that there were 623 local Covid cases during the two-week period that ended Jan. 20, an increase of 571 from the two-week period that ended Jan. 13. Later in the presentation, she cited the case count for the past seven days as 184.
“We’re still up there with our case count,” Porter said, adding that she suspects part of it is residual holiday infections. “Fingers crossed that we start to see that case count come down.” She called for “personal responsibility for the greater good. I’m hoping that folks are working to maintain that.”
Porter shared data between Jan. 2 and 15 showing that there were 103 households with two or more cases and 252 known breakthroughs. As of Monday, she said, there were 55 active cases in the schools.
She summarized changes in state policies regarding student testing for Covid-19, replacing the test-and-stay system with weekly at-home rapid testing, as long as schools continue to offer symptomatic and pooled testing. Bedford will begin this practice next week, she said, and will no longer be involved with contact tracing, as “we were essentially contacting everybody.”
“If you are informed that there’s a positive case in your child’s classroom, assume your child could be exposed,” she said. “Everybody still gets to come to school—there hasn’t been a lot of transmission in this environment. At-home testing provides backup during the course of the week.”
Porter said more than 95 percent of residents between the ages of 12 and 19 are fully vaccinated for Covid-19. The rate for residents ages 5-11 is around 70 percent, she noted, adding that at the most recent booster clinic, there was more vaccine than arms. “We’ve reached some sort of saturation here with the vaccine.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763