Lawmakers, doctors demand state mask mandate

BOSTON — He was the architect of the lockdown that helped ‘flatten the curve’ of the COVID pandemic back in the spring of 2020. But with Omicron about to overtake Delta as the dominant variant in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker isn’t even ordering indoor masks at this time -- only advising they be used. That’s got some state lawmakers, as well as some members of the medical and social service communities upset.

“The virus is nowhere near done with us,” said State Sen. Rebecca Rausch at a virtual press conference, which featured speakers supporting the Needham Democrat’s legislation dubbed a COVID-19 Action Plan. It calls for, among other things, a statewide indoor mask mandate.

“We need action and leadership now,” Rausch said. “Looking ahead, statistical modeling projects that Omicron will represent upwards of 90 percent of all COVID cases in Massachusetts by the end of the month.”

If that modeling turns out to be true, that would be a meteoric rise -- with the proportion of Omicron cases roughly doubling in the next ten days in the state.

Rausch and others also want Baker to return mid-pandemic protections that cover housing and the workplace, including such things as reducing crowding to reduce spread.

Such things can still work, said Justin Lessler, Ph.D., an epidemiology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“Masks work. They still work with this variant,” Lessler said. “Even if it is a bit more transmissible.”

Lessler said this is another of those moments in the pandemic when individual actions can make a big difference for society as a whole.

“Having fewer gatherings. Be more careful about your social interactions,” he said. “That also works and decreases the risk.”

Of course, vaccination also works. And what concerns Lessler is that a critical mass of unvaccinated Americans could overwhelm the country’s healthcare system should they become seriously ill with COVID.

And with the new variant, there’s no guarantee, at this point, that won’t happen.

From the data, Lessler’s seen it appears Omicron mostly causes mild disease -- but not so mild it won’t make some very sick.

Could lockdowns come back? In Massachusetts, that does not seem likely, as long as Governor Baker is in charge. He’s already ruled out closing schools if things get bad. And many states learned hard lessons from last year’s lockdowns.

“We know that you don’t get rid of the disease by locking down,” Lessler said. “You just slow it down. You just take a pause in the epidemic while you figure out what you’re going to do next. So anybody who does decide to lockdown -- take those extreme measures -- needs to be focused on why are we doing it and what are we going to do with the time we buy?”

Otherwise, Lessler said, you’re just delaying the inevitable: the virus’s return.

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