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Healthy and vaccinated? Massachusetts Department of Public Health says you can now shed that mask indoors — with some exceptions

Baker tours BCC vaccination center (copy)

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker tours the vaccination site at Berkshire Community College last year, wearing a mask. The Baker administration has loosened masking guidance as the omicron wave recedes. 

As COVID-19 cases fall across Massachusetts, the state’s Department of Public Health has loosened its mask guidance.

At the start of the omicron surge in December, the DPH advised vaccinated and unvaccinated residents to wear face coverings indoors.

That guidance changed Tuesday, when the department updated its advisory to advise that only people at high risk, those protecting someone at high risk and unvaccinated people wear masks.

The new guidance reads: “DPH now advises that a fully vaccinated person should wear a mask or face covering when indoors (and not in your own home) if you have a weakened immune system, if you are at increased risk for severe disease because of your age or an underlying medical condition, or if someone in your household has a weakened immune system and is at increased risk for severe disease or is unvaccinated.”

Masks still are required in certain settings, including on transportation and in health care facilities.

The update referenced the state’s high vaccination rate and “positive progress on COVID-19 indicators.” Cases statewide have toppled from 24,000 per day in mid-January to just over 2,000. In the Berkshires, the rolling average has fallen from more than 300 new cases per day to 64.

The new advisory comes on the heels of Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement last week that schools will have the freedom to make their own masking policies as of March.

Jim Wilusz, executive director of the Tri-Town Health Department representing Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge, says the DPH guidance resembles the state’s advisory last spring, before the delta variant emerged. The announcement did not surprise him, but it does give him pause.

“People say numbers are dropping, but it’s relative, and they’re still high,” Wilusz said. “I understand everyone’s exhausted. We’re all tired. I also want to recognize the inequities. People are still vulnerable to this disease.”

The DPH advisory change and the end of universal masking in schools Feb. 28 appear to mark the beginning of a new phase in the coronavirus pandemic. Individuals and families will have to make decisions for themselves, Wilusz says, such as wearing high-quality masks to protect immunocompromised loved ones.

“I’m still concerned,” he said. “I’ll always be concerned as a public health official. We can’t dismiss COVID. But, we also need to live with it.”

In contrast with the DPH advisory, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks indoors in all counties with “high” or “substantial” transmission. The Berkshires still are at “high” transmission, according to the CDC.

The CDC transmission risk guidelines do not account for vaccination rates.

Multiple local municipalities, including Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge and Pittsfield, still have masking directives in place. Those are strongly worded advisories, not mandates.

Wilusz said that, at a meeting in early March, the Tri-Town Health Department will reconsider its directive. Although he is processing the implications of the DPH’s new advisory, he thinks individual town directives will become less effective when other mitigation strategies, such as universal mask mandates in schools, are stripped away.

“We’re trending in this direction where mitigation strategies are less enforced across the board,” he said. “When schools are trending to no masking, and DPH is trending to no masking, there’s only so much we can do.”

With easily accessible vaccines, boosters and at-home tests available, Wilusz says, residents also have significantly more tools to handle COVID-19 than they did last spring.

Across Massachusetts, the rate of fully vaccinated residents continues to climb toward 80 percent. According to the Mayo Clinic, Massachusetts ranks fifth nationwide in its rate of fully vaccinated residents, behind smaller New England states.

Berkshire County, at 73 percent fully vaccinated, lags the commonwealth but outpaces much of the country. If the Berkshires were a state, it would rank 10th on the Mayo Clinic’s list, just after New Jersey and Maryland.

Francesca Paris can be reached at fparis@berkshireeagle.com and 413-447-7311, ext. 239.

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