Board of Health Optimistic about Lifting Mask Mandate at Feb. 28 Meeting

If Middlesex County Covid-19 hospital admissions continue their downward trend over the next three weeks, the Bedford Board of Health will consider immediately rescinding its indoor mask mandate at its next regularly scheduled meeting, Feb. 28.

That off-ramp emerged at the conclusion of Monday’s virtual board meeting, following more than an hour of grappling with the variables of a pandemic that is changing but still dominating the agenda.

Also approved was an alternate option: if the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education relaxes its in-school mask requirement, the board will duplicate that. The current DESE mandate expires on Feb. 28.

“We are much closer to repealing than we have ever been,” said board Chair Anita Raj.

The board confronted the issue as promised two weeks earlier when member Ann Kiessling pointed out that the case data required to relax the mask mandate was unrealistic. Kiessling also wanted the board to consider exempting health and sports businesses as well as manufacturers from the requirement, but the board did not agree.

Board member Maureen Richichi introduced a three-pronged formula to provide a rationale for rescinding the mandate: sustained decrease in county hospitalizations, a community vaccination rate of more than 80 percent, and “no other variant of concern on the horizon.”

The Bedford vaccination rate is just over or just under 80 percent, depending on whether the local or state population source is used.

“I don’t think it is over but we are on the downward slope,” Richichi said. “Experts say we can have a few more rough weeks and there are still unknowns about variants.” She also stressed the importance of avoiding overwhelming hospitals, many of which are short-staffed.

Kiessling reiterated her position: “My overarching recommendation is the pandemic is over. We really need to take care of the rest of our society. We have protected the vulnerable and we have not protected our children.”

Member Bea Brunkhorst concurred with Richichi’s suggested course and urged that more time elapse. “I would like to see it go through this month and continue downward trends,” she said. Brunkhorst cited a federal report projecting that Massachusetts hospital rates in March will resemble those of last November.

Member Susan Schwartz offered some benchmark goals: perhaps 10 hospitalizations per 100,000 residents over seven days. She also suggested correlating with the DESE mask protocols.

“I’m starting to feel comfortable ending the mandate at the end of the month or the beginning of March,” Richichi declared. “The trending is really clear – we are getting caught in the weeds with these numbers.” Brunkhorst agreed that 10 per 100,000 seemed arbitrary.

Asked by Schwartz for her input, the director said she also was uncomfortable with a target number. “I understand the desire to want to have an opportunity to pull back,” she said. “I don’t know why you don’t wait until the next meeting.” Richichi replied, “I am not comfortable with just picking 10 out of a hat.”

Porter at the meeting provided local statistics that confirmed the national trend: 246 Covid-19 cases over the two-week period that ended Jan. 29, the lowest total in almost two months. The previous number (with one week overlap) was 396. She also said the case count in Bedford over the past seven days was 81.

Porter said her Middlesex County comparisons since summer show fewer cases in cities and towns with mandated face covering. But in January, with the Omicron variant surge peaking, there was no statistical difference, she acknowledged. “Everything broke loose in January.”

Kiessling displayed a different picture, comparing case numbers in Bedford and its six contiguous towns: Bedford and Carlisle had the highest incidence, she said.

She repeated her contention that Covid-19 is primarily a threat to people older than 64. The total local deaths is 61, of which 45 took place over two months early in 2020, she said, with an average age of 84. Since July 2020, Kiessling continued, 16 people have died with an average age of 83. The youngest since July 2020 was 59, more than a year ago.

“This is not a serious disease for young people, certainly not for anyone under the age of five,” she said. “How do you tell old people to protect themselves? That’s what we need to come up with. That’s guidance that’s kind of missing.”

Schwartz said the formula the board has been promoting is still paramount: vaccination, ventilation, testing, as well as face covering. “Look out for yourself and whom you are interacting with.” Richichi acknowledged that isolation of the elderly is also a health risk.

Porter pointed out that the Council on Aging is now offering in-person as well as remote activities, “more engagement so there can be some socialization. “People are coming to the CoA, in town-sponsored programming,” she said, but not at pre-pandemic levels. “The comfort level is just not there yet,” Schwartz said.

There was some discussion of Kiessling’s pitch to relax the mandate at places like health clubs or manufacturing facilities. “I don’t think the state contact tracing has found an outbreak at any gym,” she said.

Members reviewed a list prepared by Assistant Health Director Katherine Dagle of health and activity businesses, ranging from yoga studios to martial-arts schools to the Edge. Richichi said she would be concerned about “intergenerational households.” Porter said, “There are plenty of grandparents who could be exposed.” Kiessling replied, “People are capable of making those decisions themselves” about patronizing individual businesses.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763

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