Wellesley Board of Health update: Masks all the talk as start of school looms; COVID numbers; tobacco sales violation

Here’s a recap of this past week’s Wellesley Board of Health meeting, held on Aug. 4 and available as a recording by Wellesley Media:

New school year brings more mask talk

The Board of Health meeting was held four weeks before Wellesley Public Schools start the 2021-2022 school year, and the COVID-19 safety protocol talk has begun in earnest. Chair Shep Cohen made clear at the outset that the meeting would not result in any immediate policy regarding masks, etc., for students and staff, but that this was time to listen to opinions and gather facts before doing so.

The meeting began with several residents calling in to share their thoughts on whether or not masks should be required for students and staff. One resident suggested leaving things up to individuals, explaining that her son has hearing difficulties made more difficult when others are wearing masks. Another resident, Dr. Regina LaRocque, urged the school system to adhere to Centers for Disease Control guidance and start the year off with masks for all, vaccinated or not, with the priority to open school full time, in-person.  She ended by stating: “We need uniformity.”

Wellesley Public Schools Supt. Dr. David Lussier acknowledged that at the end of this past school year “I did not think we’d be in this spot…” (Town Health Director Lenny Izzo also expressed “disbelief” that we’re back to discussing these matters at this point.)

Given the dynamic situation we find ourselves in with COVID, Lussier said WPS is “trying to strike a balance of not being premature in making some decisions as things continue to unfold and yet we also need to be prepared for the new school year.” The good news, he said, was that there’s nothing to suggest school won’t begin with a full reopening, free of social distancing restrictions. Also, the state has not authorized any remote education for this school year that would count toward time in learning.

WPS is closely watching guidance—not consistent across the board—from the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, and Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Lussier explained: “At this point both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics are recommending masks in school regardless of vaccination status to at least begin the year based on the emerging science. DESE and DPH came out with guidance last week that was different. They are reinforcing a strong recommendation that for grades K-6 because those students are not yet eligible for the vaccine that they do start the year wearing masks, and for any of our staff members across any age groups that are unvaccinated that they also wear masks. That raises questions about how we police that…”

To that point, Wellesley Middle School students span age groups eligible and not eligible for vaccines.

Know that WPS will err on the side of caution to protect students and staff if COVID-19 recommendations and information remain unsettled, Lussier said.

It appeared like the school COVID topic had petered out after Lussier gave his update, but the superintendent urged the board to get discussion on the matter going during this meeting, and Board Vice-Chair Dr. Marcia Testa-Simonson took the bait:

“From my perspective it’s an issue of the adverse events associated with the vaccine and those include quality of life types of issues such as people  mentioned on this call,” she said. “So we’re not going to assume masks have no negative impact on quality of life. One could say that the quality of life decrement needs to be weighed against the benefits of reduced disease burden.” That’s something the board will be reviewing data on.

Dr. Shira Doron, a Wellesley parent and immunologist who often takes part in Board of Health meetings, said work is ongoing to develop metrics that might enable schools to “turn masks on or off” for different grade levels, etc. “We should be able to come up with thresholds at which [masks] are not necessary because the rate of infection is so low and the chance of an introduction is so low,” she said.

It sounded doubtful WPS would host another vaccination clinic for those currently eligible given that the vaccine is in ample supply. However, if those under the age of 12 become eligible in the fall or later, clinics at the school could be a good possibility.

Even as the Health Department and School Department mull what approach the schools will take, other town departments are starting to sort out their approaches as well, Izzo said.

COVID numbers

Wellesley had been averaging about 1 case a day recently, though that’s now up to a couple per day, according to Ann Marie McCauley, the town’s public health nurse supervisor. Cases run across different age groups, though skilled nursing facilities have been looking good, she said.

Tobacco sales violation

One of Wellesley’s licensed tobacco sale retailers (wasn’t named) got busted for selling a pack of cigarettes to a 19-year-old as part of an inspection. The retailer is appealing the fine at this week’s Board of Health meeting—it’s worth a shot since the fine is $1,000.