September 21, 2022

The health leaders of Mass. call for intensified COVID plans for fall and winter

Last week, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials announced that there would be no statewide masking or testing mandates for schools this fall and that students and staff exposed to COVID do not have to self-isolate if they have no symptoms. The guidelines were similar to those released by the state at the end of the 2021-2022 school year and consistent with new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Children who test positive for COVID must self-isolate for five days and wear a mask around others for 10 days.)

Booster vaccinations have also been delayed. Only 59% of fully vaccinated people received a booster shot in Massachusetts, compared to a national average of 48%. Further, full vaccination differs by age group, with 51% of 5-11 year olds, 78% of 12-15 year olds and 73% of 16-19 year olds fully vaccinated.

Among the measures called for by advocates were back-to-school vaccination “festivals”, a resumption of mask mandates in schools and all public buildings at the start of the surges, plans and funds to resume monitoring tests during power surges, and times or areas in schools, workplaces, and public spaces where masks would be required. They also want policies that require those who test positive for COVID to self-isolate for 10 days or until students or workers test negative on rapid tests. Some also pleaded for masking and mandatory tests at the start of the year, and for new standards of ventilation and air filtration.

“We have other goals beyond [maintaining] hospital capacity,” said Jonathan Levy, professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health. “Preventing our hospitals from being criticized is extremely important. But we need and want other things. We want an in-person school with as much presence as possible. We want our workplaces to be functional. We want to make sure our supply chains are not disrupted.

The Baker administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but the Department of Health and Human Services noted throughout the summer and into September that DPH coordinated more than 480 vaccination clinics. free family friendly for anyone 6 months and older. The Department of Public Health’s mobile provider also offered clinics for family and pediatric practices too small to administer vaccines themselves, and the state offered mobile immunization clinics in places such as public kindergarten schools. to grade 12 and community colleges.

Such approaches were not enough for a number of experts and advocates. Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, said in the southeast of the country, where the school year began without a mitigation policy, there had already been an increase in admissions to the children’s hospital.

“It is a tragedy to know that these children are so seriously affected. It’s a tragedy when children have long COVID, when their parents and caregivers have it, and when they miss work and suffer economic hardship. We can help reduce all of this through COVID mitigation strategies,” Raifman said.

A study published online earlier this month but not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal suggested mask mandates kept COVID transmission low in Boston-area schools. Researchers from the The FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard’s School of Public Health and the Boston Public Health Commission compared COVID rates at schools that lifted mask requirements in February with those that continued to mask until February. June. They estimated that schools that allowed students to go mask-free had 45 additional cases per 1,000 students and staff in the 15 weeks after the mandate was lifted, or about 12,000 cases.

This study added to research published earlier this month in JAMA Network Open by researchers at Boston University, which found that classroom transmission of COVID was ‘negligible’ when mandatory masking and vaccination were in place.

Advocates have pointed out that without action, the consequences of the pandemic will continue to hit essential workers, black and brown communities and people with health conditions the hardest. Suleika Soto, co-founder of Families for COVID Safety and organizer of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, said Boston Public School children come from families of essential workers, whose jobs are at risk if they have to take time off work. work. Many live in multi-generational households with vulnerable elderly parents.

“It has been so important that our schools are not sources of infection and transmission and that there are the layers of protection that racial equity demands to protect students and families from this unrelenting ongoing pandemic” , she said.

Dr. Lara Jirmanus, a primary care physician and teacher at Harvard Medical School, pointed to a mother and daughter she saw during a video tour. Jirmanus suspected the daughter had COVID, but the mother said there was no way other family members could self-quarantine. They also didn’t live within walking distance of a testing site, had no tests at home, and spoke only Portuguese, so they had trouble navigating websites to find testing locations. near.

“Tools have always been the least accessible to black and brown communities hardest hit by the pandemic,” Jirmanus said. “And also, older people are less likely to have computers or easily navigate the very complicated online tools you need to access vaccines, tests and treatments. It doesn’t give people access to the tools. This is a series of tools easily accessible to white and wealthy people who are very connected. »

Disability advocates have also lamented that a lax attitude towards COVID has deprived them of access to public spaces. Ellen Leigh, a disability advocate and member of the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity, pushed for universal face coverings, as well as remote education options, during the surges.

“It’s public health. We can do better by being realistic, planning for the future and imagining new ways to move forward to safeguard the well-being of all of us,” Leigh said. Disabled and immunocompromised people shouldn’t have to sacrifice their lives for everyone’s comfort.”

Jessica Bartlett can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ByJessBartlett.