By Sharon Machlis Gartenberg
FRAMINGHAM – Framingham like most of Massachusetts – is seeing record levels of known new COVID-19 cases.
While the percent of cases requiring hospitalization appears to be lower than in earlier waves, the massive number of cases means that our medical system is already being stressed. Hospitals in particular are overwhelmed. Whatever we can do to protect our hospital, ambulance, and other infrastructure right now is essential.
“There’s a good chance that this is the week when the health care system in the US breaks, and most people (outside of those working in health care) don’t seem terribly concerned,” Jon Levy, chair of Boston University’s School of Public Health Environmental Health Department, said on Twitter.
It’s time for us to step up and do our part.
“Forget anything you’ve heard about Omicron being ‘mild.’ It is HORRIFIC how it is ravaging our society and our hospitals and our health care workers,” wrote Dr. Robin Schoenthaler, a doctor at Mass General who’s been chronicling Covid-19 regularly since March 2020. “Please do everything you can to not get Omicron this month.”
While most vaccinated and boosted people are well protected against serious illness from Omicron, most is not all. We must think about protecting our seniors and others among us who are still at high risk such as cancer patients and organ transplant recipients — and our neighbors who have such medically vulnerable people in their households. We not only need to protect service workers and others who themselves are at high risk but those who live with people at high risk. We must make a safer environment for the elderly and medically vulnerable during this unprecedented surge. And we must protect our hospital infrastructure for all who need it.
We also should safeguard children too young to be vaccinated or boosted, and the vast majority of our residents who are not yet protected by boosters.
There are other Covid issues to consider, even for the vaccine-protected. For example, we still don’t know the risk of long Covid among those who contract what initially appear to be “mild” cases. Some people who never need hospitalization still end up with severe long-term complications such as crushing fatigue, dizziness, and impaired taste and smell. There is justifiable concern that millions of Americans will end up with a reduced quality of life and an inability to perform at jobs they held pre-illness. We must take basic public health precautions to prevent more such cases locally at this time of unprecedented transmission.
Researchers have also detected troubling changes in people who seem to have recovered from Covid. We don’t want to discover later that this large number of apparently “mild” illnesses was a long-term health catastrophe — with many of those cases having been preventable with the simple step of masking indoors, at worst a temporary minor inconvenience.
Infections that appear to be “gone” can actually lie dormant, as we know from chicken pox — having chicken pox as a child can spark a case of shingles many decades later. What might Covid-19 do? There are troubling signs.
Covid-19 is a multi-system disease that attacks many different parts of the body. Just this week, the CDC published an early-release paper outlining the increased risk to young people of a diabetes diagnosis if they’ve had Covid. Other research has shown potential long-term changes in the brain. Dr. Jeremy Nicholson, who heads a research lab that has focused on Covid since early 2020, has outlined other long-term risks Covid-19 presents. His lab compares what “normal” biochemical levels look like with “recovered from mild Covid” samples. Findings show “huge changes in amino acid metabolisms caused by Covid”, including major increases in one acid that’s associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Viewed in this light, taking a very simple step such as masking indoors to limit transmission is the only logical course. As several experts have said: Vaccines reduce the risk of serious illness; but masks reduce transmission. They need to work together to bring this surge under control.
I know there’s concern about instituting indoor mask requirements on a piecemeal, community-by-community basis. In an ideal world, Gov. Baker would have done so state-wide. However, it’s clear the governor has chosen to leave this up to local governments. Given this less than ideal decision, we must use the power available to us to protect our residents as best as possible during this current crisis. No one wants mask mandates forever, and this certainly can and should be re-examined once transmission rates fall. But we are in a very difficult part of the pandemic right now. More actions are needed now. It’s why the Massachusetts Medical Society has advised all residents, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask in any indoor public setting.
Finally, I’d like to note that while there’s concern about consumers who don’t want to wear masks taking their business elsewhere, we must understand that the opposite also holds. I know a number of people – myself among them – who have been grocery shopping in Sudbury precisely because they do have an indoor mask requirement while Framingham does not.
“To reduce chance of infection and community spread we must significantly reduce the amount of virus-laden aerosol particles that we inhale. Period,” Dr. Richard Corsi, co-inventor of the do-it-yourself Corsi-Rosenthal air filter, explained on Twitter. “The steps are simple, folks. Wear a high-quality mask (e.g. KN95 or N95) at all times while indoors w/ others outside your own family.
Avoid indoor spaces where people are not wearing high-quality masks or masks at all. Where one has control, ventilate to a much greater degree.”
Let’s make our city’s indoor public spaces safer for all.
Sharon Machlis Gartenberg of Framingham is a former Town Meeting member, former member of the Town Meeting Standing Committee on Planning and Zoning She currently run district2framingham.com and have been following and analyzing Framingham COVID data since March 2020.