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Following state lead, drop in COVID-19 cases, Pittsfield board of health downgrades masking guidance

A KN95 mask.
Josh Landes

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts board of health has officially downgraded its masking guidance from a directive to an advisory.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, Public Health Director Andy Cambi gave the board an update on the city’s COVID-19 data.

“We are on the downward trend from the spike that we experienced over the winter," said Cambi. "Again, you can see from the last 14 days that we've had some very low numbers. Actually, on February 12th, we had zero cases, which hasn't happened since October of 2021. And then yesterday, again, with very low numbers. Today's numbers were three. So, we are heading in that downward trend to- I’m looking at, right now, we’re at 8.10% of the positivity, daily case rate. I'm predicting that within two or three weeks, we'll be at the 5% threshold.”

Cambi explained that his projection is based on previous COVID-19 case data that indicates a drop in trajectory a month after a peak.

“We did get a shipment of at-home test kits that are available at the health department at 100 North Street, the mezzanine level," he continued. "So there are two kits per household for City of Pittsfield residents.”

Hospitalizations have dropped below 10 this week, and the city is reporting that 75% of vaccine eligible residents are fully vaccinated.

“The daily hospitalization rates for the vaccinated versus unvaccinated, we have for every one person vaccinated, there's 2.51 unvaccinated currently,” said Cambi.

Saying that the Omicron variant’s record-setting peak is behind the city, Cambi said Pittsfield could lift the mask directive it put in place in November 2021 and adhere to the new state guidance released February 15th.

“The mask advisory by the state states that a fully vaccinated individual should wear a mask indoors if you have a weakened immune system, or if you are at an 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 an increased risk for severe disease or is unvaccinated,” he told the board.

Discussion moved to what it would actually mean to move from a directive to an advisory and what impact the semantic shift would have on the public.

“Our directive was never a mandate, right? And so I do believe there was a little unclarity about that in the public. I'm not totally sure, but I think that, you know, what exactly was a directive compared to a mandate was a question mark. I would want to make sure moving forward that the difference between an advisory and a directive is really clear," said Board of Health member Steve Smith. “It seems to me, we're going to lift the directive, and that's the way most people are going to view it- No more directive.”

“I think there's a fundamental shift here, though, and that sort of the underlying driver is that it's shifting responsibility now based on the data, and the responsibility is shifted to the individual," said Board of Health member Brad Gordon. “I don't know if putting signage in places is necessarily consistent with that. And, you know, I mean, we could recommend or suggest that if businesses feel comfortable doing that, that they can do it. But here, it's really just essentially stating, hey, if you fall under any of these categories of vulnerability, you know, it's suggested that you wear a mask.”

Ultimately, the board of health was unanimous in the decision to downgrade from a masking directive to a masking advisory.

Other Berkshire communities like Williamstown, whose board of health discussed fully dropping COVID-19 advisories after the most recent peak and decline in cases, are expect to follow suit in the coming weeks.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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