|Baker Issues New Mask 'Advisory,' Stops Short of Mandate|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires.com|
09:49AM / Tuesday, December 21, 2021
BOSTON – Gov. Charlie Baker Tuesday announced that the state is “encouraging” residents to wear face coverings indoors regardless of their vaccination status for COVID-19 but balked at the idea of a statewide mask mandate.
“We are saying more people should be masking, but people in Massachusetts know at this point that masking is one of the tools they can pursue, if they choose to do so, to protect themselves,” Baker said in a morning announcement alongside Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders.
“Let’s not forget: 5 million people in Massachusetts are fully vaccinated, and vaccines are, by far, the most effective tool we have in the toolbox to protect one another from COVID.”
New new “mask advisory” is just one of the steps unveiled on Tuesday morning.
The Baker administration Tuesday announced that all non-essential elective procedures at hospitals in the commonwealth that are likely to result in an inpatient admission will need to postponed or canceled, effective Dec. 27.
And in order to support hospitals facing staffing shortages, the commonwealth is deploying up to 500 members of the Massachusetts National Guard in support roles for the health care system.
As for mask mandates, Baker declined to answer a question on whether he had authority to issue a directive without announcing another state of emergency, as he did in 2020. But he said that his administration supports municipalities who choose to do so.
“I have no interest in putting a mandate on this issue, given all the tools that are available on a statewide basis for the people of Massachusetts,” Ba ker said. “If locals wish to pursue alternative options, they can do so.
“We issued a mask mandate last fall because we had no other options available to us. At this point in time, we have vaccines, we have rapid tests, we have our testing sites and people know a lot more about what works and what doesn’t with respect to fighting the virus. And if people wish to add an extra layer of protection by wearing a mask in indoor settings, we would urge them to do so, especially when we have cases rising across the commonwealth.”
Baker stressed that even though case numbers are on the rise, the state’s status as one of the most highly vaccinated states in the union is holding down the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths associated with the novel coronavirus.
“Out of the 5 million people in Massachusetts who are fully vaccinated, only 2 percent have gotten COVID,” Baker said. “We know that among all the breakthrough cases in Massachusetts, 97 percent of them never end up in a hospital. And we know that of the 1.2 million people over the age of 12 and under the age of 30 who got vaccinated, not one has died of COVID. We know that out of nearly 2.5 million [vaccinated] people under the age of 60, less than 1 percent of these people, in fact 0.1 percent of them, have died from COVID. And we know for those over 60 who have been vaccinated, less than 3 percent of them have died from COVID.”
Baker said that of all the measures society has used to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines are the most effective.
“For the foreseeable future, Massachusetts and most of the country will see large numbers of new cases, but a new case today does not mean the same thing a new case meant a year ago,” Baker said. “The therapies and vaccines that offer near universal protection did not exist a year ago. Vaccinated people may test positive, but their chances of dying or getting seriously ill are so small they pale in comparison to so many riskier behaviors out there.
“Yes, cases may go up, but if you’re vaccinated, your risk stays the same – that is, extremely low.”
That said, state officials Tuesday took steps to ease pressure on the healthcare system – pressures likely to be exacerbated by regular seasonal spikes in demand due to seasonal flu and the COVID-19 case spikes anticipated after the holiday party and travel season.
National Guard members will be utilized to support 55 acute care hospitals and 12 ambulance services throughout the commonwealth, Sudders said. The “citizen soldiers” will be used to assist with non-emergency transport between facilities, provide security support, do in-hospital transport and deliver meals.
“What we’re pursuing with our hospitals is … think of it like giving hospitals the tools to maintain and expand capacity within their own footprint,” Sudders said. “We’ve lost 500 acute care beds in Massachusetts because of staffing shortages. So by providing the non-medical side of the corps, it will hopefully allow them the ability to open up additional beds.”
Baker and Sudders were asked whether staffing shortages are due to hospitals’ vaccine mandates and the resistance among some employees.
“Based on the conversations we’ve had with the hospital community, I think they would say that the staffing shortages are something that started before anyone put mandates in place,” Baker said. “A staff member who gets sick can’t work. A staff member who stays healthy can work. More than anything, we need our colleagues and our friends and our neighbors who work in the healthcare community to be safe and healthy because of the work they do – not just with COVID people but in general throughout the course of this time of year, which has always been a point in time when you see significantly more traffic in our hospitals than you would see at other times of the year.”
The coming ban on elective procedures is the result of regular conversations between state officials and hospital administrators, Sudders said. And she emphasized that there will be no impact on hospitals’ ability to treat life-threatening conditions.
“I want to be clear: Our hospitals remain ready to care for the urgent needs of the residents of the commonwealth,” Sudders said.