Health: Omicron Rampaging, Mask Rules Returning

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19

Health officials are hoping widespread mask use will slow the spread of the very contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19. Surgical (left) and KN95 masks (center) offer the best protection. Cloth masks appear to provide limited protection against Omicron. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM — Driven by the hyper-contagious Omicron variant, COVID-19 numbers are spiking across the Lower Cape, the state and the nation. And with many of those testing positive having already received two or three doses of the vaccine, public health officials are getting back to basics, encouraging or requiring the use of masks indoors.

Following the lead of Harwich last week (see related story), the Chatham Board of Health was poised this week to adopt an order requiring the use of face coverings inside town-owned buildings. But the health board felt the order was insufficient, with members asking for a similar order covering all indoor public spaces, including stores and restaurants. The board was expected to consider that order in an emergency meeting Thursday, after press time.

The broader mask mandate was proposed by health board member Richard Edwards, who noted that several Outer Cape towns have already adopted similar measures.

“I think since it’s highly likely that this curve is going to go straight up for the next week or two,” potentially causing case numbers to double, the mask requirement is prudent to help keep businesses and schools open, he said. “Otherwise we’re going to have enormous numbers of people infected with this virus and not able to work, and it’s going to be a nightmare.”

Recent case numbers support that prediction. Chatham logged 112 COVID cases in December, compared with 57 the previous December. The measurement of the percentage of people testing positive for COVID in the two weeks prior to Christmas was 6.26 percent, jumping to just over 11 percent a week later, Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson reported. With case numbers typically lagging well behind actual infections, the figures available this week don’t reflect the critical time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when many indoor social gatherings took place.

Similar case jumps were reported in other Lower Cape towns and across Barnstable County, where the daily cases climbed 63 percent in the most recent two-week period. Statewide, the 14-day increase was 172 percent.

Chatham Bars Inn canceled its planned New Year’s Eve celebrations in light of the spike in cases, “just to give you an idea of the seriousness of the situation,” Duncanson said. The resort made the decision “to protect both their staff as well as attendees,” he said.

“With an Omicron surge at our doorstep, we really need to support any strategy” that curbs transmission of the virus, health board Chair John Beckley said. Board members said a mask mandate for indoor public spaces would not be difficult to implement, since a statewide mandate was in place early last year, and Chatham and Harwich had mask requirements in their downtown areas for a time. Beckley said he doesn’t believe the indoor mask requirement would need to be in place for very long, since experts believe the Omicron spike will pass in around a month’s time.

“I think a lot of shops downtown already ask for masks,” board member Noble Hansen said. “It might be easier for them just to have an order.” He suggested that the mask mandate be put in place for at least the month of January, with the board revisiting the rule for February if COVID numbers decline quickly. “They may not,” Hansen cautioned.

“If we’re going to do it, we need to do it as soon as possible,” he added. Beckley concurred, and the majority of board members appeared poised to approve a mask requirement for indoor public spaces. Updates from this week’s emergency meeting will be posted at CapeCodChronicle.com.

Gov. Charlie Baker has resisted re-implementing a statewide indoor mask mandate, but has said his administration will support communities that choose to do so. The order discussed by the Chatham health board is likely to include language that specifies that people in restaurants must wear masks unless they are seated and eating or drinking. It is also not likely to include an exemption for people who can remain six feet apart.

On the advice of Edwards, the Chatham order is also likely to include a recommendation that people wear surgical or KN95 masks, which provide a higher degree of air filtration.

“Cloth masks are almost useless with Omicron,” he said. “It’s better than nothing, but not much.” The board stressed that the advise is a recommendation, not a requirement. If the board made the surgical mask or KN95 provision a strict requirement, compliance would likely be poor, Hansen said.

Once very rare, KN95 masks are readily available online and at Ocean State Job Lot, Edwards noted. “If you really want to get one, you can get one,” he said.

Chatham and other Cape towns are also exploring strategies to order rapid COVID test kits at a discount rate under state contracts. Because some of the vendors require bulk orders much larger than any single town would require, talks are underway with Barnstable County about a possible regional purchase, Duncanson said. Individual towns would then need to decide how to distribute the test kits, he noted.