MARLBOROUGH – The Marlborough Board of Health did not enact a mask mandate at its meeting on Monday night.
But it plans to consider the matter further at a meeting on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. as a surge in COVID-19 cases continues.
“There are definitely going to be a lot of opinions on both sides that I think we should have the opportunity to hear,” Board of Health member Joseph Tennyson said.
Board of Health member notes current hospital conditions
Prior to any discussion of actual mask mandates, the Board of Health heard updates on the current state of the pandemic in Marlborough.
There were 653 active cases in the city as of Jan. 10. That is down from a peak of over 1,000 cases on Jan. 7.
There were, likewise, 96 active cases in Marlborough’s public schools, according to Director of Public Health John Garside, down from 185 cases late last week.
“The day off from the snow day, combined with the new isolation and quarantine guidelines seemed to help,” Garside said, noting major snow that closed schools last Friday.
As Garside discussed schools, Tennyson offered perspective on conditions in area hospitals.
Tennyson serves as the Chair of Emergency Medicine at UMass Memorial Health, which operates Marlborough Hospital.
“Marlborough is struggling,” he said. “Marlborough Hospital has been struggling because of staffing all weekend. It’s very bad.”
There were 29 people hospitalized at Marlborough Hospital with COVID-19 as of Monday, Tennyson said. Of those, 10 were in the emergency department while 13 were undergoing inpatient care. There were six people in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
Forty percent of the hospital’s ventilators were in use, though Tennyson said that those weren’t all necessarily being used by COVID-19 patients.
These hospitalization numbers are just shy of metrics seen early last year, Tennyson said.
He added that patients arriving at the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms are more often seeing symptoms of upper respiratory infections. This comes as some data shows that the omicron variant of COVID-19 may be less likely to infect the lungs than other variants of the coronavirus, Tennyson said.
Staff shortages, primarily prompted by positive COVID-19 cases among staff, nonetheless, are posing problems.
“What’s hurting the hospitals is that it’s not just the number of patients in the hospital, it’s the lack of staff,” he said.
He said multiple colleagues described the situation as one where staff are “dropping like flies.”
“It’s one after another,” he said.
Board of Health talks possible mandate
Garside opened discussion on a possible mask mandate on Monday, noting that he had heard feedback from community members on the matter.
As neighboring municipalities like Westborough, Northborough, Grafton and Southborough have all enacted mandates in recent weeks, Marlborough community members have argued both for and against such action in the city, Garside said.
Speaking on Monday, Tennyson and Board of Health Chair James Griffin said they both “would not be against” a mandate.
Board of Health Member Phillip Short did not attend this meeting.
“I think people are beginning to realize that it makes sense,” Griffin said, though he said he wanted feedback from community members before proceeding with any vote.
Tennyson also suggested voting on a mandate at a separate meeting, specifically noting that no vote had been advertised on this Jan. 10 meeting’s agenda.
City Councilors share thoughts
City Council President Michael Ossing and Councilor Samantha Perlman both attended Monday’s Board of Health meeting. The board invited them to share their thoughts.
Ossing said the city should continue to follow the state’s guidelines regarding COVID-19, not opting for more strict measures.
“It’s suggested,” he said. “If you’re smart enough, you’ll wear it. Making people wear it, I don’t believe is appropriate.”
Massachusetts had a mask mandate in place earlier in the pandemic. The state, likewise, does require masks in schools and recently extended that mandate to February 28.
But Gov. Charlie Baker has said publicly that he does not foresee another blanket mandate for all public spaces.
Perlman raised concerns about this.
“I do fear that continued indoor spaces and gatherings are just going to keep the numbers very high,” she said.
“I fear that the governor won’t act and so, we do have a responsibility to the citizenry of our community to keep everyone safe,” she added.
Community member Doug Pizzi said that he had reached out to local public officials voicing his support for a mandate.
Speaking on Monday, he provided an example of a local grocery store, noting cases where many people around him have not been wearing masks.
Perlman said she had received messages from employees of businesses in Marlborough asking for the mandate as a layer of protection in their interactions with the public.
“If there is a mandate in place and they’re in their place of business where it can be enforced, there is a structure behind it,” she said.
Director of Public Health says mandate would strain department’s resources
Data has shown that case surges caused by the omicron variant in other parts of the world have intensified quickly before dropping off, Tennyson said.
Garside and the Board of Health additionally noted that the number of deaths due to COVID-19 has not increased in tandem with the current case surge.
Garside further warned that, while “the mask mandate certainly makes sense when you sit back in your big chair and you say ‘Let’s do the right thing’” a mandate and enforcement measures included in it would “put an additional strain” on the Health Department.
Concerns remain regarding the current state of optional masking, though.
“I just think that the voluntary situation is just not doing it,” Pizzi said in his comments to the board.
“The state, which I thought was being very helpful, initially, including the governor at the beginning of the pandemic, is MIA,” he added. “…I just think [a mandate] is necessary for public safety.”
The Board of Health had not yet posted its agenda for its meeting on Thursday as of Thursday afternoon at 4:45pm.
It plans to advertise that meeting, though, and will include a planned meeting location when it makes that announcement.