Abington will finish 2021 with a record number of known positive COVID-19 cases as the omicron variant rolls through the nation.
However, town and school officials don’t appear likely to reinstate many of the strictest public health and social distancing policies and mandates that were put in place during previous waves.
Abington Board of Health Chairman Aaron Christian said as of Thursday night the committee does not anticipate gathering before its next regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 10. The board earlier this month issued an advisory encouraging the wearing of masks while in public, but opted against making it a mandate.
Schools Superintendent Peter Schafer notified parents Thursday that the school district will be following new state guidelines that potentially halves the number of days infected students and staff have to remain outside the classroom.
“Therefore, if your child tests positive for COVID-19, this updated guidance shortens the recommended time for isolation from 10 days to 5 days, if asymptomatic, followed by 5 days of wearing a mask when in public,” he wrote.
Town Manager Scott Lambiase this week reminded town boards and committees that they are allowed to meet remotely if they choose. Agendas posted Thursday by the Community Preservation Commission and School Committee show both those boards will meet via Zoom next week.
There are currently 297 known positive cases in Abington, which is the highest number recorded since the pandemic started nearly two years ago. The number of positive cases in Abington has nearly tripled over the past 10 days (there were 107 on Dec. 20) and are expected to continue climbing following the holidays. Last winter, Abington’s case load peaked on Jan. 7 with 184 cases.
Abington’s numbers reflect a larger state and national trend as omicron becomes the dominant form of the virus. The 21,137 new cases reported Thursday in Massachusetts were the highest ever one day total for the state. MWRA testing shows a tremendous spike in the amount of the virus found in the wastewater stream around Greater Boston.
Across the United States, more than 562,000 positive cases were reported Thursday, by far the highest one-day total ever reported. That figure represents a 78 percent increase over the previous week.
“Whatever is going on, it’s highly contagious,” said Abington’s Public Health Director Marty Golightly.
Public health scientists believe that the omicron variant is significantly more contagious than previous variants, contributing to a higher number of breakthrough cases even among those fully vaccinated. The majority of positive cases are still among those who are not fully vaccinated.
However, the current surge looks different than the previous ones, largely due to climbing vaccination rates.
Some studies indicate that while the omicron version of the virus spreads more easily, the symptoms may not be as severe, particularly for those who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot.
For example, despite the number of active cases more than double last winter’s peak, hospitalization rates in Massachusetts remain lower. The state’s 7-day average for COVID-related hospitalizations peaked last Jan. 7 at 2,346; currently, the rolling average stands at 1,817. There are 382 patients currently in ICUs across Massachusetts; last year, the number peaked at 461 on Jan. 12.
“Outcomes are a lot better with the vaccinations,” said Golightly.
A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the existing vaccines were 70 percent effective in preventing onmicron-related hospitalizations, compared to a 93 percent effectiveness rate against the delta variant.
Golightly said while no inoculation is 100 percent effective, they still provide the best layer of protection.
“You can still get pregnant on birth control, you can still die in a car accident with your seatbelt on. If you’re fully vaccinated you are less likely to get it, but that does not mean it won’t happen,” he said.
FoxNews reported Thursday that an average of 334 children 17 and under sick from the coronovirus were admitted into hospitals everyday between Dec. 20- Dec. 27, a 58% increase from the week before. Children still seem to be less likely to get seriously ill from COVID, compared to other age groups.
Despite the spike in cases, Abington’s officials aren’t pushing for additional measures absent any state mandates. The City of Boston, for example, now requires all restaurant employees and customers to show proof of vaccination. A handful of cities and towns have instituted mask mandates for all public and private spaces.
Christian doubted whether an Abington mask mandate would have any effectiveness, especially if none of the town’s neighboring communities had one. He along with Golightly also said a mask mandate couldn’t be enforced since the department is already overwhelmed tracking positive cases, administering vaccinations, among their other duties.
Instead, the health department is encouraging residents to get vaccinated, wear masks in public, maintain social distancing, and stay home if they’re not feeling well.
Town Manager Scott Lambiase said non-vaccinated visitors are asked to wear masks at Town Hall, and conduct as much business as possible online or over the phone in order to keep operations going.
“Obviously we want to be careful because it’s so highly contagious, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that an outbreak could wipe out a whole office or half of town hall,” he said.
Schafer said in an email Thursday that 55 members of the Abington schools community had tested positive over the past week, including 40 at the combined middle/ high school.
High school boys and girls basketball games were both canceled this week due to positive cases among Abington and their opponents.
“We are experiencing an increase in cases in society and high school sports are no different,” Athletic Director Peter Serino told Abington News. “We expect there to be changes throughout the winter season related to covid. All of the reschedules this week were related to Covid concerns either within our program or our opponents. We have been adapting our schedules and protocols throughout the past two years with the students health and safety being paramount and we will continue to do so.”