Westborough Board of Health issues mask, COVID-19 vaccination advisory

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Westborough town iconWESTBOROUGH – The Westborough Board of Health issued an advisory this week, strongly encouraging community members to wear facial coverings while indoors regardless of their vaccination status. The advisory also recommended that individuals get vaccinated against COVID-19 and receive a booster. 

The board voted to send the advisory during its meeting on Monday night, which focused on a surge in COVID-19 cases in Westborough and the topic of masking. 

Westborough saw 78 new cases between Nov. 26 and Dec. 3, according to the Board of Health’s most recent case update. That includes 38 breakthrough cases. There were two individuals in the hospital, which Board of Health member Alan Ehrlich said made this the first time that anyone in Westborough needed to be hospitalized for COVID-19 “in a very long time.”

“It’s actually approaching the highest level that we’ve actually seen here in Westborough in terms of the number of cases per day,” Chair Nathan Walsh said. 

Walsh originally raised the idea of enacting a mask mandate. However, the board opted to send the advisory instead after additional discussion. 

Walsh had said that, if the board decided to implement a mask mandate, the day it would actually go into effect would be flexible to let the community know it was coming.

“I’m not sure that a mask mandate for our town is needed right now,” said Board of Health member Melissa Mahr. “I certainly don’t agree with the schools being unmasked or flex masking, and I do wish there was another way to have the schools masking without recommending a full town mask mandate.”

Walsh cautioned against implementing his proposed mandate specifically to have an effect on the schools, which began implementing flexible masking at Westborough High School and Gibbons Middle School on Monday.

“That is not what I want at all,” Walsh said. “If we go ahead with this proposal, I want it to be based on the town and the town numbers and what’s best for the town.”

Town Manager Kristi Williams said she was unsure if the town saw the conversation coming beyond discussion at the schools. She brought up the option of an advisory.

“I think that your engagement with the community has been really strong, and people are really listening to these meetings and to your guidance,” Williams told the Board of Health. “I do think some sort of advisory would actually yield some of the desired results.” 

Cases at schools

Walsh said the Board of Health received a total of 177 emails and several messages sent through other means ahead of this Dec. 6 meeting. Most of those discussed the schools, board members said. 

“Unfortunately, this is being portrayed as one board versus another,” Walsh said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Each of us is acting with the information we have at the time that we’re making our decisions and making the best decisions we can at the time.”

Schools superintendent Amber Bock attended the meeting alongside School Committee president Kristen Vincent.  

Bock said there had been 16 COVID-19 cases at Westborough High School in this school year. She said there had been one at Gibbons Middle School. 

Within that, Westborough Health Director Jennifer Sullivan said there have been eight cases at the high school since Dec. 2. 

Mahr raises concerns about flexible masking decision

The board and school officials discussed a number of topics when it came to the schools, including testing and masking after exposure. 

Bock recommended on Nov. 17 that the School Committee vote to implement flexible masking take effect on Jan. 10.  

At their next meeting the School Committee opted to make the transition on Dec. 6.

During the Board of Health meeting this week, Vincent said the Dec. 6 date seemed acceptable to many, including the Board of Health.

​​“It wasn’t that we were OK with flex masking starting on Dec. 6. It was, ‘What were we going to advise if that were to happen,’” Mahr said.

Mahr said that, according to Bock, the plan was to implement flexible masking Jan. 10, which meant the board had time to examine the numbers before the implementation date. 

Mahr also said there have been changes since the Board of Health’s last meeting, such as the emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and increased COVID-19 case numbers. 

According to Mahr, the guidelines from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that allowed the flexible masking state that local decisions on masking are to be made in consultation with local health officials. 

“I felt like our School Committee members, last week, did not follow these guidelines by DESE by going against both the superintendent and the Board of Health to decide to flexible mask starting today,” Mahr said.

Ehrlich, who spoke after Mahr, said it’s “easy” to feel like people who have different perspectives aren’t following science. He said that science can report the cases or transmission rate or effectiveness of masks. But he said mandatory masking in public buildings or flexible masking in schools aren’t strictly science questions because they involve values.

Masks are one tool, he said. Sometimes, all available tools are needed while, sometimes, only some are needed, he said.

“My feelings last meeting was that the School Committee is in the best position to balance the risks and benefits of the policies around masking. To a certain extent, I still feel that way,” Ehrlich said.

When that last Board of Health meeting took place, COVID-19 data was “bouncing around,” he said. Since then, though, case counts have gone up “quite substantially” both in Westborough and elsewhere. 

“That’s the kind of thing that I would hope the School Committee was taking into consideration when they were making their decisions, and obviously I’m anxious to hear what the representatives from the School Committee or superintendent have to say in that regard to help explain so that people understand what’s the rationale,” Ehrlich said.

Mahr said there was a “small, very vocal subset of residents in our town” acting “so incredibly disrespectfully and egregiously on social media.”

“I think it’s extremely important, especially in a small town like Westborough, that we treat everybody with courtesy and respect as much as possible…For us to be successful in managing COVID, we need to maintain a sense of community — that’s we’re all in this together,” Ehrlich said later in the meeting. 

Bock, Vincent respond

Vincent said the School Committee was “clear” that it planned to use the waiver it had received from the state’s mask mandate for local control of policies at WHS and Gibbons. The question, she said, was when that would happen. 

Bock said the difference between her recommendation and the School Committee’s vote “solely centered” around the date. She said Dec. 6 was always on the table for discussion.

 Vincent said she was comfortable with coronavirus mitigation measures in place under flexible masking, including test and stay protocols and contact tracing. She said the School Committee was committed to placing resources where needed, such as nursing staff and helping with additional hours or additional staff as needed. 

“We can always adjust together,” she told the Board of Health. “We can always remask a class or building, like Superintendent Bock said. We are going to take this day by day and work together with you and look to your guidance, and as Superintendent Bock said move to daily meetings if needed to keep an eye on the data and make adjustments as needed.”

The town previously implemented a mask mandate for municipal facilities including Town Hall, the Forbes Municipal Building, the Westborough Public Library, the Senior Center, the Fire Department and Department of Public Works Facilities. 

That mandate will remain in effect until Jan. 10.

“We will continue to monitor the data and make adjustments to this plan as appropriate,” Williams wrote in a message to the Community Advocate last week.