"Frame made of Christmas toys and gifts and a medical mask with the inscription covid in the middle" by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Frame made of Christmas toys and gifts and a medical mask with the inscription covid in the middle” by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Be kind this holiday season, wear a mask indoors

It is my usual custom to publish a holiday message toward the end of every December, encouraging people to be kind and helpful to each other in the spirit of the season. Naturally, last year, the coronavirus pandemic loomed large in my entreaty. Which was no surprise at a time when the original Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine first received emergency use authorization and started to be distributed to high-risk groups and front-line medical personnel. Virtually no one had yet been vaccinated and broad mask mandates were still in place in many parts of the US, including Massachusetts. And restaurants and many other businesses remained partially or entirely shut down.

Winter turned to spring and the Massachusetts vaccination rate quickly became—and has remained—one of the highest in the nation and world. Good news, for sure. 

As many people got vaccinated, summer approached, and people started spending more time outdoors, Gov. Baker rescinded the state mask mandate on May 29—leaving it in place for public transportation, healthcare facilities, congregate care settings (e.g. homeless shelters), schools, and childcare programs. Businesses and public facilities were allowed to reopen to full capacity.

People, understandably after over a year of pandemic emergency measures, then started (as I’ve previously stated) running amok. Ditching masks everywhere except in the few cities and towns like Somerville that kept up broader indoor mask mandates longer. Finally relaxing their mandates in June.

But the far more contagious Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus arrived here by July and COVID case numbers and deaths started going up. Somerville and other more cautious communities reinstituted broad indoor mask mandates that month. The vast majority of Mass cities and towns did not. Vaccination rates started slacking off, but remained higher than the rest of the US. And for the next few months cases and deaths continued to climb—albeit at a slower rate than during the initial COVID spikes.

Then the also highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant appeared in Africa in November and quickly made its way to the Bay State. While not a significant factor in pandemic caseloads yet, it is expected to become one as it spreads. Even as the Delta variant causes case spikes at levels not seen since last winter when almost no one was vaccinated.

Why? Two reasons. First, every new variant represents a mutated version of the original coronavirus that has evolved to evade people’s natural and acquired immunity to it. That is, the immunity that comes from either getting sick with COVID or from getting the original Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson coronavirus vaccines. Booster shots of those vaccines that strengthen people’s immune response have become widely available for most of the population, but most people haven’t gotten them. Meaning they’re more susceptible to new variants like Delta and indeed Omicron.

Second, in most of the state people have simply stopped wearing masks … even indoors at businesses, public facilities, and events with friends and extended family. And most municipalities have not reinstituted mask mandates. Nor has state government.

The result? Well, since this is a holiday missive, let me discuss the current situation in very personal terms. Last week, I attended a wake for a close family friend at a Lynn funeral home. I live in Somerville, the city with the best and strongest COVID response in the state. And, as I just said, we’ve had a mask mandate there through most of the pandemic and very high testing and vaccination rates. 

It was only natural, then, that my partner and I wore good masks to an indoor event with lots of people in close proximity to each other for extended periods of time. As did my mother, who doesn’t live in Somerville but does listen to me on health matters. 

None of us, I must therefore point out, have gotten COVID through the entire pandemic. Unfortunately, although many of our departed friend’s family are vaccinated since they live in Massachusetts, they also live in the suburbs and exurbs that have been fastest to drop early mask mandates and the slowest to reinstate them.

Thus when my party arrived at the Lynn funeral home, out of the 25 or so people present while we were there, only two other than the three of us wore masks. Old, young, and every age in between. Which was a problem from a public health perspective.

Because we have state statistics to help us understand why wearing masks is critical to keeping the infection rate relatively low as we weather the Delta and Omicron spikes this winter—to ensure that our healthcare system doesn’t become overwhelmed and that people don’t get sick and die needlessly. 

And though not everyone at the wake lives in Lynn (or Peabody where the funeral took place the next day), several of the attendees did. Here’s why I’m concerned for them: Taking a look at the most recent Somerville numbers in the Dec. 9 state COVID report (as nicely presented by Patch.com), we can see that for the 14 days previous 2.04% of the residents tested for COVID had a positive result with 78.2% of the city’s population fully vaccinated (no numbers for booster rates yet).

For Lynn in the same report, 6.14% of residents tested for COVID had a positive result with 66.7% fully vaccinated. And for Peabody, 6.48% tested for COVID had a positive result with 69.4% fully vaccinated.  Meaning both cities that don’t have mask mandates have triple the percentage of positive COVID tests as the city that does (a fair comparison since all three cities are about the same size and close to each other). So allowing people to attend indoor events like wakes maskless in localities without mask mandates is likely playing a role in their higher COVID infection rates.

Bringing us to my current holiday message: Mandate or no mandate, the best way to be kind to your fellow human beings this second pandemic year is to wear masks indoors (especially at events with family and friends when everyone thinks they’re “safe”) to prevent the worst possible spreading of the Delta and Omicron variants of the coronavirus—and ensure that we are able to get back to normal faster than we will if you don’t. And, yes, get vaccinated if you aren’t, get the booster if you haven’t, and seriously rethink eating out and holding or attending indoor events until the infection rate goes way down again.

A shorter version of this column ran in the print edition of DigBoston.

Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.