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December dubbed “the month of COVID”

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Board of Health adopts a mask mandate for indoors as town nurse reports 1,312 Coronavirus cases last month

  Anyone who enters a public building, business or other indoor place where people gather must wear a protective face covering. That is the basic intent of an indoor public mask mandate that the Board of Health adopted at Monday’s meeting on a unanimous 3-0 vote. The new regulation went into effect yesterday, and officials acknowledged that they expect some resistance from citizens who are philosophically opposed to any mask mandates.

  “This is not something we’re doing to punish anybody,” Board of Health Chair William Heffernan said during a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom videoconferencing.

  “I personally have friends who are against mask mandates – something we need to do to try to slow this down,” Heffernan said, referring to the recent surge of COVID-19 cases in Saugus and most other communities throughout Massachusetts and across the nation.

  “I know people who have had COVID multiple times even though they are vaccinated and boosted,” he said.

  The board decided that it would reevaluate the need for the mask mandate at its March meeting.

  Earlier in the meeting, the town’s public health nurse, Teresa Riley-Singh, briefed the board on new data which showed why the town needed to join most other surrounding communities that have adopted mask mandates already. “December was definitely the month of COVID,” Riley-Singh told the board. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Saugus as of Monday was 6,703 since March 1, 2020 – which included 1,312 cases last month, according to Riley-Singh.

Christmas holiday contribute to the spike

  The 545 cases reported in the town last week was more than double the 253 cases reported in the same time period last year, she said. “We’re definitely in a major surge,” she said.

  Even though the numbers of confirmed cases are considerably higher, the death toll is lower than last year, Riley-Singh noted. For instance, there were seven COVID-related deaths in December of 2020 compared to four deaths linked to COVID last month. The people who died were mostly unvaccinated, she said.

  Given that the nation had just completed the holiday season, officials expected that “the numbers are going to soar,” Riley-Singh noted.

  “People were packed in stores and restaurants. We didn’t have a mask mandate like we had last year,” she told the board.

  A visibly frustrated Heffernan asked the nurse, “Are we ever going to start to turn a corner here?”

  “I know,” Riley-Singh answered. “It’s definitely not where anyone wanted to be in December 2021 and still talking about it in January 2022. But let’s get through the winter and then reevaluate, come the warmer months.”

  Health Director John R. Fralick III told board members that Salem, Peabody, Danvers, Beverly and most of Essex County have already adopted temporary mask mandates. “I think it’s going to be a necessary thing in the fight against Omicron,” Fralick said, referring to the latest variant to concern national health officials.

  He noted that the town has distributed some 10,000 free COVID tests to the general public, with a major emphasis on reaching out to senior citizens, residents of low-income housing and the local veterans community.

Officials doubt mandate can be enforced

  Fralick said he was generally satisfied with efforts he has observed of people trying to take precautions to protect themselves from the deadly virus that has led to 87 COVID-related deaths in Saugus. “When I go out in the field, I see most people wearing masks and doing the right thing,” Fralick said.

  To that comment, Heffernan said he was “struggling with the enforcement part of it.”

  “Who’s going to enforce it?” Fralick asked.

  “When you’re talking about punitive measures, there’s not a whole lot we can do,” the health director told Heffernan.

  Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree told the Board of Health that he believes the town is “late” in adopting measures to require masks in public buildings and public places. “Most of the communities that surround us, they all have requirements for masks in public buildings,” Crabtree said.

  “We have to do whatever we can to keep educating people,” the town manager said.

  Crabtree noted that with students, teachers and educational staff returning to Saugus Public Schools this week from the holiday vacation “that a bunch of people in the School Department, a bunch of children as well as town employees told us they are positive and have gone home.”

  “This is significant how it’s spreading,” he said.

  Heffernan responded, “I don’t think masks are a terrible idea.” But he added that his “main concern” was “people are going to come back and say ‘nope.’”

  Riley-Singh told Heffernan there was “no way” the town would be able to enforce the mask mandate against those people who are adamant about not wearing masks.

  “If we do a mask mandate and leave it with the businesses, the businesses are going to enforce it. There will be more people wearing masks,” she said.

  “I don’t think we’re going to catch the group that’s anti-mask,” she said.

  Fralick declared “there definitely needs to be a crusade of education, if anything, just to keep people reeled in and aware of the fact we’re still in the fight.”

  “The issue is people have turned the page on COVID when they absolutely shouldn’t be turning the page,” Fralick said. “A lot of the businesses are on board with whatever we decide to do.”

  Heffernan wasn’t convinced that all businesses would be committed to a mask mandate. “I’m sure there’s going to be more than a few who say, ‘You don’t have to wear a mask, come on in,’” he said.

  Board of Health Member Geraldine Gatchell said she believes that businesses are “already on board with this.”

  Board of Health Member Maria Tamagna said she is concerned about some of the negative feedback that local businesses receive from people who are opposed to a mask mandate. “I hope it doesn’t come down to what we’ve seen in the past … of people getting angry and aggressive about it,” Gatchell said.

  “It’s not the business owners’ fault this is in place,” she said.

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