WHITMAN — Vaccine and mask mandates are being considered by town officials as the closure of Town Hall and other town buildings has been continued until at least Jan. 11 — with all people working in or visiting buildings required to wear masks at all times.
“It’s a tremendously fluid situation and we’re seeing a lot of change,” Selectman Randy LaMattina said. “A lot of us took some heat for closing last week, but it turned out to be a really good decision.”
He advocated maintaining the building closures until Jan. 11 and to institute a full-time mask mandate in the buildings. Health Board member Danielle Clancy agreed with LaMattina’s motion, and while noting she is not speaking for the board, suggested it could go beyond Jan. 11.
Selectman Justin Evans said the push for vaccines, demand for test kits and a requirement for masks initially tempted him to believe town buildings could be reopened Jan. 10, but agreed the health board should have more time to consider it. He did note the library and senior center provide important social-emotional connections for elders and other residents.
“I don’t want this [building closure] to go on much longer than it has to,” he said.
Public meetings are also strongly urged to meet remotely or in a hybrid in-person/remote fashion for the foreseeable future. The ZBA, a board that “very much wants to meet in person,” according to Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman, is the only board to meet before the Board of Health can meet to decide the issues at 9:30 a.m., Tuesday, Jan. 11. Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said he would encourage the ZBA to delay the meeting until after the Board of Health’s meeting.
Selectmen held a brief session with the Board of Health on Tuesday, Jan. 4 regarding COVID response guidelines [see below] as well as discussing possible vaccine and mask mandates for town employees.
“I think that one of the most important things about this is that the definition of fully vaccinated has changed,” said Clancy. “Those who have not had a booster and were vaccinated more than six months ago — or two months ago with J&J — are not considered fully vaccinated at this time, and we urge everyone to become vaccinated. Get a booster as soon as possible.”
Kowalski asked if the health board has considered mandating vaccines for town employees. Clancy said it is one of the issues being discussed Jan. 11.
“Like everyone else, we are chasing our tails with Omicron, — it’s coming around faster than anybody thought,” Clancy said, noting there have been “incidents” with town employees in recent days, that are making her — and possibly other health board members — reconsider the vaccine mandate.
“We have discussed it, and we will probably be discussing it again,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I’ve asked for another meeting this month.”
Kowalski suggested Selectmen might be more supportive of it at this time.
She also urged continued vaccine boosters and mask upgrades as people have been known to get COVID more than once.
Selectman Brian Bezanson, who suggested the mild case most people get could “move us toward herd immunity,” and encouraged people to get an antibody test, which Clancy said is not widely available. Kowalski countered that for some, such as vulnerable infants, it is not a mild illness to be taken lightly.
Immunity is reducing more quickly between vaccines, Clancy also cautioned.
“But, if you get the booster, it’s bringing you back up,” she added. “There’s a question now as to whether they’re going to reduce the time between your shots and your booster. They’re discussing that with Pfizer.”
The booster may be moved up to within five months of the initial series.
“People are getting Omicron, unfortunately, but they are staying out of the hospital, and that’s the goal right now,” Clancy said. “And we’re asking town employees, if you’re sick, please don’t come to work. Period. It’s not up to you to decide if it’s COVID or not COVID until you are tested.”
Kowalski also advocated revising mask guidelines. The health board had voted at its last meeting to require masks when away from their desks in common areas of Town Hall. They had left it up to staff working in small “bubbles,” and who know each others’ vaccination status and are comfortable with each other to decide whether they felt that they didn’t need to sit for eight hours with a mask on.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been proved wrong recently, so we’re going to revisit this,” Clancy said. “People are coming to work sick and assuming it’s not COVID and it’s turning out to be COVID.”
Kowalski agreed with the need for that discussion.
“Some of us are getting uncomfortable with that definition of ‘as long as you’re comfortable’ you can go without [a mask],” Kowalski said.
“Comfort levels and friendships are not what medical decisions are made over and I think if we replayed that same situation this past week, we would have had some problems,” LaMattina said. “Yes, it’s uncomfortable to wear a mask all day long, but our kids are doing it every single day, Monday to Friday.”
Clancy said health officials are trying to get past pandemic and into the endemic stage, which means COVID can be dealt with on a day-to-day basis.
Selectmen also voted to accept revised COVID quarantine guidelines, which Heineman suggested they do, given that the Board of Health, which has not yet to voted on them, plans to do so during the Jan. 11 meeting.
“They haven’t changed in any significant way, except to respond to, within the last week, or slightly more than a week the changes recommended by the CDC and the state Department of Public Health … about PCR tests being required, rather than rapid tests,” Heineman said. Guidelines are available on the town’s website whitman-ma.gov.