A coalition of public health leaders, infectious disease doctors, and community organizers called on the Baker administration Wednesday to reinstitute mask mandates in public schools and on transportation, amid rising numbers of people infected and hospitalized for COVID-19 in Massachusetts.
The group is also urging the state’s Department of Public Health to issue an “immediate advisory” recommending use of masks inside public spaces and for people to avoid large gatherings until the current COVID surge subsides.
“This will help keep our schools and our public transportation safe for people who rely on it every day,” Dr. Lara Jirmanus, a primary care physician in Revere and cofounder of the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity, said at a news conference held via Zoom.
“Right now, what we are actually requiring is kids to go to school and get COVID,” Jirmanus said. “And so, instead of requiring kids to get COVID, I think it’s better to require kids to wear a mask, which are much safer than COVID until the end of the surge.”
The call came as top Biden administration officials warned Wednesday that one-third of Americans live in communities with rising levels of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, strongly recommended that people living in communities with large numbers of new infections and hospitalizations consider wearing masks in indoor public spaces and taking other steps to protect themselves.
When asked Wednesday about the state’s plans for increasing COVID mitigation efforts, Baker indicated he was not planning to reinstate a broad-based mask mandate.
“We believe that the best thing to do at this point is to make clear to people that vaccines work,” he said. “There are treatments that now work as well.”
He pointed out that Massachusetts still requires masks in long-term care and in other health facilities.
“And we certainly welcome people to wear masks, if they take care of a loved one who’s got comorbidities or is immunocompromised or if they’re dealing with somebody who’s over the age of 65 or 70,” Baker said, according to a transcript of the event provided by the administration.
Yet a recent statewide survey by MassINC Polling Group suggests many residents may be open to the idea of bringing back face coverings. The survey polled about 1,500 parents of school-aged children, and found that roughly 56 percent said they either somewhat or strongly favored requiring all students and staff to mask up. Parents of color were significantly more likely to say they supported such a mandate.
State data show that COVID hospitalizations and the seven-day average of reported new cases have jumped more than 40 percent just in the first two weeks of May.
And public health researchers say new case numbers are likely substantially undercounted, given the growing use of at-home rapid tests, which typically are not reported to health officials or included in state data.
“Everything is on the rise and on the rise quite rapidly, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Jonathan Levy, who chairs the department of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health.
Levy pointed to a recent analysis by John Brownstein, chief Innovation officer of Boston Children’s Hospital, which estimates that the actual number of COVID cases is likely 3.5 times higher than what is being reported officially because of home testing.
Levy also highlighted findings from his own team’s analysis of state data that indicates roughly half of Massachusetts residents have yet to receive a COVID vaccine booster shot — action infectious disease doctors say is critical to protect against severe illness or death. The percentage of people receiving boosters is significantly lower in lower-income communities, Levy said.
Community and public health advocates said state, municipal, and business leaders need to do a better job communicating to the public that precautions need to be taken during this surge, and also provide clear ways to help people take those precautions, such as giving time off for workers to get vaccinated and boosted, implementing indoor mask policies, and providing information about places where people can get free masks.
Experts also suggested that instead of issuing a blanket mask mandate, some businesses could require masks during certain times of day.
“For instance, public libraries, grocery stores, and local shops can designate certain times when masks are required so that higher-risk community members can have access to those spaces without high risk of COVID-19 in there,” said Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at BU School of Public Health.
Other community leaders and health experts spoke of high anxiety and deep depression among many people who feel they are constantly at risk and fear going out now with few COVID mitigation measures in place, including older residents, those in nursing homes, and transplant or cancer patients taking medications that suppress their immunity.
“We really have an obligation to the most vulnerable members of our community to make sure they are safe,” said Dr. Amir Mohareb, an infectious diseases physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School.
“We are all one event away from being very, very vulnerable to the effects of this virus,” he said.
The health equity coalition also called on the Baker administration to make its COVID services, including its latest telehealth option to acquire a prescription for the antiviral Paxlovid, more accessible to people who don’t have smartphones or ready access to computers.
“From my experience as a physician in a community health center, I have patients come to me all the time that don’t always have smartphones,” said Jirmanus, the Revere physician.
“I think the state’s new initiatives, the test and treat [program] . . . that’s great. But it’s not accessible for people who don’t have a smartphone or a computer,” she said.
Jirmanus and other community advocates emphasized an issue laid bare by the pandemic: many low-income and immigrant communities, as well as communities of color, that had crowded or unaffordable housing and few workplace protections still grapple with those problems as COVID surges again.
“Nobody in this pandemic is safe until all of us are safe,” Jirmanus said.
“If we can move forward with a little bit of carefulness, and a little bit of cautiousness,” she said, “and [think about] our loved ones, our elderly grandparents, our neighbors who may be immunosuppressed, and how are we going to keep them safe, too, then we would really be moving forward as a society and actually keep all of ourselves safe.”