Expert Advisory Panel 4 discusses logistics of new vaccination efforts and masking policies



Expert Advisory Panel 4 convened virtually on May 21 to discuss the new town masking policy and logistics of local pooled testing and vaccination efforts.

Expert Advisory Panel 4: Public Health, Safety and Logistics convened virtually via Zoom on Apr. 30 at 3 p.m. to discuss the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB) pooled testing program, the PSB vaccination program and the new masking policy for the town.

Co-Chair of Expert Advisory Panel 4 David Gacioch gave a brief overview of the current metrics and statistics pertaining to COVID-19 cases in Brookline. For the first time since Oct. 2020, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MADPH) color scale board was all green, meaning all case counts and infection percentages are reasonably low. Gacioch said that a highlight of these numbers is the total case count in PSB this past week, which was two cases.

Panel 4 has begun collecting data about vaccination rates to add to their weekly metrics. According to Gacioch, this data already suggests a strong start for the town. Matt Gillis, Director of Operations for the School Business Service, said this data is slightly flawed because it only includes residents of the zip codes 02446 and 02445 and residents of South Brookline have different zip codes which are included under other towns.

The panel also discussed the possibility of terminating the pooled testing program in the coming weeks due to the low case count and uptick in vaccination rates. Several panel members said that due to the high volume of resources needed for pooled testing, it is not sensible to continue conducting the program if not necessary.

Medical Director at MassHealth and pulmonary and critical care physician at Cambridge Health Alliance Lakshman Swamy said that as we move away from this program, it remains important to keep these resources at our disposal in the case of another spike of COVID-19.

“So much work went into creating all of this, and I want us to be able to stay on top of things if we need to in the future without having to redo a lot of that work,” Swamy said. “I think that we should continue going forward as things continue to improve, but being a little bit prepared is probably a good idea.”

Coordinator of School Health Services Tricia Laham said that she is not planning to continue the testing program following the first week of June.

“We are hoping that if we are not seeing any kind of crazy surge in cases that we would probably end [the program] the week of June 9th. I don’t think we need to do it for the summer and I don’t think I would have the resources to do it,” Laham said.

The town launched the PSB vaccination program this past week so that students are able to get the COVID-19 vaccine at schools in Brookline. According to Laham, on May 20, over 225 students received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine as a part of the program.

On May 17, an email was sent out to parents of PSB students regarding new outdoor mask guidelines based on a new update from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary School Education (DESE). DESE’s new statement states that being maskless outdoors should only happen when students are engaging in physical education, recess, youth sports and outdoor learning. Laham said that she is seeking more clarity about these guidelines, seeing as outlining only certain activities seems short-sighted and there is still confusion about guidelines for staff.

Swamy said that since data suggests that COVID-19 transmission outdoors is very low, outdoor mask wearing is a low stakes issue and the town should focus more on other mitigation strategies instead.

“Whether kids wear masks outdoors is not as big a deal to worry about compared to getting kids vaccinated,” Swamy said.

The panel also reflected on both townwide and statewide mandates and how these may affect policies within PSB. Associate Medical Director of the Infectious Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School Nira Pollock brought up the possibility of altering the indoor mask mandate based on expected changes to the state’s policy, though the panel agreed that it is not sensible to change the indoor policy considering it would not be possible until only one week of school remained.

Finally, the panel discussed drafting a final documentation of their process, methods and best practices to be used if a similar nationwide or statewide emergency were to happen in the future.

Advisory Council on Public Health Chair Patricia Maher affirmed that this would be a good idea and said that officials in Brookline would be willing to work with the panel to bring this document into effect due to its value to the town.

“We would be really interested in working with you on this. There is so much you’ve learned and this would be so that it wouldn’t get lost in terms of process, supplies, structure and what was successful,” Maher said. “I think it is really really valuable information for the town.”