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Off with the Masks!

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A dramatic drop in COVID-19 cases and a 76% vaccination rate among town residents prompts Board of Health to downgrade the indoor mask mandate to an advisory

  What a difference a month can make when it comes to COVID-19.

  At the Board of Health’s January meeting, a visibly frustrated Board Chair William Heffernan asked the town’s public health nurse, Teresa Riley-Singh “Are we ever going to start to turn a corner here?”

  Riley-Singh urged patience while acknowledging the early year spike in cases following a December she had declared “the month of COVID.” “But let’s get through the winter and then reevaluate, come the warmer months.”

  But Heffernan, the rest of the Board of Health and the rest of Saugus residents and business owners won’t have to wait that long to reevaluate the indoor mask mandate. A dramatic drop in COVID-19 cases and a 76 percent vaccination rate among town residents prompted the board’s unanimous 3-0 vote to make the mandate an advisory.

  “I, for one, am against any future mandates,” Heffernan declared after the board’s vote on Monday (Feb. 7), which was held remotely via Zoom videoconferencing.

  “I think we are light years away from instituting another mask mandate,” Heffernan said. He was emphatic in stressing that there would be no effort on his part to support a future indoor mask mandate “without concrete proof from multiple sources that the masks will help.”

  If there were “a minor uptick” in the coming weeks, Heffernan said, it wouldn’t be enough to reinstate the mandate which the board approved last month. “Overall, the numbers are trending in a great direction,” he said.

  School Committee Member Joseph “Dennis” Gould asked Heffernan for a clarification of the advisory approved on Monday. “You really don’t say what the guidelines are,” Gould told Heffernan.

  “It’s not mandated,” Heffernan answered, noting that they are recommendations. “We’re not going to hold businesses accountable for not allowing people into their businesses if they don’t wear a mask,” he said.

  And there will also be a transition phase. The Board of Health sent out a letter to food establishments regarding the board’s downgrading the mask mandate to an advisory (see related story).

Mask mandate for schools ends Feb. 28

  Public School Buildings are not affected by the Board’s vote, because they come under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

  DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced this week that public schools in Massachusetts will no longer be required to wear face coverings while indoors starting Feb. 28. But students and staff may still be required to wear face coverings in certain situations, according to Riley.

  Meanwhile, local businesses will have the prerogative to require masks in their establishments if they wish.

  Ken Strum wanted to know whether lifting the mask mandate means that residents could resume their board games at the Saugus Senior Center. “I’d say go for it. Why not?” Heffernan told Strum.

  “I can wholeheartedly say that’s fine,” Public Health Director John R. Fralick III told Strum.

  What about the parties held at the Saugus Senior Center which often involve up to 60 people? Strum asked. Fralick said he didn’t think there would be a problem with that, but that he would be in touch with Senior Center Director Joanne Olsen soon to discuss the COVID-19 protocols.

  Strum said he’s glad to be able to forgo facemasks in the future. But he also stressed the benefits he has received from wearing masks over the last two years. “I haven’t had as much as a cold. I believe in them,” he said.

COVID hit a record high in January

  In her briefing, the town’s Public Health Nurse, Teresa Riley-Singh, noted that in January Saugus experienced its greatest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases – 1,753 – which was more than double the 830 cases reported in January of last year. “The good news is the death rate is about the same for each month. It tells us that the vaccine does work,” Riley-Singh said.

  “In the coming months, we’ll see the cases coming down. Most of the people are testing at home,” she said.

  When it came time for his report, Fralick agreed there has been “a precipitous drop-off” in COVID cases since the town experienced “768 cases in a single week.”

  “The important thing to realize is that we’ve experienced a seven-day period that we haven’t seen in months and months – and 76 percent fully vaccinated in town,” Fralick said.

  “I recommend that we roll back the mandate from full-blown to advisory status. … I don’t see any basis for continuing the indoor mandate to March 7 [when the board was scheduled to reevaluate whether to continue or lift the mandate],” he said.

  Heffernan called adopting Fralick’s recommendation “the right thing to do,” also noting it was “the right thing to do” in implementing the mandate back in January after the record-setting escalation of confirmed COVID-19 cases in town.

  “I’m shocked,” Heffernan said. “We used to see 200 to 250 cases a day. Today, it was seven. I am 100 percent behind John’s recommendation to take off the mask mandate,” he said.

  Board of Health Members Geraldine Gatchell and Maria Tamagna agreed. “I think it’s time to let people decide whether or not they want to wear masks in public,” Tamagna said.

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