image of barnstable county courthouse

CommonHealth: Barnstable County’s Interim Public Health Nurse Maurice Melchiono discusses COVID in the new school year

By Gabrielle Emanuel, WBUR Health Reporter

How should we be thinking about COVID as we head into a new school year?

Universal mask requirements, “test-to-stay” policies and contact tracing are all things of the past. But wastewater data indicates that COVID remains stubbornly present.

I reached out to a few folks as they were gearing up for the school year, and I heard a good deal of apprehension. Tracy Curtin, a Boston Public Schools fourth-grade teacher, said she wishes kids were still required to wear masks, so they could play in close proximity without having to worry.

“It is hard to feel like this year is going to really be different than last year. And last year was a hard one,” Curtin told me.

A coalition of health care and community leaders in Massachusetts has called for more precautions and plans in case COVID rears its head.

“Six-months ago we took an off-ramp, but if cases rise we need an on-ramp,” said Jon Levy, a member of the coalition and chair of the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University.

The public health nurse in Barnstable County, Maurice Melchiono, is trying to be optimistic, but he admitted, “I am concerned.”

He said it’s not just COVID, it’s COVID along with all the other infectious diseases that run through classrooms.

He’s been busy coordinating a vaccination campaign to get kids up to date on their regular vaccines. And now he’s putting his energy into planning clinics that will offer the new COVID booster designed to target the latest omicron strain. He’s got his fingers crossed that it gets the green light from federal regulators by mid-September (the booster will be available for people 12 and up). If all goes as planned, the clinics will offer the booster as well as the flu vaccine.

“We’ve been getting reports that the flu in the southern hemisphere was pretty nasty. And typically, we follow in the northern hemisphere starting in the next month or so,” he said. “If people continue to wash their hands, social distance and — I’m not going to say the M-word because everybody gets all nervous and crazy about it — but mask as much as possible, we should be okay.”

A study released last week did bring some promising news. It found that the overall number of deaths in Massachusetts were at pre-pandemic levels this past spring, despite a lot of COVID cases and plenty of COVID hospitalizations.

I asked the lead author of that study, Jeremy Faust, an emergency room physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, whether that research bodes well for the fall. He was not exactly reassuring.

“The future is completely unknown,” Faust said.

However, both Faust and Melchiono pointed to the two things we know work. Vaccines and boosters reduce the risk of severe illness and death from COVID. And a good mask can help protect you when there’s a lot of virus in the community.