Mask Up – Again

By: Alan Pollock

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

COVID Case Surge Breaks Records

Meeting in emergency session last Thursday, the Chatham Board of Health ordered the mandatory use of masks in businesses, clubs and other places of assembly, including stores, restaurants, bars, churches, libraries and municipal buildings. The mask mandate replaces a previous recommendation that face coverings be worn in indoor public places.

In its own emergency meeting last Thursday, the Orleans health board ordered people to mask up in all public parts of town-owned buildings, but stops short of a mask mandate for all public indoor spaces. Health Agent Alex Fitch said that as of Jan. 4, there were 57 active cases of COVID-19 in town. That’s up from just 12 active cases recorded as of Dec. 16.

The surge caused by the Omicron variant is clearly taking a toll on local towns, with the number of cases skyrocketing and many businesses, including municipal operations, challenged in their ability to operate.

A bulletin issued by the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment last week indicated that the Cape has COVID-19 positivity rates of 20 percent; numbers above 5 percent typically indicated uncontrolled spread of the virus. A seven-day rolling average of tests taken by Cape Cod Healthcare yielded rates over 25 percent.

“The health department urges all residents, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask or face covering when indoors (and not in your own home) and to ensure that you and your children are vaccinated and have received booster shots as soon [as] you are eligible,” the bulletin reads. “In addition you are also urged to resume physical distancing of at least six feet and to minimize attendance at social events and other gatherings.”

“While we are trying to keep schools open and minimize the risk to healthcare staff, first responders, and workers, we are asking the public to resume masking and physical distancing in indoor public settings like grocery stores, retail settings, and places of worship, and to please avoid attending social gatherings,” said county Health Director Sean O’Brien. “We need to put the skills we learned during past COVID surges back to work, and we are in the biggest surge we’ve ever seen right now.”

Chatham’s order, passed unanimously by the health board, specifies that restaurant patrons must remain masked unless they are “seated and consuming food and/or beverages,” and that customers at bars must stay masked while standing, ordering or using the dance floor. Masks are also required in the lobbies, hallways and common areas of all lodging establishments, apartments and other multi-family dwellings.

The health board opted against including an expiration date for the emergency order, but indicated it will revisit the mandate Feb. 7. It also urged eligible people to get vaccinated and boosted, and to choose surgical or KN95 masks over more porous cloth masks. The full text of the emergency order is posted on the town website. The Chatham health board also unanimously recommended that town staff require all municipal meetings to return to virtual sessions. Official guidance on meetings is expected shortly.

On Tuesday, the Chatham Select Board strongly urged all town boards to meet virtually until the current surge passes. Some regulatory boards that find it difficult to conduct businesses remotely are allowed to hold hybrid sessions if necessary. Few boards continue to meet in person, however, officials said. Allowing staff liaisons to participate remotely helps, as some departments are challenged because of the surge, said Town Manager Jill Goldsmith.

Over the previous 10 days, more than 150 COVID-19 cases were reported in Harwich, Health Director Dr. Katie O’Neill told selectmen Monday night. Some 18 percent of the town’s workforce is unable to operate in person due to COVID, colds and the flu; even Town Administrator Joseph Powers reported that he has COVID. The health board put a mask mandate order for town buildings in place a week ago. The selectmen will be returning to a remote access option for board meetings on Jan. 18.

Given the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, Orleans Town Administrator John Kelly advocated for the mandate, noting that there are staff members in every town building who are currently out of work with COVID-19.

“We have buildings that we’re having trouble staffing right now,” he said. Kelly said the mandate gives the town the best chance of protecting its town employees.

“We need to control what we can today,” he said.

The mandate will be revisited in two weeks.

Sims McGrath said while the mandate might not be popular with all in town, he echoed the need to keep town employees safe in the midst of the current surge.

“I regret the imposition on those people,” he said. “However, it is the best tool we have to keep the staff population as a whole as safe as we reasonably can.”

Schools across the state are reporting high COVID-19 case numbers. In figures reported between Dec. 24 and Jan. 5, the Monomoy Schools identified 169 cases among students and staff, with more than 100 of those cases coming from the middle and high schools. The Monomoy district uses pooled testing each week, as well as regular rapid tests.

“With the heightened transmissibility of newer variants, every case that can be identified – particularly among individuals who do not have symptoms – will help prevent the spread of many more cases in our schools and community,” Superintendent Scott Carpenter wrote in a letter to parents.

With rapid test kits still difficult to obtain, Barnstable County is offering free PCR testing at the Orleans DPW on Tuesday mornings, and at the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Hours and other details are posted at Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday that the state has ordered 26 million rapid antigen tests, to be used primarily in public schools and for child care providers. Cape towns are also devising a strategy to purchase rapid tests for their residents under a state contract. Under state guidelines revised this week, testing is advised for people who have symptoms of the disease or who are confirmed close contacts of people with COVID-19.

Rapid tests are excellent at identifying people who are at a high likelihood of transmitting the virus, and they therefore are particularly useful for schools and businesses. Despite the surging number of cases in the schools, the governor said he does not support a return to remote learning.

With ample evidence showing the shortcomings of virtual classes, “everybody owes the kids of the commonwealth 180 days of in-person learning,” Baker said. “School is not only safe, it’s healthy for kids.”

Baker offered his thanks and praise to the healthcare community for its heroic efforts during the COVID resurgence; he called up an additional 500 Massachusetts National Guard troops to support short-staffed medical facilities. The strain on the health care sector affects various industries, from hospitals and ambulance providers to long-term care facilities, he noted.

As of Jan. 8, Broad Reach Healthcare reported that there were no positive cases in the Victorian assisted living facility and nine patients and residents testing positive at Liberty Commons.

“None have required hospitalization and the general level of sickness is much less severe than a year ago,” CEO Bill Bogdanovich said last week. The reason for that, public health officials agree, is the high level of vaccination in the community.

“Vaccines and boosters work. The data on this is unassailable,” Baker said Tuesday. More than 5.1 million Massachusetts residents have been fully vaccinated, with clinics administering between 40,000 and 50,000 shots every day. “There is still steady demand out there,” he said.

Ryan Bray and William F. Galvin contributed to this story.