Health advocates call for school, transit masking

Surging COVID-19 numbers raise possibility of winter-like precautions

HOPKINTON, Mass. — Last fall, Hopkinton High became the first school in the state eligible to become mask-optional — thanks to high vaccination rates among students and staff. Hopkinton schools went back to mandatory masking for the winter surge, but masking has been optional for months now.

But this week, with COVID-19 cases again surging, town officials are considering a return to those wintertime precautions.

“I think, roughly, for the month of May we’ve had 387 cases,” said Health Director Shaun McAuliffe. “And that’s just what we know from the state health department reporting to us.”

But McAuliffe knows many are testing positive at home and not reporting that to his department. He thinks the actual number of positives this month is more than 500.

In April, McAuliffe himself contracted COVID-19 — after exposure to his daughters, who tested positive on PCR tests. His test, at the time, was negative. But later that night he began experiencing symptoms.

“I felt a sensation in my arms like I was getting the flu and the next morning I had a sore throat which is common to Omicron,” McAuliffe said, “And I tested positive.”

McAuliffe said this illustrates the importance of repeated testing.

“Within a 12 hour period, I went from negative on a PCR test to positive on an antigen test,” he said. “So this doesn’t help the situation where we have people saying I got tested and I was negative. Well you could be positive the next day. You could be positive two or three days later. So if you’re not testing regularly or when you’re symptomatic, you might be missing the illness and that’s likely leading to additional spread throughout the community.”

What’s also leading to additional spread, he thinks, insufficient isolation times. McAuliffe said he continued to test positive for fourteen days — and that, anecdotally, other health departments are seeing longer periods of possible transmission with the Omicron sub-variants

”If we’re using a system right now with five days of isolation and out with a face covering,” McAuliffe said. “And you’re contagious to days eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen... just think about how many people you come in contact with on a daily basis; how many people you could infect.”

In fact, doctors participating in a virtual press conference Wednesday, to call on the state to issue advisories and mandates on masking, confirm that some infected with COVID-19 remain infectious for up to two weeks.

The Massachusetts Coalition of Health Equity sponsored that press conference. The group is calling on the state to first issue an advisory that we are in the midst of a surge. And further, to issue advisories on indoor masking and avoidance of large gatherings.  MCHE also wants mandatory masking to return to the MBTA and to Massachusetts schools for the duration of the surge.

“It’s really time to take action,” said Lara Jimanus, MD, MPH, a family physician who served as moderator of the press conference. “The current variants that are circulating are incredibly contagious.”

Jimanus said surge and masking advisories would get results — with some surveys showing half of Americans willing to take precautions if advised to do so by government health authorities.

Jimanus worries that, with only about half of Massachusetts residents boosted, the virus could have a field day in the coming weeks — most especially in schools.

“It’s not possible for a kid to go to school in the middle of a surge and not get COVID-19 right now,” she said. “If we just let the virus spread unchecked we’re actually doing a massive experiment on our entire population and not everybody’s consenting to that experiment.”

At the moment, in Massachusetts at least, the virus is spreading unchecked — and with glaring results. In a month, the test positivity rate has doubled to more than nine percent, hospitalizations have more than doubled and deaths are nearly double what they were in April.

But the group claims those figures are likely the tip of the iceberg. If the large amount of home testing was included, the positivity rate could be upwards of 30 percent, they said.

Allowing the pandemic to rage on raises the possibility for more eventual cases of ‘Long Covid,’ Jimanus said — as well as mutations.

“When it mutates, the variants can get more infectious or less infectious,” she said. “They can get more severe or less severe. The next variant could make people even more sick. The next variant could be more deadly. We actually just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But, there is growing concern a bigger surge could be in the works for fall.

McAuliffe said he’s concentrating on getting through the summer in a good position for the town to fend off outbreaks in the coming months.

“I am concerned about the fall and winter,” Jimanus said. “I hope that we end up learning something from this particular surge. That people can see what happens when you don’t have the masks. The thing with infectious disease is that you really have to nip it in the bud. If two or three weeks ago, we had brought back the masks we would actually be seeing a much lower infection rate right now.”

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