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Baker Reopening Plan Gets Mixed Reviews From Public Health Experts

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Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement Thursday allowing for the partial reopenings for concert venues and sports arenas in late March is drawing praise from some public health experts, but skepticism from others.

Dr. Mark Siedner, an infectious disease clinician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told GBH News that “when we see case rates down and infectivity rates down, we do need to respond to that with opening up things and letting people return to normalcy safely.

“I think we’ve actually earned ourselves a bit of freedom — the chance to go back to restaurants and events again,” Siedner said. “I really think we should savor that. … Most of our indicators are the best they’ve been since late last year. And we have an opportunity now to actually take advantage of the fact that the epidemic is under better control than it’s been for the last three months.”

But Dr. Thomas Tsai, an assistant professor of surgery at Brigham Women’s Hospital and of Health Policy Management at the Harvard School of Public Health, disagrees, saying the reopening advancements announced by Baker are coming far too soon.

“I don’t think it’s quite the right moment for going to movie theaters or indoor dining yet,” Tsai said, “especially with new strains of the coronavirus that are still spreading in other parts of the United States.”

Baker said Thursday that he’s moving forward with Phase 4 of the reopening plan, allowing venues that seat more 5,000 people to reopen at 12% capacity on March 22. On March 1, smaller performance venues and theaters will be able to reopen at 50% capacity.

Tsai said while data show progress being made against the virus in Massachusetts, “it’s not the lowest point of the pandemic by any means.”

“I think the important message for the general public is to still remain vigilant,” he said. “While the guidelines may suggest that parts of the economy are opening, and that may present a cause for optimism, I think the right attitude is cautious optimism.”

The Baker administration recently called for elementary school students to return to in-person classes full time in April, and Tsai said schools should be a first priority now.

“We have figured out what’s needed in terms of being able to mitigate secondary transmission at schools, by wearing masks and increasing ventilation,” said Tsai. “My hope would be, let’s get kids back in school first. Let’s get teachers vaccinated first. Let’s solve that really important problem and put our will towards that, and then move on to restaurants and concert halls and stadiums as a secondary priority while we focus on our schools.”

While Siedner still thinks Baker’s recent decision to move forward with reopening is the right move, based on improvements in key COVID-19 metrics, he does agree that, especially for younger children — who show a lower risk of being infected with and transmitting the virus — focusing on schools is imperative.

“The effect of not having kids in school is incredibly damaging, both to children, to parents and to society,” Siedner said. “We need to be doing everything in our power to be getting kids back in school as quickly as possible, but safely. But I do think we’re moving in that direction. And I generally agree that, especially as the vaccination rates go up and as spring comes, that getting kids into in-person learning should be a goal of ours, and is achievable.”

In his Thursday announcement, Baker said his decision on reopenings was associated with a drop in case counts, a drop in hospitalizations and an increase in vaccinations.

Tsai says watching for improvements in the data on the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on residents of color and lower income communities should also be driving decisions.

“Improvements have been made over the last several weeks,” Tsai said, “but there’s still a lot of progress that needs to be done in terms of increasing vaccination rates across racial and ethnic minorities and making sure that we’re making access to the vaccines equitable.

“In fact, I would argue that that should also be an important metric for how we think about opening is not just the overall average number of cases that are declining, the overall number of hospitalizations, but really think about that across racial and ethnic groups to ensure that we are reopening in a truly equitable way,” he said.

This content was originally published here.

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