As numbers of coronavirus cases climb in Massachusetts, a growing chorus of local, state, and federal officials is sounding the call for mask mandates in indoor public places to stanch the spread of the pandemic this winter.
The urging comes amid threats posed by the virus’s Delta and Omicron variants, and as the weather grows colder, gatherings move indoors, and the holiday season approaches. The US Centers for Disease Control reported Sunday that every Massachusetts county faces high community transmission and recommends residents wear masks in indoor public settings.
Local health officials, including Julia Raifman, an assistant professor of health law, policy, and management at the Boston University School of Public Health, said Sunday that a statewide indoor mask rule would play an important role in limiting transmission of the virus.
“Massachusetts is a high-transmission setting with a COVID surge, and it is past time for Massachusetts to have an indoor mask policy to protect everyone,” Raifman said in an e-mail.
State Representative William Driscoll Jr., who supports a statewide rule for face coverings, said he anticipates a discussion on changes to masking guidance, including mandates, during a legislative virtual hearing on the status of the pandemic scheduled for Thursday at 10 a.m.
Driscoll, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, said Sunday he is already back to wearing well-fitting masks while he is in an indoor public setting and in large outdoor crowds.
Pointing to recent transmission rates and the pandemic’s impact on local hospitals, Driscoll said individuals and the government must do more to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“The past two years have been exhausting and we all want to put the pandemic in the rear-view [mirror],” Driscoll said, “and in order to do that we need to have universal indoor mask wearing during surges and times of increased transmission like we are experiencing now.”
Dr. Howard Koh, a former state health commissioner who is now a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health urged state lawmakers to push for a universal mask mandate.
“Not doing so leaves us continuing to fight this war with one arm tied behind our backs,” Koh said in an e-mail Sunday. “We must deploy all available tools to put behind us a pandemic that has gone on far too long.”
More than 83 percent of the state’s population — about 5.7 million people — have received at least one dose of vaccine, and the numbers of daily vaccinations are rising following a steep drop-off in the spring.
But state pandemic data show some discouraging signs: The number of new daily cases, which have been climbing in recent weeks, are now at levels comparable to those reported at this time last year.
While state data on deaths have not recorded a similar spike, the daily number has climbed since September.
On Friday, the latest data available, the state reported about 5,000 new confirmed cases, along with 27 new deaths. More than 901,000 confirmed cases have been reported since the crisis began in 2020 and 19,217 people in Massachusetts have died from the virus.
In Massachusetts hospitals, the seven-day average number of coronavirus patients passed 1,100 as of last Thursday — more than double the number from a month earlier, according to state data.
Andrew Lover, an assistant professor at UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences, warned Sunday that the state’s post-Thanksgiving increase in cases and hospitalizations will probably continue, or even increase, through the December holidays and into January.
“This very worrisome situation, plus the unknowns around Omicron, really suggests we need to do everything we can, including masking,” Lover said in an e-mail. “That’s hard news to hear for all of us after so many waves, but unfortunately that’s the reality.”
Masking up, along with vaccinations, was highlighted as important in the fight against COVID-19 Sunday by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s top medical advisor.
In an ABC interview Sunday , Fauci said the nation has the tools to protect itself and urged people who are eligible for vaccinations or boosters to get shots. He also urged people to follow public health guidance on masking up.
“You know, masking is not going to be forever, but it can get us out of the very difficult situation we’re in now,” he said.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the US Food and Drug Administration, on “Face the Nation” Sunday also backed masking up in indoor public places. Gottlieb pointed to states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire where the health care systems are pressed due to rising cases from the dominant Delta variant.
“Mask mandates are the easiest thing we can do, the sort of collective action that puts some downward pressure on spread,” Gottlieb said.
Massachusetts currently has a mask advisory in place for public indoor spaces and requires masking on public transit, and in settings like health care and congregate care facilities. The state also requires masking in public schools until Jan. 15, though schools can seek permission to lift the restriction if students and staff meet vaccination requirements.
Some communities, like Boston, Chelsea, and Brookline, have implemented masking rules for indoor public areas. And the Archdiocese of Boston said parishioners will have to wear face coverings in church beginning Saturday.
Governor Charlie Baker, who recently received his booster shot, has repeatedly urged residents to get vaccinations and boosters. Baker’s office Sunday, in response to a request for comment, referred to an earlier statement by the governor.
“And as we continue to deal with new variants — in particular Omicron, which as we know is here — it’s particularly important, especially important, for people to take care of themselves, and their families, and their friends, and neighbors by getting vaccinated,” according to a transcript from his office.
On Sunday, Raifman said vaccines are very effective for reducing severe disease, but they are not enough to reduce surges. Several Massachusetts communities have many unvaccinated residents, leaving them highly vulnerable, she said.
She said the state has tools to control the virus but is not using them well.
“Inaction is a policy choice that makes society unpleasant for everyone and deadly for our least privileged,” Raifman said.
Matthew Fox, an epidemiology and global health professor at Boston University School of Public Health, said Massachusetts is likely to avoid the worst due to the state’s high vaccination rate. But he is concerned that the pandemic situation could worsen, given the holiday season.
“Individuals can wear masks on their own and this has some benefit. But unless we require this [for] everyone, the impact is limited,” Fox said. “When collective action is needed, only the government can take effective action.”
Looking ahead, William Hanage, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s Chan School, said on Sunday he is concerned about the rise of the Omicron variant, which is likely to surpass the number of new Delta cases by the end of this month and produce large numbers of cases in January.
He was among health officials who urged vaccinations and booster shots. The vaccines are the best way people can protect themselves, including those who have already had COVID-19, he said.
But in addition, he said it was time for Massachusetts to impose a universal mask mandate.
“Past time,” Hanage said. “Way past time.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.