Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday he is not considering reimposing travel restrictions on residents or visitors amid the latest rise in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations and said he will "have more to say shortly" about federal masking guidance issued on Tuesday once his administration has a chance to review it more thoroughly.
Though the governor deflected most questions about the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's recommendation that everyone — including those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — go back to wearing a mask when in indoor public spaces in areas where the Delta variant is fueling "high" or "substantial" viral transmission, he argued that the COVID-19 situation in Massachusetts is not as bad as it is elsewhere.
"Remember, the federal government makes decisions and issues guidance for the country, right? Massachusetts is a very different place than the rest of the country. We have the second-lowest hospitalization rate for COVID in the United States, we've had the second-lowest hospitalization rate for weeks, we have the second-highest vaccination rate — we actually are behind Vermont and both of those cases — we're certainly number one in terms of both our hospitalization rate and our vaccination rate among the big states," Baker said after a grant announcement in Gloucester. "And those things factor into how we make these decisions and they should because the vaccines work."
Barnstable County is the only area of high transmission in Massachusetts and Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket and Suffolk counties are considered areas of substantial transmission.
Baker added Wednesday, "Massachusetts is in a much better position than the vast majority of the states in this country with respect to how we deal with and how we're prepared to deal with COVID."
On May 13, when the CDC said that fully vaccinated people could take off their masks, Massachusetts was averaging about 546 new cases of COVID-19 each day but the number was falling rapidly. By the end of June, the state was averaging just 64 daily new cases. On Tuesday, the Mass. Department of Public Health reported 657 new cases and said the average stood at about 400 daily new cases.
The governor said he wants the CDC to "provide us with information and data that supports the recommendations." On Tuesday, the head of the CDC said she had seen concerning data, but the agency did not publicly release it.
"In recent days, I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that the Delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus that cause COVID-19," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a Tuesday media briefing. "This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations."
Baker said his administration's review of the CDC's guidance will include talking to "a lot of experts in this community" who have "many different opinions on this stuff."
"I would argue that there are many different opinions in Massachusetts among the experts about what the right things to do with respect to this issue are," he said. "From the beginning, there have been a multiple collection of opinions on practically everything associated with COVID among the experts. People tend to find the expert they agree with and that's the one they listened to, or the group of experts they agree with and then that's the one they listened to. I like to listen to all of them."
Another consideration for the governor's office is what authority Baker has to require mask-wearing now that the state of emergency declaration that gave him broad powers throughout much of the pandemic has expired. Baker's face mask order lapsed May 29 and was replaced by an advisory from DPH.
The CDC on Tuesday also recommended indoor mask-wearing for teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools, regardless of vaccination status. Last week, Baker said he had no "plans to change our current policies with respect to school in the fall" but on Monday said he was waiting to hear from the CDC and other governors on the issue.
When asked Wednesday if he is still considering whether to require masks for students and teachers in the classroom until a vaccine is available to more school-aged children, Baker said only, "considering."
Last week, a dozen Democrats in the Legislature sent the governor a letter urging him to reimpose a mask mandate in early education and elementary school settings. On Tuesday night, Sen. Becca Rausch said that more than 200 public health and medical experts had sent Baker and Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley letters imploring him to require universal masking this upcoming school year.
"Our goal should be to keep children at school and learning. We cannot prevent every illness, but we can certainly mitigate the risks with a simple mask," Dr. Natalya Davis, a Quincy pediatrician, wrote in one letter. "This change will be beneficial, helping keep our children in school, without hybrid learning or long quarantines — but only if masks are mandatory."