Monday, May 27, 2024

Shoppers line up late into the night at a Cambridge grocer store March 12, 2020, in anticipation of the first Covid lockdown. (Photo: Marc Levy)

No more universal mask mandates at CHA Cambridge Hospital and Mount Auburn Hospital. No more daily Covid-19 data center with reports of new cases and deaths, vaccinations and testing figures and breakdowns by age, race and ethnicity, an unusually deep dive into pandemic trends for a small city. No more daily statistics emailed to residents – after more than 1,100 days, the city says. These hallmarks of the pandemic will vanish after the Covid-19 public health emergency ends Thursday.

Others will fade away: Cambridge wastewater testing for Covid ends June 23. The Cambridge Public Health Department will hold two more free vaccination clinics May 17 and June 7, by appointment. Then they end until the fall.

Announcing the end of the city’s data center, the city said: “We have come a long way with respect to Covid-19. Residents are much better protected against severe illness from Covid-19 due to high vaccination rates, natural immunity and treatment advances. Over the past months, we have seen decreasing hospitalization numbers and low levels of Covid-19 RNA signals in local and regional wastewater.” State and federal agencies have reduced the frequency and amount of data they report, the statement said.

Hospital officials and public health leaders said people no longer need measures such as mask mandates because hospitalizations and deaths have subsided as almost everyone has immunity from vaccinations or infection.

Tourism halts in Cambridge’s Harvard Yard as the Covid pandemic takes hold in March 2020. (Photo: Marc Levy)

“As health care providers, we understand that Covid and flu are still dangerous health threats,” said a statement on the Cambridge Health Alliance website. “But as cases and hospitalizations are currently low, and many people have been vaccinated, we feel that going mask-optional is the right decision at this time.” CHA said it will keep masking requirements in place in its infusion clinics for cancer patients in Cambridge and Everett Hospitals, in its geriatric psychiatry unit and in hospital rooms where patients have Covid.

The Alliance will continue to offer masks to patients and visitors who want them and “we will honor all patient requests to be cared for only by masked staff,” the statement said.

Sharon Wright, chief infection prevention officer at Mount Auburn Hospital parent Beth Israel Lahey Health, said masking requirements were “very effective” when Covid transmission was high. “Today, the number of Covid-19 cases has declined significantly due to improved access to testing, development of substantial immunity through vaccination and availability of effective medical therapies,” she said. “Given these changing circumstances, we are in a safer place to end universal masking at this time.”

Cambridge City Hall invites residents to find Covid information on March 29. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Hospitals are going along with state and federal health authorities, which ended mask requirements for most health care facilities after Sunday. That includes dentists’ and doctors’ offices as well as nursing homes. It’s up to individual facilities and doctors whether to stop requiring masks.

Some organizations and health care workers disagree with the decision to end universal masking in hospitals and other medical sites. More than 700 people and 15 groups signed a letter to the state health department and health care organizations saying the move was “dangerous and unethical.” The letter said that even if community transmission has dropped, health care facilities “are among the most likely” to have people who are infected as well as those at increased risk from the virus.

Some Covid-19 protections such as vaccination mandates in certain settings will stay in place after the emergency ends. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health ordered in 2021 that workers caring for “vulnerable populations” at nursing homes, hospice, some home-care services, state-operated group homes and state-run hospitals complete the primary Covid-19 vaccination series. Federal officials will no longer require it, but the state will retain the mandate, a spokesperson said.

The state regulates those facilities, so it can continue to require vaccination. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also lifted the vaccination mandate for staff at private hospitals; it’s not known whether Massachusetts hospitals will follow suit. So far the two hospitals in Cambridge will not change vaccination requirements for employees, representatives said Monday.

City and health department leaders planned to meet at the Cambridge Cemetery on Thursday in a ceremony to mark the end of the emergency.