Sometimes, it takes us a while for us to face the hard truth.
The New Bedford School Committee and some parents and teachers this week did not want to face the hard truth.
The hard and discouraging truth is that we have failed to get on top of COVID-19 in New Bedford. And because we have failed, our school kids will begin their third school year of wearing masks.
And the sad and bitter truth is that because we have failed to get vaccinated in great enough numbers in the city, our school kids will probably spend at least part of another year with their faces covered while they learn.
Superintendent Thomas Anderson on Monday presented a mask recommendation that some committee members found unclear; he replaced the state’s wording that the district “strongly recommends” masks with the word it “expects” them to. Either way the decision would be left to the parents, and committee member Jack Livramento said that expectation was “not clear.”
“We need to take a path: this is what we expect, what we do not expect, choose one or the other,” he said.
Anderson’s wording would have changed the school district’s mandatory mask requirement just as the number of COVID cases is sharply rising in the city. The approach would have made sense in June, when COVID cases in the city had dwindled to almost zero, but not now when they are on their way back up.
With vaccination rates low, health officials struggle to contain the virus and worry about “rough” times this fall.
The superintendent said something about not having any evidence that there was COVID transmission in any school buildings last year, but the truth is he doesn’t really know that. He doesn’t know because it’s impossible to know that sort of thing with the transmission of a virus.
What Anderson should have emphasized at his presentation is that the number of COVID cases in New Bedford has ticked up sharply since a mid-June low of five per day to just short of 40 per day since the first of August.
COVID is now a worrisome problem in New Bedford again. As of Wednesday, there were 21 COVID-positive patients at St. Luke’s Hospital, 3 more under investigation for it and 3 people in the ICU with it. That is compared to mid-June when there were only nine COVID-positive, eight under investigation for it, and zero in the ICU.
It would have been better if Anderson had stressed to the committee that 5- to 12-year-olds are the only American population that cannot be vaccinated, and that it is not fair for the parents of some children to endanger the lives of other parents’ children. He should have stressed to the committee members that the city has to raise its vaccination rate more quickly in order to keep its public school students out of masks. The latest vaccination numbers put the city at a still inadequate 43%.
With the delta variant spreading rapidly throughout the country, infections in New Bedford could go still higher, either in the next few weeks or the next few months as the COVID spikes currently flowering in many southern states inevitably spread northward.
After Anderson’s recommendation, the School Committee barely avoided eliminating the mask requirement on a 3-3 vote, and with populist conservative member John Oliveira absent, Mayor Jon Mitchell may have to find one or two members to change their vote(s), if the school system needs to keep the requirement, when the committee meets again in September. That’s when the committee will revisit the mask policy in light of the latest New Bedford numbers.
If the committee should move to water down the mandate while daily COVID cases are in double digits per 100,000 in the city, masks for school kids will become just a recommendation. And we’ve all seen during the past year just how seriously a big chunk of the American public takes recommendations like the word “expect.” Not very.
Greater New Bedford is fortunate to have excellent scientists and medical professionals among its leaders. Here’s a one-sentence summation of what two of them said about children wearing masks this school year: They should do it while the numbers in the city are high.
Dr. Erin Bromage of UMass Dartmouth is a nationally recognized immunology scientist, whose blog about how to avoid COVID-19, has gone viral. Dr. Patricia Andrade is a respected local general surgeon and the longtime head of New Bedford’s Board of Health. She played a key role in designing the city’s COVID response last year.
“We absolutely need masks in schools right now,” said Bromage.
He pointed out that the FDA may approve a vaccine for 5- to 12-year-olds in the next six weeks. But he said that as long as New Bedford COVID infections are in the realm of 10 or 20 per 100,000, the masks are needed.
Listen to Jack Spillane’s interview of Erin Bromage
He described it as the job of parents to protect all the children in the schools their kids attend. “I think that if parents want their kids in school, they then owe a responsibility to make sure they are not sending their kids infected to schools, resulting in transmission,” he said.
Bromage said he does not think the current COVID spike in the city is a crisis for adults yet, and he pointed out that those getting seriously sick are individuals who have chosen not to get vaccinated. Kids can’t do that. Bromage attributed the current growth of cases in the city to summer travel and said he expects November to be the time when the delta variant in some southern states may be a big problem in New Bedford.
Andrade said that with roughly 50% of New Bedford unvaccinated, masking indoors is one of the methods of protection, and that includes school children.
“I think because school children are in a category that cannot be vaccinated, and we’ve proven that this variant can be transmitted to children, it does make sense until the children can be vaccinated, to wear a mask,” she said.
Andrade focused on the reason for the low vaccination rate in New Bedford.
“I think people need to understand about these health-care inequities,” she said.
Many city residents don’t have access to either good quality medical information or doctors, she said. New Bedford’s large immigrant population is often not connected to the medical establishment.
The city’s pop-up sites, however, are having a big impact in bringing the vaccines to people who would not otherwise not get them, Andrade said. “The Health Department has done a really good job getting the vaccinations out,” she said.
Both Bromage and Andrade said they understand the public’s mask fatigue after more than a year of battling COVID under the gauze. But they said that people should continue to mask up in close-quarter, indoor spaces while there is significant COVID disease in the community.
Bromage said he believes at this point everyone who wants to be vaccinated has been vaccinated, and if people get sick, they have chosen to take the risk.
But Andrade said the city has to continue to try to reach those who don’t have easy access to vaccines — such as city residents who don’t have either cars or doctors. “I really think that trying to get a majority of people vaccinated in the city is the only way we’re going to get out of this situation,” she said.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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