READING — Citing the community’s high vaccination rates and news that Reading has fewer than 10 active COVID-19 cases within its adult population, the Board of Health last night argued against the reimposition of a town-wide masking order.
During a virtual gathering on Thursday night, which included the participation of at least three Select Board members, individual Board of Health members uniformly agreed that local citizens should wear facial coverings whenever they’re gathering within indoor spaces for an extended period of time.
However, the local officials also contended that Reading’s current COVID-19 outbreak metrics, when reviewed alongside vaccination data, did not justify the declaration of a new public health emergency and related universal indoor masking requirements.
“The data is showing we have five adult cases and [somewhere around 40] school cases,” said Board of Health Chair Richard Lopez.
“My own thinking is that as of today, given where the pandemic is in terms of low [transmission] rates and [the town having] just five adult cases in a town of 27,000 people, it seems unnecessary,” later said Lopez of instituting a new masking mandate.
The Board of Health first considered the adoption of a new round of emergency pandemic measures in mid-August, when Reading and many of its neighbors began seeing an uptick in new coronavirus infections that are being attributed to a vaccine-resistant “Delta” strain of the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes COVID-19 illnesses.
Last night’s review also occurred as Select Board Chair Karen Herrick and other local officials have asked the Board of Health to consider at a minimum the implementation of a masking order for individuals who attend government meetings.
Because in-person meeting attendees are sitting within an indoor space for hours, a condition that far exceeds the 15-minute close contact circumstances believed necessary for the virus to be transmitted from an infected person to others, Lopez agreed the partial masking mandate warranted consideration.
Though ultimately agreeing with her colleagues that neither a partial or townwide facial covering requirement is necessary, Board of Health Chair Kerry Dunnell contends that residents should be “strongly encouraged” to wear a mask any time they gather indoors within a public space.
“Public health is about prevention and we need to think forward. So while the backdata is helpful, we need to think about what’s coming,” said Dunnell. “We’re entering the fall and winter and the heating season, where windows are closed and people spend more time indoors.”
“We’re also anticipating a difficult flus season and [other respiratory illnesses] are going around and wreaking havoc right now,” the Board of Health member continued. “The numbers right now, yeah, they look fabulous. But I don’t think now is the time [for people to start wandering around without a mask].”
According to Reading Public Health Nurse Kristine Harris, who along with the town’s school nurse workforce is actively involved with tracking down new COVID-19 cases for the purposes of conducting contact tracing and monitoring home isolation and quarantine orders, there are currently 54 active cases within Reading.
Nine of those latest cases were just logged into the state’s infectious disease database on Thursday, meaning contact tracers have not yet been able to determine where those cases originated.
At least 40 of those cases involve local students and educators, although as Harris emphasized, almost all of those infections have been determined to have originated outside of the public school setting. The last five cases involved other local residents.
Further pointing out that about 50 percent of all new COVID-19 infections involve so-called breakthrough cases - or instances where fully vaccinated individuals have tested positive for the pathogen - the public health nurse explained that most new cases since last summer have involved the spread of the virus within individual households scattered across the community.
“The break-through cases, they are much milder than when COVID first came out,” said Harris, who anecdotally confirmed research that suggests that all three COVID-19 vaccines prevent adults from contracting severe and life-threatening cases of the viral illness.
According to Lopez, based upon his research, though the state shows that about 68 percent of Reading’s population is vaccinated, that data is somewhat skewed by including children under the age of 12 - who are not yet permitted to receive the immunizations.
When those aged 11 and under are removed from the vaccination rate calculation, according to the health official, Reading’s vaccination rate climbs to around 80 percent.
The latest community-wide outbreak statistics, compiled by the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH), also suggests that COVID-19 transmissions and other risk factors have been dropping for three consecutive weeks now.
Specifically, since DPH’s Sept. 9 report of COVID-19 dynamics within Reading, the town’s case positivity rate has dropped from 3.34 percent to 2.78 percent. The metric measures the number of individuals who seek out COVID-19 testing and later learn of a positive result.
Reading’s average daily incidence rate, which compares new COVID-19 infections over a two-week period to population size, has also dropped from a Sept. 16 high-point of 20.6 to a 17.5.
“Certainly, things can change and change rapidly. But where we only have [five] adult cases in town, that’s a really low percentage. I certainly don’t see any need for a requirement right now,” said Board of Health associate member Kevin Sexton in response to the latest data points.