READING - Late last May, when town officials confirmed Reading would rescind the community’s indoor masking requirement and a host of other pandemic-related restrictions, many celebrated the end of the town’s struggle against COVID-19.
But playing the role of a public health pragmatist, Board of Health Chair Richard Lopez, urging vigilance as the masking and indoor gathering limits were lifted, was quick to caution the townspeople that the emergency public health measures could be reimposed in the face of a viral resurgence.
“In no way will this action impact the authority of the Board of Health from issuing orders deemed necessary by the Board of Health at any time in the future,” Lopez explained in an open letter to the general public in late May.
Tonight, during a meeting of Reading’s Board of Health, Lopez and his colleagues are reportedly planning to discuss whether the latest spike in COVID-19 cases warrants the reimposition of emergency public health measures governing facial coverings.
The discussion will reportedly be a continuation of a debate that began in mid-August, when the Board of Health as a result of an inquiry from Select Board Chair Karen Herrick opined that the town’s COVID-19 caseload and transmission metrics did not support a townwide masking mandate.
So just how much have COVID-19 metrics changed since the end of the previous masking mandate to today?
At the time the masking mandate was dropped, Reading had tracked just six new COVID-19 cases over a one-week span, while the severity of the town’s outbreak had been classified to a “low-risk” status since the end of April.
By July, according to weekly pandemic reports compiled by the Mass. Department Public Health (DPH), all signs of COVID-19 had all but vanished from the community, with not a single new infection being detected within Reading’s borders since at least June 13.
With an uptick in cases being attributed by state and federal officials to what was initially considered a less virulent but more infective “Delta” strain of COVID-19, those facts-on-the-ground had shifted by the time the Board of Health held its most recent meeting in mid-August.
At the time, the local Board of Health had recorded 29 new COVID-19 infections during the two-week span of July 25 and Aug. 7, while Reading’s case positivity rate - or percentage of local residents seeking out COVID-19 testing and learning of a positive result - had climbed from less than .5 percent to around 2 percent.
Based upon the latest DPH figures, the local outbreak has gotten worse since that time. In a report released last Thursday that covers COVID-19 infections recorded between Sept. 12 and Sept. 25, the town was tracking 68 new cases, and Reading’s case positivity number had climbed to about 2.8 percent.
Meanwhile, the town’s daily case incidence rate, a statistic that covers new infections over a two-week span to the community’s overall population size, has risen from a 7.5 on Aug. 19 to 17.5 as of Sept. 30.
Though outbreak indicators have indeed gotten worse, Reading’s situation is still a far cry from the circumstances that existed during the height of the second surge in COVID-19 cases last winter.
At the height of that public health emergency, recorded in a DPH report issued on Jan. 14, the town’s case positivity rate peaked at 8.15 percent. On that same date, Reading’s case incidence rate also crested at a 79.
Notably, during the first wave of COVID-19 infections in the spring of 2020, it was near impossible for those who believed they were asymptomatic carriers of the virus to seek out COVID-19 testing, and even those suffering from clear symptoms of the novel coronavirus found themselves unable to get tested.
At the time, state officials, reserving most of Massachusetts’ limited supply of COVID-19 testing kits for hospitalized and critically ill patients, were recording positivity rates above 30 percent.