Seven Massachusetts counties now have high community levels of COVID-19 and people in those areas should wear masks in indoor public spaces, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Berkshire, Franklin, Worcester, Middlesex, Suffolk, Norfolk, and Barnstable counties are cited as high on the CDC’s website, which rates virus levels in US counties as “a tool to help communities decide what prevention steps to take.”
Hampshire, Hampden, Essex, Plymouth, Dukes, and Nantucket counties are ranked at medium levels. The only county still at a low level is Bristol.
The CDC determines community COVID-19 levels by looking at hospital beds being used, hospital admissions, and the total number of new COVID-19 cases in an area, according to the CDC website.
It recommends that people take greater precautions the higher the level. Masking in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status, is only recommended by CDC when communities reach the high level, though the agency notes that people can wear masks at any level based on personal preference.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Massachusetts have been rising gradually after a precipitous fall from the early days of this year, when the Omicron variant drove a deadly surge. Experts have been concerned about the arrival of the Omicron subvariants BA.2 and BA.2.12.1.
But at the same time, restrictions have been dropped, and many Massachusetts residents have jumped at the chance to try to get back to normal after more than two years of disruption by the virus. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, offered encouragement recently, saying the country is “out of the full-blown, explosive pandemic phase.”
There is no consensus among experts about whether and where people should wear masks.
The Globe reported Friday that some experts endorsed the choice to go maskless most of the time while others advocated masking in crowded public places.
The Boston Public Health Commission noted Friday in a tweet that Suffolk County, which includes Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop, had moved into the high category and said, “We strongly recommend all residents wear masks in public indoor spaces, including public transportation, test for COVID-19, and stay up to date on vaccinations.”
It also recommended getting tested before attending Mother’s Day gatherings Sunday.
Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston commission, said its members were closely monitoring the situation.
“We’re being vigilant. We’re watching the data. And we’re encouraging all Bostonians to take extra precautions to protect themselves, their families, and our community.”
She said city officials, noting rising COVID-19 metrics, had been asking people for weeks to wear masks in public indoor spaces and to take other protective steps. “We don’t plan to recommend the city reinstate masking requirements at this time,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services said in a statement that the state “will continue to work with the healthcare community and the federal government to monitor all of the latest developments.”
The statement trumpeted Massachusetts’ performance as “a national leader in vaccination rates,” saying, it “has helped keep Massachusetts’ positivity and hospitalization rates among the lowest in the nation currently. The people of Massachusetts have ready access to vaccines, rapid tests, and therapeutics – all the resources needed to stay safe from severe illness.”
The Department of Public Health advises people to get vaccinated and boosted, to get tested, and, if they test positive, talk to their doctor right away about COVID-19 treatment options that are available for individuals who have mild to moderate symptoms.
Jonathan Levy, who chairs the department of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said people should be concerned.
“We’ve seen growing case rates for a while, and a study just showed that the actual cases might be 3 1/2 times higher than what we’re measuring because of the number of at-home tests,” he said in a phone interview.
“There’s a lot of infection out there,” he said, and it “certainly is starting to put more people in the hospital.”
Communities with high COVID-19 levels, he said, should “look at mask requirements carefully.”
“I do think it’s important to recognize that we need on-ramps and off-ramps,” he said. “We need clear indications of when to take masks off and also when to put them back on, and the CDC community levels are telling us it’s time to put them back on right now.”
Most of MA is now in the high COVID “Community Level” zone, since we have hit the (lagging indicator) hospitalization threshold. CDC guidelines say to now wear a well-fitting mask indoors in public, including in schools. I expect no response or even acknowledgment. #DontLookUp pic.twitter.com/bbJSBJoEw7— Jon Levy (@jonlevyBU) May 6, 2022