Health experts urge Gov. Baker, MBTA, & schools to bring back COVID precautions as cases rise – Boston.com


By Christopher Gavin
Public health experts and community leaders on Wednesday called on Gov. Charlie Baker and state agencies such as the MBTA and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to reinstate precautionary measures, like a school mask mandate, as COVID-19 cases grow again in Massachusetts.
Led by the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity, the group spoke out days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention placed most of the Bay State at a “high” COVID community level. The CDC recommends people residing in those areas — which include Boston — should wear a “well-fitting” mask when indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status.
Cases across the state have swelled in recent weeks, as has the amount of COVID RNA in Boston-area wastewater.
Data for the latter, collected by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, shows virus levels are on-par with, if not higher than, those during the 2020-2021 winter surge.
“Everything is on the rise and on the rise quite rapidly,” Jon Levy, chair of the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University, said during a virtual press conference held by the coalition. “But it’s only the tip of the iceberg, and we all know that there’s a lot of at-home tests being done right now (and) not all positives are being reported to the state.”
In response, the coalition — a group of healthcare workers, public health advocates and community leaders — is urging the state Department of Public Health to issue an advisory recommending people wear masks when indoors and avoid large gatherings.
The DPH’s latest advisory, issued in March, advises individuals who have a weakened immune system or have underlying health conditions — or live with a person who does — to wear masks when in public indoor places.
Masks are only required to be worn in certain locations, such as on the RIDE, the MBTA’s paratransit service; in health care facilities; congregate care facilities; emergency shelter programs; and jails and prisons, among other settings.
The coalition is also urging DESE, local school districts, and the MBTA to bring back mask mandates in schools and on public transit during the surge.
DESE ended its mandatory mask rule in schools in February, although districts can keep — and some have kept — the mandate in place.
“These are policies to ensure that we have the vaccine and mask coverage that we need to help students stay in school, keep schools open, and keep students and educators who are required to be there, safe,” said Julia Raifman, assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
Additionally, the coalition urged state officials to increase access to COVID testing, treatment, and vaccines, including treatment accessible by telephone rather than smartphones and computers. The group also asked for more partnerships with community health centers and community organizations.
These measures, the experts said, are needed to protect the state’s most vulnerable populations. Masking is most effective when practiced as a community at-large, they said.
“A lot of the logic that has been used to emphasize protection in this phase of the pandemic has really rested on people adopting individual measures: If you want to get vaccinated, vaccinate yourself. If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask for yourself,” said Dr. Amir Mohareb, an infectious disease physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School. “These are all really, really important interventions, but it breaks down for a lot of our vulnerable patients, who despite vaccination and despite masking, either because of existing medical conditions or because of (the) social environments that they’re in, still cannot protect themselves.”
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