Sunderland and Whately health boards canceled their mask mandates this week, with both towns moving to mask advisories amid falling COVID-19 case numbers locally.
The Sunderland Board of Health met earlier in the week and voted to overturn its mandate – which required masks inside all indoor public spaces and private businesses – after reviewing virus data. The mandate was lifted on March 1.
“We base our decisions on the numbers because that way we can respond to people. … I don’t see how the numbers right now warrant a warrant,” health board chair Caitlyn Rock said. “The other thing I looked at was hospitalizations. … They are lower than they were in September 2021.”
Sunderland saw 27 new cases of COVID-19 in the two-week period from February 6 to February 19, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Public Health.
“In general, knock on wood, our city is doing very well,” Rock said.
The Board of Health had reinstated its mask mandate with the arrival of the omicron variant in December, when the city recorded 100 cases of COVID-19 over a 10-day period. The city’s previous record was around 20 cases.
Rock said the board of health is always reviewing the most recent data and may call an emergency meeting to reconsider a mask mandate if necessary.
“We are constantly revising,” she said. “We are continuing to look and will call a health board meeting if we need to.”
With Sunderland’s “varied” population of University of Massachusetts Amherst students and residents, Rock said the start of the pandemic saw 80% of the city’s cases traced back to the university, but now it fell to 25%.
The Whately Board of Health also voted to recommend the Select Board downgrade the city’s mask mandate to City Hall in one notice.
Board of Health member Michael Archbald said Tuesday he has “happy reports” as the city has seen one case in the past two weeks.
President Fran Fortino said reducing the city’s mandate to one notice would be a good move to “go hand in hand with a fairly small drop in the number of cases.”
“My recommendation is that we do a notice instead of being mandatory,” Fortino said, “but we still strongly recommend masks indoors.”
The council had previously required masks and social distancing for anyone inside city buildings, while recommending masks for anyone in public places.
Health worker Mark Bushee noted that “the numbers have gone down”, but he was curious to what extent this could be attributed to home testing.
While council members felt comfortable downgrading the mandate, they stressed the importance of staying on our toes against the virus.
“In the next few weeks, we might not see anything or we might see an increase if people let their guard down again,” board member Rebecca Jones commented, “because that’s what we’ve seen previously.”
Archbald also noted that residents should take care of elderly and immunocompromised neighbors by wearing a mask when possible.
“We have a subset of our community that is immunocompromised for various reasons,” Archbald said, “and we need to take care of them.”
The select committee will vote on the recommendation at its March 9 meeting.