Adams Board of Health Continues to Mull Mask Mandate

By Brian RhodesiBerkshires Staff
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ADAMS, Mass. — As COVID-19 cases rise throughout the county following the holidays, the Board of Health continues to consider the possibility of a mask mandate and other potential restrictions. 


Between Jan. 1 and Jan. 7, Adams recorded 97 new COVID-19 cases, with 50 of those cases coming from individuals 40 years old and younger. Sixty-nine percent of the town is considered fully vaccinated for COVID-19, with only 30 percent receiving a booster shot. 


Board of Health Chair David Rhoads said he hopes to get as many people in Adams vaccinated for COVID-19 as possible. He pointed to younger people, many of whom only recently became eligible to get vaccinated, as a group that will need to see rises in vaccination numbers. 


As of data compiled Jan. 6, Adams had a 37 percent vaccination rate for children ages 5 to 11 compared to 49 percent in North Adams and 63 percent in Cheshire. 


"You can see that, obviously, vaccinations are an issue," he said. "Our public health nurse says 'vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate, boost, boost, boost.'" 


The board called for community input on what steps it should take with pandemic through the town's website. Rhoads said he has only received a handful of responses so far but is hoping for more between now and the next meeting to determine the best course of action for the town. 


Several responses, according to Rhoads, seemed to advocate for more significant mask and vaccine mandates. Some who responded, he said, are even going elsewhere because of the lack of restrictions in town. 


"They said now that they are indeed shopping elsewhere because of businesses not enforcing masking here in Adams," he said. "One individual asked for a full-fledged communitywide push. Providing masks, requiring employees and town employees to mask and be vaccinated, we should provide greater access to vaccinations, perhaps providing transportation to the local clinic and so forth and then mount a huge public awareness campaign to saturate Facebook, etc." 


The board and Code Enforcement Officer Mark Blaisdell debated the town's ability to enforce a mask mandate and the viability of other options, such as giving special signage and approval to businesses that the board deems are following guidelines. Board member Peter Hoyt said enforcement would prove challenging for Adams given its limited resources. 


"I think it is worth considering, but again, we always go back to enforcement," he said. "And do we have the manpower to enforce it? And will it really be enforced? So I understand we want to mandate and protect people, but the mandate involves enforcing. And I don't know if we can really enforce. If you really want to mandate it, it should be enforced and people need to be fine. And that's the only way it's going to happen." 


Blaisdell said he is not sure if there is enough feedback currently to put a mandate into place at the moment. He said if the town decides to do something, the public will need to be a part of it via a public hearing. 


"I don't know, based on your responses or the feedback that you've received from the community so far or the interoffice communications that I had," he said. "I don't know if there's support for it. I know that some businesses do already have massive mandates in place both within Adams and outside Adams." 


Board member Joyce Brewer said action regarding a mask mandate might not be necessary by the next meeting.


"What we're seeing is our post-holiday bubble," she said. "We have no idea what we're going to see in three weeks. It may start to calm down again." 


As part of Wednesday's meeting, Rhoads invited several local health experts to discuss the omicron variant, vaccines, and case numbers in the area. These experts, Rhoads said, provided context for the situation with the omicron variant and why additional protection measures might help. 


Sandra Martin, senior planner of public health at Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said being vaccinated and wearing a mask is crucial in preventing the spread of the omicron variant specifically, as it is more contagious than previous variants. 


"This is basically a numbers game because the most healthy individuals can handle a few virus particles," she said. "But if you get too many, they overload the immune system, and you get infected. With omicron, they produce so many virus particle particles, and each of the particles is very adaptive, adaptive to invading your cells. And so it's pretty easy to get a big viral load and to overwhelm your immune system whether you're vaccinated or not vaccinated." 


Martin said those vaccinated are less likely to get severely sick from the virus and are ill for shorter periods. She stressed the importance of everyone, including vaccinated individuals, wearing a mask at all times in public if possible. 


"You want to reduce your virus load, and the best way to do it now is with an N95 or KN95 mask that is well fitted," she said. "If it doesn't fit your face and it's not slightly uncomfortable, you're probably getting a lot of air leakage around it, and this is an airborne virus. So it will leak into and beyond your mask if it doesn't fit properly." 


Self-testing, according to Martin, is also incredibly important. She said, regardless of what kind of COVID-19 test it is, 


"Basically, use the tests, if you have symptoms, to see if it's a cold or the flu or if it's COVID," she said. "And stay home until you know. That's what the test is for, is to figure out where you can go out and about where you need to stay home." 


Dr. Daniel Doyle, medical director of the ICU and consultant in pulmonary diseases at Berkshire Health Systems, agreed with these points and added, despite higher case numbers compared to this time last year, overall hospitalizations for COVID-19 are down. 


"And that's, I think, the take-home message in favor of vaccinations and now, getting it for older people, boosters," he said. The pattern in hospital continues to be the same as what I've been told: two-thirds to three-quarters of the patients who are hospitalized symptomatically with COVID are not vaccinated. We're going to start seeing from the state how many people are incidentally diagnosed with COVID on admission compared to those who have been with symptoms that are due to COVID. I think that is going to be interesting to look at." 


Also discussed at the meeting, the board voted to allow a mobile syringe services program in Adams, as detailed at the board's previous meeting. Rhoads said more action on enacting these services cannot start until the meeting minutes are made available after being approved at the next meeting.

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