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Health professionals warn COVID poised to take off in fall

HOPKINTON, Mass. — On the one hand, Hopkinton is a highly vaccinated town when it comes to Covid. On the other, it’s been ominously quiet this summer at the Health Department.

“Demand has been really slow,” said Health Director Shaun McAuliffe. “And we expected a drop in demand with everybody going away for summer vacation. But we’ve received one call for an under-five vaccine and minimal requests for adult vaccination or boosters.”

McAuliffe is concerned that with schools reopening -- and few interventionary measures in place to stop the spread -- along with the fact some children haven’t been vaccinated -- Covid cases are bound to rise.

“We expect without barriers and with the high transmissibility of the current variants that are out there, that we’re going to see a higher rate of illness,” he said. “My biggest concern is just operationally.”

That is, how will the school system function if dozens of teachers and students become infected?

The Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity suggested it’s bound to happen. At a virtual press conference, the group presented evidence showing the effectiveness of school mask mandates in reducing transmission -- as it called on the state to focus on preventing the next surge.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Chan Harvard School of Public Health and the Boston Health Commission, compared Covid infections after the state lifted school mask mandates last February -- with the only two districts that kept them in place through the end of the school year in June: Boston and Chelsea.

“Before the statewide masking policy was lifted, case rates were similar between school districts,” said Tori Cowger, PhD, MPH, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Center for Health and Human Rights at Chan.

But Cowger said their research showed an additional 12,000 Covid cases occurred in students and faculty by the time the 2022 school year ended -- because so many districts dropped the mandatory use of masks.

And students this year are returning to school with the state steeped in Covid cases. For most of the summer, the official positivity rate -- thought by many to be an underestimation -- has been stuck around seven percent in Massachusetts. Last summer, the positivity rate never reached three percent.

“Because we dropped all the precautions in December of last year, we’ve been in a sustained surge since then,” said Lara Jirmanus, MD, MPH, a primary care physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School. “And you don’t need an MD or a PhD to know that the new CDC guidelines and the changes in the Massachusetts state guidelines are about getting people back to work rather than about health. This is the wrong approach.”

The Coalition said you can look to the South for possible clues how the school year might begin here.

In Georgia, where schools reopened weeks ago, Covid cases among children are rising.

The Georgia Department of Public Health reported a two percent rise in Covid cases among children 0-4 years old since last week -- but more significant rises of 20% and 31% in elementary-aged kids and adolescents, respectively.

We all want this pandemic to be over,” said Katie Murphy, president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and someone who worked the front lines at Brigham and Women’s Hospital earlier in the pandemic. “Pretending we’re doing all that needs to be done for the fall and winter seasons, and what they may portend, is unacceptable on any level.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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