WOBURN - After partially copying what Woburn's leaders have been doing for weeks, state leaders last Friday downgraded the community's high-risk COVID-19 status to a moderate "yellow" ranking for the first time since the end of September.
Last Friday, Governor Charles Baker joined with Mass. Education Commissioner Jeffery Riley and representatives from the state's Department of Public Health (DPH) to announce an expansion in the criteria being used to grade the severity each city and towns' COVID-19 outbreak.
The changes, which include factoring each community's so-called COVID-19 positivity rate into the color-coded label assigned to Massachusetts' cities and towns, moved Woburn into the yellow or moderate risk category for the first-time since Sept. 29.
"This update builds on the states ongoing efforts to refine data that is reported publicly to track the impact of the virus on the Commonwealth," Baker's office explained in a prepared statement issued after his Friday press conference.
"With the change to the color-coded metrics, a community's designation of gray, green, yellow or red now takes into account the size of the community, positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, and the percent of tests conducted in a community that are positive," officials from the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) remarked in a separate statement on Friday.
Based upon the latest weekly DPH report, Woburn's case-incidence rate — previously the sole metric used for the color-coded system — rose from 11 to 14.4.
The case incidence rate compares total infectious COVID-19 cases over a 14-day reporting period to a community's overall population. In order to create a metric that equally compares urban and rural communities, each city or town's baseline size is adjusted to a presumed population of 100,000.
In Woburn's case, there have been 84 active COVID-19 cases recorded in the city over the past 14 days. Since the pandemic started back in March, a total of 964 residents have tested positive for the disease.
Had the state not changed its weekly reporting system, Woburn's 14.4 incidence rate as of Nov. 5 would have easily exceeded the old "redline" case incidence rate of 8.
However, under the adjusted metrics, the weekly DPH reports will increase that incidence rate threshold to 10 and also take into account case positivity rates, or the percentage of people tested for COVID-19 in the past 14 days who received a positive result.
Now, in order for a city or town to reach a "red" status, a community must have an incidence rate over 10 and have a case positivity rate of over 5.
As of last Thursday, Woburn's case positivity rate over the previous two weeks was 2.66 percent — an increase from the previous measurement a week prior of 2.36 percent.
In announcing the changes at a press conference last week, Baker and members' of the state's COVID-19 Command Center echoed what Mayor Scott Galvin and Schools' Superintendent Dr. Matthew Crowley have for weeks now argued: That it makes little sense to make major school opening decisions based upon a single pandemic-related metric.
Since October 7, when Woburn first crossed into the "red" reporting category under DPH's previous COVID-19 assessment system, Galvin and local Board of Health authorities have repeatedly balked at the idea of shutting down schools and shifting into a full-remote or at-home learning model.
During the most recent School Committee gathering, Crowley echoed that sentiment, arguing that there is no evidence the Sars-Cov-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is spreading unchecked through the student body or in the neighborhoods around local schools.
"[T]he question is really whether [new COVID-19 transmissions] are happening in the schools. And we're not seeing that," said the superintendent at the recent School Committee gathering. "We don't want to be reckless. We want to be safe and we want to deal with the pandemic. That's always front and center."
Galvin and Crowley have pointed out that while Woburn's total number of COVID-19 cases are rising, those infections are spread sporadically across the city. They have also suggested Woburn-specific case data generally illustrates that once one person in a family catches the virus, other household members are likely to also test positive for the highly contagious pathogen.
DESE officials since last August have dramatically shifted their guidance in regards to when districts should shift from a hybrid to full remote learning format.
Originally, DESE argued schools with a red ranking should automatically consider making the change to at-home learning. However, that guidance soon changed to a threshold whereby remote learning should be considered after three consecutive weeks of red rankings under the DPH classification system.
Last Friday, state education officials argued that hybrid learning plans should remain in-place — regardless of the color-coded ranking — until evidence emerges of unchecked COVID-19 transmissions within student or staff populations.
"With numerous examples of schools reopening from around the world, across the country, and recent first-hand experience here in Massachusetts, it is increasingly clear that schools are not sources of significant COVID transmission, so long as proper health and safety protocols are followed," DESE officials explained last Friday. "Districts are expected to prioritize in-person learning across all color-coded categories, unless there is suspected in-school transmission, in accordance with DESE's Guidance on Responding to COVID-19 Scenarios. Transmission in schools is defined as spread of the virus between people during interactions in the school setting," the prepared statement continued.