Amid an increase in COVID-19 infections over the last month, Massachusetts officials on Friday refrained from issuing new mask mandates either in schools or inside public places, instead advising mask-wearing for residents who are unvaccinated and for those who are or who live with someone at high risk for a severe case of the virus.
State health officials now recommend that vaccinated people wear masks indoors if they or a member of their household has a weakened immune system or underlying medical condition that puts them at risk of a severe case of COVID-19. In schools, unvaccinated students, educators, and staff should cover their faces, state officials said, as should all students in kindergarten through sixth grade, nearly all of whom are too young to be eligible for vaccines.
Those recommendations stop short of what Americans heard this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said that even healthy, vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in parts of the country where cases are surging. That includes Suffolk, Barnstable, and three other counties in Massachusetts where the CDC criteria says transmission is either “high” or “substantial.”
The CDC also recommended universal masking in public schools, as has the American Academy of Pediatrics. Boston Public Schools students will be required to wear masks when they return to classrooms this fall, Acting Mayor Kim Janey said last week.
Governor Charlie Baker said at an event in Roxbury Friday afternoon that the state’s guidance — which ties mask recommendations to individual risk level as opposed to the level of community spread — was intended to be “a lot simpler and a lot easier and a lot more straightforward” than the CDC recommendations. He has previously noted that federal recommendations apply to 50 states — nearly all of which are in a more dire position than Massachusetts.
“Part of the reason why we believe we should do statewide guidance is, what if you live in one county, work in another?” Baker said. “What if you work in one county, live in another? What if you decide to go [on] vacation or out to dinner in one county and live in another?”
The Massachusetts guidance, Baker emphasized, is intended to protect those “who have the most to lose”: the elderly and people who are at higher risk of dying or suffering severe disease from COVID-19.
New cases and hospitalizations have been on the rise in Massachusetts, with many new infections tied to the new and highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus. But overall, case numbers remain far below where they were in the dire months of the winter. Importantly, the number of hospitalizations is not tracking the increased case counts; they are about the same as they were on June 15, when Massachusetts lifted its state of emergency, even though infection numbers are much higher since then. Medical specialists said this is because vaccinated individuals, who can still test positive for the virus, are less likely to suffer a severe case.
Still, on Friday, the CDC released troubling new information about the virus based on its examination of the outbreak in Provincetown; vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant have viral loads that can spread the disease just as much as an unvaccinated person. Of the nearly 900 cases attributed to the Provincetown outbreak, authorities said that three-quarters were in vaccinated people.
Baker had been under pressure from state lawmakers and advocates to respond to the CDC guidance. As some call for immediate restrictions and others argue the state should stay on its current course, Baker emphasizes at every public appearance that the most important step residents can take to blunt the spread of the virus is to get vaccinated.
Some had been looking to Baker to set numerical thresholds for when and where masks are necessary. Instead, with Friday’s guidance, the administration has largely left it to individuals and local leaders to assess their own risks.
Massachusetts already has one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates, with 69 percent of the population having received at least one dose, state figures show. Those rates are even higher among the state’s oldest residents; more than 90 percent of Massachusetts residents over 65 have been vaccinated.
Baker has left the door open for local leaders to set stricter standards in their communities. In Somerville, Mayor Joseph Curtatone is urging residents to wear masks inside public settings regardless of their vaccination status, he said Friday.
Somerville, in Middlesex County, does not currently have high transmission rates as defined by the CDC. But “this is about keeping coronavirus on a leash,” Curtatone said in a press release.
Masks remain mandatory on public transportation, in health care facilities, and in congregate care facilities, among other places.
There were those who found the state’s new mask guidance lacking — particularly concerning the impending return of school.
The guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education strongly recommends that all students in kindergarten through sixth grade — the vast majority of whom are not yet eligible for vaccines — wear masks indoors, unless they cannot due to medical or behavioral needs. In addition, all unvaccinated students and staff members in all grades also are strongly recommended to wear masks indoors, state officials say.
State Senator Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, said in a statement Friday that the guidance doesn’t go far enough, citing the CDC recommendation that everyone be masked inside schools.
“Kids, parents, teachers, and school committees have been through enough; they deserve better than weak, unenforceable, nonbinding guidelines that further endanger their health and safety,” Rausch said.
And Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said, “This is a reckless decision.”
Baker said on Friday that cities and towns can make adjustment to “do what’s right for their specific school districts.” The priority, he said, must be full-time, in-person learning.
The governor also criticized the Food and Drug Administration for not yet granting full authorization for the vaccines in use in the United States. The agency has granted emergency use authorization for three COVID-19 vaccines, developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.
Faced with similar complaints, the FDA reportedly has expedited its review of the Pfizer vaccine for regulatory approval. But, Baker called on the agency to have a sense of “urgency.”
“I would love to see the FDA finish their process, put the urgency into it that we all believe it deserves, recognize and understand that 400 million shots later, and a ton of evidence, that it makes a positive difference in the lives of those who’ve chosen to get vaccinated, that it would help,” Baker said. “And there’s plenty of data there to support it.”
Amanda Kaufman, Maria Elena Little Endara, and Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.