Massachusetts may have taken two steps forward in its reopening process this month, but Gov. Charlie Baker says the state still has some of the toughest COVID-19 rules in the country.
As a small but growing number of states repeal mask mandates altogether against the advice of national health officials, Baker has adhered to his order requiring people to wear masks at all times in public (even when they are can stay away from others). Massachusetts continued to strictly limit private gatherings to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors. And although the Republican governor eased capacity limits on many businesses earlier this month, they’re still capped at 50% maximum occupancy and subject to industry-specific safety standards. Likewise, stadiums like Fenway Park and TD Garden, which were allowed to welcome supporters again last week, are limited to 12% of their capacity.
In other words, Massachusetts is a far cry from states like Texas, which repealed its mask mandate and allowed businesses to open 100% earlier this month – or even Connecticut, which has lifted completely. capacity limits on everything from gymnasiums to churches and plans to allow amusement parks will reopen on Friday.
“Massachusetts has some of the most stringent COVID-19 protocols in place,” Baker said at a press conference Tuesday at the Hynes Convention Center vaccination site. “And they’re there for a reason, and we need everyone to keep following and kissing them.”
And yet, these restrictions have not spared the state from the nationwide rise in COVID-19 infections. In fact, Massachusetts was flagged this week as one of the areas for ” biggest concernBy former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
After a dramatic drop in cases since the peak of the second outbreak in January, coronavirus cases in Massachusetts have increased by more than 35% in the past two weeks to a seven-day average of 1,543 cases per day. The state’s positive test rate has fallen from less than 1.8% to 2.55% in the past three weeks. After stabilizing, hospitalizations from COVID-19 have also started to rise again.
Acknowledging the rise, Baker said on Tuesday that residents should not have a “false sense of security about the end of the fight against COVID.”
However, even if Massachusetts isn’t reopening as quickly as other states, some experts say the relaxed rules could contribute to this false sense of security.
Dr Cassandra Pierre, acting hospital epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center, told GBH News last week that the relaxed restrictions were contributing to a sense of trust among residents, which was in part responsible for the changing trends.
“It’s the thought that if something is open then it has to be safe,” Pierre said.
In fact, experts say these activities could be riskier than they appear due to the rise of the most contagious variants of COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 441 confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, originating in the UK, Massachusetts. Baker suggested the official numbers are likely undercounted, due to limited viral sequencing; he said on Tuesday that a local hospital found that variant B.1.1.7 accounted for 55% of infections tested.
“It’s very present here,” said the governor.
Dr Abraar Karan, doctor of internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, attributed the recent increase in cases to a combination of more contagious variants, policy changes allowing higher-risk activities and people “feeling like we were out of the woods. However, he noted that it’s hard to say how much of a particular factor is to blame.
According to state data, more than half of the COVID-19 cases reported in Massachusetts in the past two weeks were in people under the age of 30, who are less likely to suffer complications from the disease. Massachusetts has also administered at least one dose of the vaccine to 80% of residents over the age of 75, according to Baker.
“This is helping to reduce hospitalizations and cases of this particularly vulnerable group,” he said Tuesday.
But as Karan noted, the vast majority of the state – including many frontline workers – is still not vaccinated. Although Baker has repeatedly noted that the vaccine rollout in Massachusetts now exceeds national averages to reach its most vulnerable residents, the state still averages several dozen deaths from COVID-19 every day. Hospitalizations also fell from a low of 580 in 2021 on March 20 to 711 as of Tuesday.
“I’ve dealt with several cases this month – unsurprisingly, it was a mix of frontline workers; people who had no choice but to go to crowded spaces to do essential activities (and who reported wearing a mask all the time) and people who are not sure how they got infected ”, Karan said in an email. “I have seen mild cases; I have also treated serious cases.
For his part, Baker has tried to counter any suggestion that the easing of restrictions means residents can “let their guard down.”
“It is still too early to declare victory,” he said. “And we have even more progress to make, especially when it comes to vaccinations.”
Baker noted that his administration will continue to review the data and “update and adjust our restrictions accordingly.” For now, the governor is urging residents to continue wearing masks and keeping their distance from others, arguing that informal gatherings where “people let their guard down” are the main driver of the rise.
“It’s not when they’re in formal situations like this where everyone is wearing a mask and everyone is taking their distance and everyone is playing by the rules,” he said. “That’s exactly when you don’t do any of those things.”
CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky, who joined Baker and other Massachusetts officials at the Hynes vaccination site on Tuesday, also emphasized mask wear and social distancing. While urging states not to reopen earlier this month, Walensky declined to say whether Massachusetts should reverse its recent moves.
“What I’m going to say is I’m really happy to see that everyone here is masked, everyone outside is masked, and people are doing their part to try to contain the virus here in. Massachusetts, ”she said.
After the dramatic drop in COVID-19 rates, Walensky also said she believed people “now understand that cases are increasing” and that they “know what we need to do to stop the outbreak.”
“We would ask everyone to go ahead and do it,” she said.
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