Shrewsbury Board of Health implements mask advisory

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Shrewsbury adopted a mask advisory on Friday morning. (Photo/Dakota Antelman)

SHREWSBURY – A mask advisory is now in place in Shrewsbury following a unanimous vote by the Board of Health on Friday morning. 

The decision follows an uptick in COVID-19 cases, with public health officials similarly acknowledging issues with current pandemic data. 

“Watching the numbers go up, we’re in a surge,” Health Department Principal Department Assistant Kerry Stockwell said on Friday.

‘The actual numbers may be higher’

Shrewsbury noted 186 positive COVID-19 cases in its most recent update on May 13. Stockwell said the basic trend indicated high case numbers in New England.

Board of Health member George Abraham noted a “quadrupling” of infections among hospital staff members at St. Vincent’s and UMass Memorial Health in Worcester.

“The underreporting component of this cannot be underscored enough,” Abraham said. 

He added that the combination of home testing and lack of testing altogether in mild cases is contributing to this problem. 

“What we are reporting and what we get as prevalence is probably only the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The actual numbers may be higher.” 

Shrewsbury adopts advisory

The Board of Health voted to adopt an advisory made by the Worcester Division of Public Health as well as both UMass Memorial Health and St. Vincent. 

The Division of Public Health is the lead agency in the Central Massachusetts Regional Public Health Alliance of which Shrewsbury is a member.

As part of the advisory, the board is recommending wearing a well-fitting mask indoors, particularly for those who have an increased risk of COVID-19 complications, or who know someone who does. Community members are advised to avoid crowded spaces if possible and to consider wearing a mask when in such crowded spaces, including graduations and sporting or music events. Community members are also asked to wear a mask as much as possible in restaurants. 

In their advisory, the board noted that the COVID-19 subvariant — BA.2 — which is currently circulating, is more transmissible than the Omicron variant. It doesn’t “pack the same punch,” however. 

Abraham noted trends in Europe, which has been going through a similar surge on a timeline about four weeks ahead of the United States.

The board noted that the United Kingdom has seen a “precipitous” drop in cases since the beginning of April.

“This indicates we just need to get through another month of this uptick before we will likely see infections decrease,” the board wrote. 

Under risk classifications by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Worcester County has been designated a red, high-transmission county. 

Stockwell said that the CDC and the Shrewsbury Health Department have recommended that people wear masks if the community is in a red category. 

While the board approved its advisory, Abraham said he didn’t think they should introduce a mask mandate at the moment. He noted that vaccinations have increased since the prior Omicron surge. 

“I think ‘strongly encourage’ might be a way to just encourage residents to be mindful of the fact that [they shouldn’t] trust in just the numbers that are reported because there’s always much more disease than is reported,” Abraham said.

He continued, noting that all residents are vulnerable to current COVID-19 conditions. 

“Our vaccines don’t completely protect us against getting disease,” Abraham said. 

“They protect us against severe disease, hospitalization or death, which is a huge bonus.”

Wearing a mask whenever in public would be “responsible” to protect oneself and their fellow citizens, Abraham said.

He further encouraged residents to sequentially test if they test at home, noting that it could take several days for a test to be positive. 

Other communities issue advisories

Shrewsbury is not the only local community to issue an advisory in recent weeks. 

Locally, the Westborough Board of Health, last week, issued a mask advisory urging residents to wear masks in crowded public places or where social distancing isn’t possible.

To read Shrewsbury’s full advisory, visit https://shrewsburyma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/11682/Shrewsbury-BOH-Mask-Advisory-05-20-22-PDF. 

Businesses still required to report cases

As Shrewsbury issues its advisory, the Board of Health also on Friday agreed to maintain its executive order requiring businesses to report positive COVID-19 cases.

Stockwell called this an “important tool” for the department to have. 

“With the uptick in COVID cases, it’s just helpful for us to know if people are having employees or multiple employees testing positive,” Stockwell said.

This gives the department another “tool,” she said, to be able to provide guidance.

“We’re not out of the woods,” Stockwell continued. “I think everybody knows that.”