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Should mask mandates be lifted? A personal view

Mask mandate loosening. ? Getty Images

Expressing the following viewpoint about mask mandates in Arlington is Paul Schlichtman, a Precinct 9 Town Meeting member and a longtime member of the Arlington School Committee. This is his view as a private citizen.

During my first trip to Japan 16 years ago, one of the things I noticed was that several folks riding on public transportation were wearing masks. Clearly, folks who were either experiencing cold symptoms, or wished to protect themselves in a dense crowd, availed themselves of masks as part of a social compact that is highly conscious of everyone’s responsibility to others.

Masking works to impede the transmission of airborne viruses, including colds, flu and Covid. It is also impractical to expect people to wear masks every hour, every day, to prevent the spread of viruses. In an effort to combat Covid, many communities and businesses have enacted mask mandates, mostly targeted at indoor spaces. Arlington enacted a mask mandate for indoor public spaces on Aug. 19, 2021.

Toiwn, schools face decisions

The question now before us revolves around the lifting of mask mandates. The state is lifting its mandate for public schools Feb. 28, though Arlington’s schools are also governed by the town’s mask mandate. Should the town lift its mandate, Arlington Public Schools must consider if it will extend or lift the mandate in its buildings.

The question of mask mandates is not unique to Arlington; it is under consideration across the Commonwealth and across the nation.

In its Feb. 10, 2022, article about school mask mandates in the Boston area, The New York Times reported that “in Newton, 65 percent of elementary school students, 79 percent of middle schoolers and 88 percent of high schoolers are vaccinated, according to the district.”

The same article describes Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, as one of the most prominent voices in the masking debate, as well as a parent of students in the district. He serves on the district’s medical advisory group and has become an outspoken advocate for unmasking children as Omicron recedes. The New York Times describes his thinking:

“Dr. Jha does not believe that his own children have been seriously harmed from masking, and does not believe that the pandemic is over.

“But he wants to unmask soon, he says, in part to offer some social and academic normalcy, given that he thinks future coronavirus surges in the United States are likely to require masking again — potentially in the South over the summer and in the North this fall and next winter.

“He argued that with new therapeutics to treat Covid-19, there is little upside this spring to masking in regions, like the Boston area, with relatively high vaccination rates and plummeting infections.

“'If not now, when?'” he asked. “'Because I don’t foresee a time in the next couple of years that will necessarily be that much better.'”

Logic relevant to Arlington

Arlington’s vaccination rates are significantly above Newton’s. On Jan. 10, 2022, Arlington Public Schools reported 88 percent of elementary school students, and 91 percent of secondary school students as vaccinated. Arlington’s overall vaccination rate was 90 percent for all K-12 students and 98 percent for staff. If Dr. Jha’s argument for lifting the mask mandate in Newton is well reasoned, that logic is even more relevant for Arlington.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is not endorsing the lifting of mask mandates, but it is looking at national data. Across the United States, we see estimates of vaccination rates ranging from 35 to 50 percent among school-age children.

The CDC uses counties as a unit analysis for the risk of Covid. Nationally, this is a reasonable measure, but we are in the 22nd largest county in the United States. Middlesex County has a population of 1,611,699, greater than 11 states. The median county in the United States has a population of about 26,000, and if Arlington was a county, our population of 46,308 would place us in the 67th percentile nationally. Stated simply, public policy based on packaging our data with Framingham and Ashby dilutes any analysis of data reported in Arlington. 

Just as counties are the wrong unit of analysis, case counts are not the most reliable measure of virus in the community, as asymptomatic cases and positive home tests aren’t counted in the data. Positivity rates are influenced by the availability of public testing and the reasons why folks are seeking these tests. The best measures come from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) sewage treatment plant on Deer Island. Biobot Analytics is tracking virus in our wastewater

Follow Biobot data

While asymptomatic people can avoid testing, and avoid being counted in publicly reported data, we can’t avoid our toilets. The Biobot data trends earlier than case counts and hospitalizations. The Biobot data showed a gradual increase of virus in November, followed by a sharp increase starting in mid-December. The peak northern region sample occurred on Jan. 5, with 10,833 RNA copies/ml of wastewater. On Feb. 14, the sample of 94 copies/ml had the lowest viral count since Sept. 10, 2021.

This drop in virus levels in the community leads us back to Dr. Jha’s question, “If not now, when?” To sharpen the question, if we continue with mask mandates at a time when low levels of virus are being shed through our wastewater, does that mean we are making mask mandates permanent?

Until vaccines are available for children younger than 5 years old, masking remains the only protection for preschool children. However, when Arlington children from kindergarten to grade 12 have one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation, masking can be useful, but it shouldn’t be mandated.

Consider Japanese model

I am not advocating that we get rid of masks. My view is that we should think of ourselves like folks who ride Japanese trains.

If we feel a little sick, if we feel uncomfortable with the risks, we should wear a mask. We should support families who choose to send their child to school with a mask. We should have a mask mandate in the toolbox, so we can deploy it if the data shows signs of another emerging viral surge in our wastewater. We should also take a quick look at local Covid data, when we return from February vacation, before we lift the mandate in our schools.

That’s not to say we don’t have a public-policy interest in mandates. The best protection for our children is to add Covid to the list of required vaccines for public school attendance. That’s our path forward, and it’s time we lead the way down this scientifically based path to our future.

February 2022: Ongoing town Covid reporting

This opinion column was published Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022

Town of Arlington to LGBTQIA+ students: You belong


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