With Governor Charlie Baker expected to update the state’s reopening plan this week — following a dramatic easing of national indoor mask guidance for fully vaccinated people — some local public health experts urged him to ensure that any changes will protect those who haven’t received a COVID-19 vaccine.
On Thursday, the US Centers for Disease Control eased guidance for mask-wearing, saying that fully vaccinated people can forgo face coverings when they are in most indoor settings. There are some exceptions, and people are still required to wear masks in some places, including planes, buses, and trains.
Baker hailed the CDC decision in a Twitter post Friday and said an announcement about new state guidance would be coming soon.
“The new [CDC] guidance is great news,” he wrote. “We will be updating our reopening plans early next week.”
Dr. David Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a Boston University epidemiologist, said the state should set a policy for mask-wearing in indoor settings where vaccinated and unvaccinated people could mix, such as stores and movie theaters.
“There should be a universal masking policy in those sorts of places, rather than saying, ‘vaccinated people can go without [masks],’ " Hamer said. “If a majority of people are doing one thing, others are going to feel more comfortable doing that, too.”
Dr. Joshua Barocas, an infectious diseases physician at Boston Medical Center and assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, pointed out that some businesses may still require patrons to wear masks, even if the governor lifts the statewide mandate.
“The guidance still says local businesses can make their own determinations,” he said. “[Baker] needs to help people understand that businesses are protecting their employees. If a business says they will keep [its] mask mandate in place, I hope people respect that.”
The state’s COVID-19 numbers have been declining for more than a month.
On Sunday, the state Department of Public Health Sunday reported 494 new confirmed coronavirus cases, bringing the state’s total to 656,838. The department also reported five new confirmed coronavirus deaths, bringing the state’s total to 17,394
It said the number of vaccinations administered in Massachusetts rose by 48,671 to more than 7.1 million.
A spokesman for the governor did not respond Sunday to a question about what changes Baker would announce this week.
Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, who directs Boston College’s Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good, said he thought last week’s CDC announcement indicates that the agency is “feeling optimistic” by the rapid rollout of vaccine, and is trying to bring the country back to normal.
But, he added, Baker was well within his rights to move more slowly.
“I think [Baker is] trying to balance the general optimism against the need to continue to protect the unvaccinated vulnerable,” Landrigan said.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, appeared on several news shows Sunday and defended the decision, which has been criticized by some. She said new data allows for vaccinated people to not wear masks.
“We also need to say that this is not permission for widespread removal of masks,” Walensky said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, argued in a series of Twitter posts Sunday that fully vaccinated people should continue wearing masks in indoor settings, where they would be among unvaccinated people.
He said infection numbers in Massachusetts are still high, even though they are falling, and there are still many people who want to be vaccinated, but have not yet done so.
By masking up, he said, “I help create a norm in society. . . . That norm says that while folks are still getting vaccinated, infection numbers are high, let’s protect each other in higher risk situations.”
Hamer pointed out that young children are not yet being vaccinated and masks should still be worn indoors when they are present.
Even as restrictions ease, he said, officials must also keep a close eye on coronavirus variants, some of which are highly contagious and more readily transmissible.
“I feel like that’s sort of like a specter lurking in the background,” Hamer said.
Barocas said the country has done a subpar job over the past year helping people understand that the situation with COVID-19 is evolving, and that can mean changes in the public health response.
“We’re not trying to move the goal posts or make everyone’s life miserable, and the government isn’t trying to either,” he said. “We’re using the best evidence we have in moments of time, and hopefully [Baker] can help residents understand that in the future we may need further restrictions or go back to an abnormal lifestyle — but at the current moment it feels we’re in a safe place to relax some guidance.”
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