By SCOTT JACKSON
Massachusetts officials are now recommending certain individuals who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 wear face masks indoors in light of the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant.
State officials have also released new guidance for the upcoming academic year encouraging school districts to let fully vaccinated students go without masks and recommending masks for all unvaccinated individuals.
The new mask guidance released on Friday by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health was issued several days after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that fully vaccinated individuals wear masks or face coverings when indoors if other risk factors are present given the spread of the delta variant.
The updated guidance from the DPH encourages fully vaccinated individuals to wear masks or face coverings when indoors and not in your own home, “if you have a weakened immune system, or 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, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated.”
All individuals, regardless of vaccination status, are required to continue wearing face coverings in certain settings, including public transportation and health care facilities.
Speaking a community vaccination event in Roxbury, Gov. Charlie Baker said the new state guidance was meant to simplify the CDC recommendations while also taking into account the fact that Massachusetts has the second-highest vaccination rate in the country, trailing only Vermont.
“If you have a serious health condition or at a serious risk of developing severe illness from COVID, you should take extra precautions. If you have a close friend or family members who have a serious health condition, or are at a serious risk of developing severe disease or illness from COVID, you should take extra precautions,” Baker said. “If you are not sure, or you have concerns about your personal health or that of a family member, you should consult your healthcare provider.
“Remember: Please get vaccinated if you haven’t. That is your best possible protection from COVID.”
During his remarks, the governor repeatedly urged residents who have not already gotten vaccinated to do so. Only 6,373 or 0.15 percent of the 4.3 million Massachusetts residents who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 have tested positive for the disease and 361 or 0.008 percent of fully vaccinated individuals have been hospitalized, he said.
“Make no mistake: These vaccines are life savers. They are the single most powerful tool we have in fighting the pandemic,” Baker stated. “These vaccines are why we have been, and we continue to move forward here in Massachusetts.
“They are your best protection, they are your parents’ best protection, they are your family’s best protection against COVID, so please, if you haven’t gotten vaccinated, get vaccinated.”
Earlier Friday, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released new guidance for local districts with the start of the school year approaching.
Baker said local officials would be able to set their own policies for the new school year, but they must offer in-person learning for all students.
“We fully expect cities and towns to make adjustments to do what is right for their respective school districts, but one thing is clear: All schools in all districts must be open every day to every student, no matter what,” he said. “The documented negative impact that resulted from the uneven, unpredictable and profoundly difficult year that students had last year cannot and must not happen again.
“In-person learning is the only available option for Massachusetts schools and their students and hopefully today’s guidance will help local officials finish their preparations as they get ready to welcome their students back in the fall.”
The guidance strongly recommends that all students in kindergarten to grade 6 wear masks while indoors, expect for students who cannot do so because of medical conditions or behavioral needs. The guidance states that masks are not necessary outdoors and can be removed while eating indoors.
Further, the guidance also recommends that unvaccinated staff in all grades, unvaccinated students in grades 7 and above, and unvaccinated visitors wear masks indoors.
School districts should allow vaccinated students to remain unmasked, according to the new state guidelines.
Consistent with the new DPH guidance on face coverings, any individuals at a higher risk of severe disease from COVID-19 or with a household member who is at a higher risk are encouraged to keep wearing masks.
All staff and students must continue wearing masks on school buses in accordance with federal guidelines, state officials said. They also remain necessary for all students and staff while inside school health offices.
The state guidelines also say that any child or family who prefers to mask while at school be supported in that choice.
The DESE in May said it would require all school districts to return to full in-person learning for five days a week at the start of the new school year. The DESE at that time said other health and safety guidance, such as a requirement for three feet of distancing within schools, would be lifted in the fall.