Business Government

West Hartford Ending Universal Indoor Mask Mandate

West Hartford Town Hall. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The Town of West Hartford’s universal indoor mask mandate will be lifted at midnight on Feb. 9, officials announced Tuesday afternoon.

By Ronni Newton

The most recent omicron variant-fueled surge of COVID-19 is rapidly retreating, and with cases declining dramatically over the past four weeks, town officials announced Tuesday that the town’s universal indoor mask mandate, which was reinstated on Jan. 6, 2022, will expire at midnight on Feb. 9, 2022.

Acting Town Manager Rick Ledwith signed the executive order (see PDF below) – his first – on Tuesday afternoon.

As of Feb. 10, masks will no longer be required indoors in public spaces for those who are vaccinated. The lifting of the requirement also applies to municipal buildings – where it had been reinstated on Dec. 20, 2021 – with the exception of public libraries, Veterans Memorial Skating Rink, Westmoor Park, Elmwood Community Center, and Cornerstone Aquatics Center, which will follow West Hartford Public Schools protocols for serving school-age children. In addition, masks will still be required at both the Elmwood and Bishop’s Corner Senior Centers, officials said.

Schools and childcare centers will also require everyone to wear masks, at least through Feb. 28.

“We do need to be realistic that we are not going to eliminate or reduce COVID to zero,” Mayor Shari Cantor said.

On Monday, when Gov. Ned Lamont announced his recommendation to allow school districts to decide about imposing a mask mandate rather than having a statewide rule, Cantor said, “We’re reaching a phase of the pandemic where it is not going to leave us, and people will need to take personal responsibility.” The trajectory has become a much more important factor than the positivity rate, and those numbers are moving in the right direction, she said.

“We are comfortable that with the current and decreasing infection rates and with the governor and neighboring communities lifting their mask mandates, a community mandate is no longer necessary as a mitigation tool,” she said. However, she added, “We encourage mask wearing and recognize that N-95 masks are highly effective at preventing transmission – they are widely available to anyone seeking additional personal protection and the town will continue its distribution of free masks,” she said.

“We are confident that based on the significant decrease in the positivity rate, along with other supporting data, that we can safely lift the indoor mask mandate,” Ledwith said Tuesday.

“The omicron variant accounts for 99.9% of all COVID-19 cases in New England but we are seeing cases fall as fast as they were rising at the end of 2021,” Aimee Krauss, executive director of the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District, said in a statement. “This is a very good sign.”

When the town reinstated its universal indoor mask mandate, cases of COVID-19 were rising exponentially, with the surge resulting from the highly contagious omicron variant. Positivity rates, while an imperfect measure due to the number of home tests that are not recorded, were well above 20%. Statewide, nearly 2,000 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19.

The state reported a positivity rate of 4.77% on Monday, and while that number was higher (7.08%) due to the “Tuesday bump” – a statistic that has been consistent for many months and recognized by state officials due to reporting from the weekend – the number of cases statewide was still much lower than it has been (1,343). Hospitalizations dropped by 24 as of Tuesday, and now stand at 607 – less than a third of what they were a month ago.

Just 12 new cases among West Hartford residents were reported on Tuesday, according to the state. During the first week of January, more than 900 cases were reported in town in a single week; in the past seven days there were 94.

Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore said Monday that the status of the local mask mandate for the schools – which is also dependent on legislative action at the state level – has not been finalized. “I’ll be talking to the local Health District, and the Board of Education, and as we get close to the end of the month we will have answers,” Moore said Monday.

As of Tuesday, the West Hartford Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard reflected just 14 active cases in the district. In early January, just after the holiday break, there were more than 400.

West Hartford Public School COVID-19 dashboard, Feb. 8, 2022

The vaccination rates among school-aged children in West Hartford are very high, among the highest in the state. For the 12- to 17-year-old age group, 98.49% have had at least one vaccine, 93.3% are considered fully vaccinated, and 38.31% have gotten a booster dose as of Feb. 2, when the most recent report was issued by the state Department of Public Health. Among children ages 5-11, who became eligible for vaccination more recently than older students, West Hartford data indicates that 64.02% have had their first shot, and 56.45% are fully vaccinated as of Feb. 2.

According to Kruass, overall 85% of West Hartford residents age 5 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The best way to protect yourself, your loved ones and your community is to be fully vaccinated and, if appropriate, boosted,” Cantor said.

A statewide mandate for those who are unvaccinated to wear masks in indoor public spaces remains in effect statewide through the end of the month. The future status of that order will depend on action taken by the legislature, which begins its session on Feb. 9 and is expected to consider codifying 11 of Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders.

Universal mask mandates for public and private transportation, which are subject to federal rules, will remain in place, as will requirements in nursing homes, healthcare facilities, homeless shelters and other facilities housing vulnerable populations, and correctional facilities.

Individual businesses are able to require their patrons to wear masks to receive service, even if it is not required by the town.

Krauss noted the importance of following guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If you feel sick, get tested and stay home,” she said.

Krauss also emphasized that getting vaccinated remains the best defense against COVID-19. “Vaccinated persons are less likely to experience severe effects of the virus nor require hospitalization if they contract COVID-19,” she said.  “Vaccines are widely available at our Health District, Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, urgent care centers, area hospitals, and many other locations.”

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