Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Face masks at a Cambridge Street in storefront on Jan. 1, 2021. (Photo: Chris Rycroft via Flickr)

After three years of the Covid-19 pandemic, Cambridge city councillors got a contradictory picture of the situation Monday. “We may be done with Covid in the way a lot of us behave in our community,” chief public health officer Derrick Neal said. “But make no mistake, Covid is not done with us yet.” Roughly 20 minutes later, city manager Yi-An Huang suggested cautiously that it seemed like the first public health update with a “really significant decline in where we are with Covid. And also seeing some real return to normal.”

The picture was mixed because the evidence is contradictory: Lower hospitalizations for Covid in Middlesex County, but three new deaths of Cambridge residents in the past month, including one reported Tuesday. Declining concentrations of the virus in wastewater collected from the northern region of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, but levels still similar to those in the fall of 2021 and November 2022 when “we saw some significant Covid activity,” Neal said.

Speaking of the hospitalization figures putting Middlesex County in the federal government’s low-risk category for Covid, Neal said: “Wow, this is good news.”

“I do want to emphasize that I’m not signaling an all-clear message to the public. Hospital capacity is not a measure of individual risk from Covid,” Neal said, and hospitals still face “challenges related to staffing shortages, capacity issues due to lack of beds in long-term care and behavioral health facilities.”

In a sign of a return to normalcy, though, Neal said the state Department of Public Health had turned down the city’s request for “testing support” because “they don’t have those resources.”

“What we’re seeing is a downsizing, if you will, of the funding that was in place to support Covid-19 measures,” he said.

The state did give Cambridge a second batch of 60,000 rapid home antigen tests and high-quality masks in January. They are being offered to the public in libraries, the Cambridge Public Health Department office at 119 Windsor St. and other locations. “The supplies are flying out the door,” Neal said. The health department also continues to offer free Covid and flu vaccinations on Wednesdays at the Windsor Street site.

People usually don’t report the results of home rapid tests, though, which means most case counts posted by Cambridge and other communities and government agencies aren’t reliable as more and more individuals us them.

Updates downgraded

Meanwhile, Cambridge’s comprehensive Covid data report, posted Monday through Friday, was incomplete since mid-February, lacking information such as the total deaths and total cases in long-term care versus the community. Cambridge Public  Health Department spokesperson Dawn Baxter said data from the health department wasn’t transferring correctly to a city server that compiles and posts the report, the result of a password error. On Tuesday the problem was fixed.

Huang proposed that health officials present Covid updates to the council less often than the current once a month – perhaps “on demand.” The decision was left up in the air after councillor Quinton Zondervan said he preferred regular updates.

Councillor Patty Nolan asked whether “we are doing everything we can,” particularly with regard to masking.  “I certainly know many, many people who continue to get Covid across the city, so it is not gone. And we have relaxed a lot of our methods and and actions that we took,” she said. The city ended all mask mandates in March 2022 and now says masks indoors are “strongly encouraged.”

Still a top cause of death

Health department chief epidemiologist Anna Kaplan didn’t address the issue of mask mandates, saying that the department is emphasizing to people who get infected that they should mask for 10 days – or, even better, until they have two negative rapid Covid tests at least 48 hours apart. Health department workers will deliver rapid tests and masks to people isolating because of Covid, she said.

Kaplan said most residents who have died of the virus are older and have health problems that increase their risk from Covid. “That’s why we ask really, please stay home if you feel sick. You know, these are vulnerable people,” she said. “We just really want to try and limit transmission as much as possible.”

Neal said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said Covid “remains a critical public health issue and the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. as of January.”

“Broadly speaking, given the positive developments in dealing with this pandemic, I certainly don’t want to portray a picture of doom and gloom,” Neal said. “But the risk to our most vulnerable residents remains very real. And it will continue to take all of us to help protect them.”