Test rate climbing as mask mandates make comeback

Massachusetts

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BOSTON (SHNSs) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask guidance based on local transmission levels now recommends people wear face-coverings indoors in all but one Massachusetts county, and from UMass Amherst to Belmont, mask requirements are once again going into place.

The CDC advises vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike to wear masks in counties where it deems the COVID-19 spread to be “high” or “substantial.” As of Monday afternoon, transmission was high in Berkshire, Bristol, Dukes, Hampden, Nantucket and Suffolk counties, and substantial in Worcester, Plymouth, Norfolk, Middlesex, Franklin, Essex and Barnstable counties. Only Hampshire county landed at the lower “moderate” transmission level.

Under state guidance, vaccinated people are encouraged to mask up in public if they or someone they live with are at higher risk for COVID-19, including those with unvaccinated adults in their households. Baker administration health and education officials “strongly” recommend masks at school for students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

As the back-to-school season inches closer, several school districts, Salem among them, are imposing their own mask mandates.

The chairs of the Public Health Committee — which on Monday received a bill that would require universal masking for students and staff in all K-12 schools and child care programs — are calling for stronger mask mandates, vaccine requirements and testing in schools.- Katie Lannan

  • Chairs: Schools Could Be “Ground Zero” Without More Prevention: Citing the “predominance of the aggressive Delta variant,” the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Public Health Committee are calling on Gov. Charlie Baker to announce “stronger mandates for masking, vaccination requirements and testing in K-12 schools.” In a joint opinion piece that ran in The Boston Globe on Tuesday morning, Rep. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge and Sen. Jo Comerford of Amherst assert that “unless the state implements preventive measures that follow science and not politics, schools will be ground zero in the fall, with approximately 456,000 unvaccinated kindergarten-through-sixth-grade students at particular risk.” On July 30, state public health officials began advising vaccinated people who live with any person at high risk for COVID-19, who have weakened immune systems themselves and who are at an increased risk of severe COVID-19 because of their own age or health conditions to wear a mask or face covering when indoors and not in their own homes. The shift came on the heels of a new federal recommendation that even vaccinated people mask up in areas of significant coronavirus transmission. Also, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on July 30 said it and the Department of Public Health “strongly recommend that all students in kindergarten through grade 6 wear masks when indoors, except students who cannot do so due to medical conditions or behavioral needs” and that schools allow vaccinated students to remain unmasked. “Massachusetts is moving forward in this new normal and we’re moving forward safely,” Baker said on July 30. Baker should also mandate vaccinations, with limited exemptions, for teachers and staff in K-12 schools, the co-chairs said. “The governor’s current guidance relies too much on hope and the honor system for grades 7 through 12, both of which have already failed us nationally and are in large part why we are where we are today,” Decker and Comerford wrote. “The governor should also provide more specific guidance on indoor and outdoor gatherings for the public at large.” Baker is vacationing this week with his family in California and due to return to Massachusetts on Wednesday evening. The Legislature, which has many virus-related bills pending before it, is on a summer recess that is expected to run into September. – Michael P. Norton 9:23 AM Tue
  • Salem Schools to Require Universal Masks: All students and staff in Salem Public Schools will be required to wear masks indoors during the school day at the start of the 2021-2022 school year under a plan that also calls for regular surveillance testing and easing some physical distancing requirements. Superintendent Stephen Zrike last week outlined a health and safety plan for schools this fall recommending everyone in schools, regardless of vaccination status, mask up indoors with planned mask breaks during the day. Zrike wrote in an introduction to his proposal that the COVID-19 Delta variant is “much more contagious” and can be transmitted by vaccinated individuals, prompting his recommendations. Salem Public Schools will continue offering weekly surveillance testing for students and staff, and Zrike wrote in his memo that the state will launch a “test-to-stay program, which will enable individuals who are close contacts to a positive COVID-19 case to participate in daily rapid testing and stay in school.” The district plans to relax most distancing requirements when individuals are masked. The city’s School Committee unanimously backed Zrike’s proposal at a Monday meeting, according a Salem News report, while Salem’s Board of Health plans to meet Tuesday to discuss broader safety precautions in the city. – Chris Lisinski 8:44 AM Tue
  • Provincetown Reports 1.4 Percent Positivity Rate: At one point in Provincetown’s July COVID-19 cluster, health officials in the Outer Cape community logged a test positivity rate above 15 percent. As of Aug. 8, the positive rate was down to 1.4 percent, with two out of 143 tests by the Transformative HealthCare/Fallon mobile unit in Provincetown coming back positive. In all, data posted on the town’s website shows 596 positive tests, from 7,842 total tests conducted at that location since July 14. The mobile unit’s positive test rate hit 15.1 percent on July 15 and three weeks later, on Aug. 5, was at 4.3 percent. Provincetown officials say there are currently 23 active cases. – Katie Lannan 8:24 AM Tue
  • Positivity Rate at 2.72 Percent After Weekend Report: In a report on virus activity over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, state officials on Monday said there had been 2,587 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed over the weekend, leaving the state’s seven-day test positivity rate sitting at 2.72 percent. The Department of Public Health reported that 314 patients were hospitalized with the virus, including 76 in intensive care units and 33 patients who are intubated. There were three new confirmed deaths reported Monday, and state officials reported the average age of patients who died of COVID-19 at 74 years old. While the bulk of cases over the last two weeks were among individuals between 20 and 39 years old, officials reported 354 new cases over the weekend among people between 0 and 4; 468 among those between 5 and 9; 488 among those between 10 and 14; 509 among those between 15 and 19; 272 among those between 70 and 79; and 160 new cases among people 80 years old and older. – Michael P. Norton 6:17 PM Mon
  • Belmont Institutes Mask Mandate: Following votes on Friday, the town of Belmont, which has a COVID-19 test positivity rate of just under 1 percent, on Monday launched an indoor mask mandate that requires people age 2 and above to wear face coverings in all indoor public spaces. The mandate applies to restaurants, indoor performance venues, lodging houses, houses of worship, barber shops and nail salons, and town officials said it will be in effect whenever the COVID-19 community transmission data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for Middlesex County is categorized as either “substantial” or “high” over a consecutive two-week period. The mandate includes an exemption if an individual is unable to wear a face covering due to a medical condition or disability. Businesses in Belmont that are open to the public must post mask requirement notices on entry doors. “Establishment staff must supervise and enforce this requirement,” the town said. The statewide positivity rate Monday was 2.72 percent. – Michael P. Norton 5:45 PM Mon
  • Vaccine Mandate Coming For U.S. Military Members: The nation’s defense secretary informed U.S. military service members Monday that he will seek President Joe Biden’s approval to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory by mid-September, or immediately upon its full licensure by the Food and Drug Administration, whichever comes first. “By way of expectation, public reporting suggests the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could achieve full FDA licensure early next month,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III wrote in a memo to all Defense Department employees. Austin wrote that he’s watching infections rate rise and impacts on military readiness, and he said he “will not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the President if I feel the need to do so.” He added, “To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force. I strongly encourage all DoD military and civilian personnel – as well as contractor personnel – to get vaccinated now and for military Service members not to wait for the mandate.” – Michael P. Norton

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