Mask mandate may return as COVID infections rise

WESTFIELD — The Board of Health may vote to implement a mask mandate in public spaces in Westfield next week as the COVID-19 infection rate continues to outpace the numbers seen at this time last year.

Health Director Joseph Rouse and all three members of the Board of Health have expressed support for the idea of a local mask mandate after 194 total cases were reported in Westfield between Dec. 2 and Dec. 8, an increase from last week’s count of 170. More than three-quarters of the new cases, 76 percent, were among unvaccinated people.

Continuing the one positive trend for several weeks in a row now, no COVID-19-related deaths were reported in Westfield last week. However, Board of Health member Stan Strzempko, who works at Baystate Noble Hospital, described an ongoing overflow of patients in which more people are seeking treatment for COVID-19 than the hospital officially has beds. Staffing shortages, he said, add to the strain.

Rouse pointed out that the infection rate has not been this high since after Christmas and New Year’s last year, when the infection rate skyrocketed nationally following holiday gatherings. He warned that the infection rate could grow out of control, more so than it already has, after this season’s holidays.

Now that the state has closed the Contact Tracing Collaborative, the Westfield Health Department finds itself stretched thin, again.

“What we have is a number of new cases that are almost impossible to contact trace every single one of them,” said Rouse, “When people think that COVID is a thing of the past, it really is just starting all over again.”

Last month, when the infection rate had steadily risen but not yet grown out of control, Rouse said he had wanted to focus the department’s efforts on vaccinating more Westfield residents, as the city lags far behind the state average, with just 56 percent of residents vaccinated, compared to more than 70 percent for Massachusetts as a whole. Now that a new wave of COVID-19 is upon us, Rouse said the department should shift its limited resources to contact tracing and mitigating the spread.

“If we had more resources, we may be able to do that in conjunction,” said Rouse, “but right now all we can do is contact tracing, and we can’t even do enough of it.”

For several weeks in a row, school-aged children have made up about one-third of new cases, and this past week was no different. Rouse did note that kids aged 5-11 were only just approved to receive the vaccine, and in most cases haven’t even had enough time to become fully vaccinated yet.

He said that individual schools have seen case clusters at different times, rather than there being cases spread out across all of Westfield’s schools all at once.

With limited resources and a rising case rate, Rouse and the Board of Health may call a special meeting next Wednesday to vote on an indoor mask mandate for public places in Westfield. All three board members, Stan Strzempko, Margaret Doody and Juanita Carnes, signaled support for the move.

Rouse had originally suggested a mask advisory, but the group collectively decided a mandate would be more effective.

“An advisory is just a feel-good measure for the board, and it accomplishes nothing,” said Strzempko.

Rouse said that the mandate may be slightly different from the previous statewide mandate, and it is unclear how it will be enforced, because Massachusetts is no longer in a declared state of emergency. The mandate would apply to all public indoor spaces and businesses in Westfield.

Rouse said that he is also considering whether to place restrictions on large gatherings, as well. He suggested Thursday morning that city boards and commissions should consider conducting their meetings virtually to limit the number of people gathering in City Hall.

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