State’s 2 largest cities still under mask mandates

BOSTON — Late October and it’s still 70+ degrees in central Massachusetts. At Worcester’s Elm Park, it was a scene out of the ‘Before Times.’ Residents fed ducks, pushed strollers and relaxed on benches. What they didn’t do was don masks.

But across the street at the Price Chopper, the continuing reality. With Worcester entering the second month of an indoor mask mandate, shoppers had no choice but to cover mouths and noses.

“I feel like it’s been for so long now it’s not too much of an adjustment to have to put it back on,” said one resident.

“There’s still an uneasy feeling of, you know, when are we really going to have this behind us?” another added.

Masks remain the most obvious sign that this pandemic is not all behind us. And then there are the numbers. Worcester County reported more than 3,000 new infections to the state Department of Public Health in the two-week period of October 3-16. That pushed the county incidence rate up to 26.6/100,000 and the positivity rate to 2.56%. Both those rates are well above the state average.

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“We’re seeing different curves, different spread of the virus, in different areas of the county,” said Dr. Richard Ellison, an infectious disease specialist at UMass Memorial Medical Center.

For example, Ellison said cases in Worcester proper, at least based on the numbers of those coming to the hospital with COVID, have been stable for three weeks. But in satellite facilities in Marlborough and Clinton, COVID is on the rise.

Overall, Ellison said Worcester County seems to be caught in a typical Delta wave pattern, in which cases rise rapidly and eventually tumble, but then the arrest stalls and steadies into a plateau.

“We don’t know if this is related to the virus itself or whether other things are going on,” Ellison said. “We went through a time period where there was probably transmission linked to individuals going back to school. Now, as we’ve gotten through that, the weather’s gotten colder.”

And that change in weather, which drives people indoors and in closer contact with one another, coupled with the stubbornly stable case numbers, worries Ellison. With the holidays just weeks away, he said COVID case numbers just haven’t shrunk enough – even in Massachusetts, a state doing well with vaccinations – to completely stand down just yet.

Because there is still the possibility that the Delta variant could trigger a new spike in infections. And that could lead to the emergence of another variant as the virus figures out a way to survive.

“This virus does have a mutation rate almost the same amount as you see with flu,” Ellison said. “Some of the mutations are going to be mild, they’re not really going to change anything. But some of the variants may lead to larger amounts of the virus in someone’s nose or make it grow faster. Under those conditions, it could more easily spread.”

That was the situation with the Delta variant.

And in recent days, health officials in the UK have expressed concern about a sudden rise in new COVID cases at the same time sequencing has picked up a sub-lineage of the Delta variant that may be 10-to-15% more transmissible than its parent. So far, three cases in the U.S. have been linked to this potentially amped Delta, though that may very well be an underestimation, given only a small sample of positive tests are genetically sequenced to determine which version of the virus is to blame for any given infection.

With the only thing certain about the pandemic being the uncertainty – and the holidays looming – municipalities face tricky decisions on whether to keep mask restrictions in place.

Boston city officials said the indoor mask mandate is staying in place for now even though the COVID incidence rate in the city is falling and the positive-test rate is low and stable. Additionally, 65% of Boston residents are fully vaccinated, according to the city’s COVID Dashboard.

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Friday, Worcester city officials have a planned COVID-19 briefing, and one likely topic will be the future of the indoor mask mandate. With COVID numbers going in the wrong direction in the state’s second-largest city, it would probably be more of a surprise to see mask restrictions eased.

Worcester resident Anthony Russo is ready for whatever.

“I’ll respect it,” Russo said. “I mean, like I said, I’d rather that than them saying you can’t go out anymore. Because I remember the first lockdown and that was not fun, to say the least.”

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