Northampton health board advises masks

NORTHAMPTON — The Board of Health now advises “all individuals” in the city to wear masks in indoor public spaces to protect against COVID-19 infection.

The mask advisory, passed by the board on Wednesday evening, will become more specific after the board works with the city’s Department of Health and Human Services to finalize the language.

Proposed language advises masking over the age of 2 for those who can “medically tolerate” it and cites “increasing pressure on the health care system” as virus spread remains elevated in the city and Hampshire County more broadly.

Separately, the board recommended that pharmacies and indoor food markets set aside special hours between 8 am and 8 pm when masks are mandatory.

KN95, N95 and KF94 masks “are preferred,” according to the proposed language. Masking is “particularly important in settings that are crowded or where ventilation is poor.”

Board chair Dr. Joanne Levin reminded members and the public that their actions Wednesday night had nothing to do with the school system.

“We have not intervened in the schools because we’re not school professionals,” Levin said.

On Friday afternoon, the School Committee will hold a special meeting to consider revising or rescinding the public school district’s COVID-19 masking policy. The virtual meeting starts at 4 pm

Northampton reported 152 cases citywide in the week prior to May 4; from May 16-21, there were 170 cases. According to a presentation from public health nurse Vivian Franklin to the health board, there were 160 new cases from May 17-23 and 12 people reported positive at-home antigen tests. Fewer than five people were hospitalized and there were no deaths caused by COVID-19.

Also from May 17-23, Hampshire County saw 723 new cases, about a 20% drop from the prior week, and 15 hospitalizations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the number of deaths as fewer than 10.

“As we all know, cases are being underreported at this time due to a lack of testing, and home testing,” Franklin said.

In Northampton and in Hampshire County, the CDC considers the community level of COVID-19 — a metric that factors in both transmission and hospitalizations — to be “medium.” Without factoring in hospitalizations, Franklin said, the level of transmission alone is “high.”

Emily Boddy, a volunteer with the organization MaskChoice Pioneer Valley, criticized the board’s decision to issue a mask advisory, saying in an interview on Thursday, “There’s already guidance from the CDC.”

“The CDC guidance isn’t a blanket mask advisory,” she said. “If you’re somebody who’s at risk, you should speak to your doctor about wearing a mask.”

School masks up for vote

Superintendent John Provost reinstated a mask mandate for Northampton public schools May 10, and it remains in effect.

Boddy has advocated for the School Committee to drop the mask mandate. On Thursday, she cited the work of Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center who has called school mask mandates “obsolete.”

“People who feel they are at risk, or are simply risk-averse, can utilize one-way masking, which is where a well-fitting respirator (N95 or KN95) protects the wearer,” Boddy said, summarizing the argument Doron has made in newspaper op-eds and in other public statements. “I am all for everyone to make their own choices and assess their own risk.”

Boddy took issue with the fact that no public comment period is planned during Friday’s 4 pm virtual School Committee meeting on the district’s mask policy.

“We’d like transparency and public participation and we feel that the well-being of children is being put behind everything else,” Boddy said.

School Committee vice chair Gwen Agna said it is “within the mayor’s purview to have a meeting without public comment.” Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, as chair of the School Committee, has the discretion to allow public comment or not.

Both Sciarra and Agna said written comments are welcome any time before the meeting, which was posted on Wednesday. Comments can be emailed to the committee clerk or directly to the committee members. Those email addresses are available on the city website.

In a letter last week, MaskChoice threatened “judicial intervention” against district officials if the mandate is not rescinded, or if it is used to exclude children from the classroom, and asked for a written response in seven days. On Thursday, the day of the deadline, Agna said a response has not been sent.

“We are considering that with our own counsel,” Agna said.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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