From the Beacon, March 2022

Just six weeks ago, we were in the grip of the greatest level of COVID transmission of our two-year pandemic journey. While Omicron’s toll was dreadful here in Massachusetts, including hundreds of thousands infected, tens of thousands hospitalized, and thousands of lives lost, the stark truth is that it could have been much worse. The public was spared from unspeakably devastating impacts because of the unprecedented public health interventions implemented by municipal and state leaders over the past two years.

Today, with the latest surge fading as quickly as it spiked, we can measure the effectiveness of the extraordinary protection and resiliency measures that have been put in place over the past two years.

COVID has been ever present since March 2020, and we have experienced three major surges, each peaking with clearly visible spikes in April 2020, January 2021, and January 2022.

The first surge occurred without any vaccine protection, the second with very limited vaccine deployment, and the third with 75% of Massachusetts residents fully vaccinated.

During the first spike, strict health mandates were in place, many aspects of the Massachusetts economy had been shut down, and municipal and school operations and non-essential businesses were virtual. During the January 2021 spike, mask mandates were in place, most operations were in rapid-switching mode, alternating between remote, hybrid or in-person settings, yet we did not have an economic shutdown. In the most recent spike in January 2022, the state did not have an indoor mask mandate, although some communities implemented them locally, and stronger health requirements (mask and/or vaccine-entry requirements) were generally reserved for health care institutions, schools, large venues, congregate-living facilities, or other spread-conducive environments.

In April 2020, the peak numbers were: 2,700 daily confirmed cases (an artificially low number because of testing shortages), 3,900 patients in the hospital, and 198 daily deaths.

In January 2021, the peak numbers were: 9,000 daily confirmed cases, 2,400 patients in the hospital, and 94 daily deaths.

In January 2022, the peak numbers were: 36,000 daily confirmed cases, 3,300 patients in the hospital (COVID was not the major health issue for many of these), and 84 daily deaths.

Looking at the statistics from a very high level, we can see that the public has been well served by the remarkable efforts of government at all levels. As vaccine penetration increased, health mandates decreased. This reflects the balance that public leaders have tried to strike, placing a premium on public safety while trying to limit the negative social and economic impacts of intervention policies. In this context, we can also see that growing vaccine protection has enabled health indicators to trend in the right direction, despite COVID’s relentless march through our communities. Going forward, this informs us that the best policy is vaccine promotion and acceptance, balanced with targeted policies to address the most acute challenges that the virus presents.

Municipal leaders have used the past two years to learn and lead. Like operators of heavy equipment, it has taken time to discover the best friction point to engage the clutch and change gears, and the work has paid off, allowing for increasingly efficient navigation through this public health emergency.

If Omicron had hit the U.S. in February of 2020, instead of the original strain, the result would have been unspeakably tragic. Because the initial virus was less transmissible and thus spread more slowly, it was possible to implement public health policies and protocols that were successful in flattening the curve.

This bought America time to develop vaccines, expand public health services, provide emergency support, and address every aspect of the crisis with coordination among municipal, state and federal leaders.

Yet now we are at another inflection point. Traumatized by another period of stress and worry, the public seems to have reached a point of COVID fatigue. As the Omicron surge recedes, many people are looking to roll back faster and further. The social, economic, and personal pain has been extraordinary, so this is totally understandable.

This explains why there is so much public pressure to move quickly to lift public health protocols, and why there is a generally passive reaction to the irresponsible and aggressive actions of a very tiny but very loud set of activists who deny the public health reality and attack the officials who are doing their best to protect the public in the most difficult of circumstances.

It is beyond question that vaccines are the most effective way to protect us from this pandemic. Yet small groups of protesters have targeted the homes of many of our public leaders with unacceptably disruptive and aggressive tactics that those same protesters would decry in their own neighborhoods.

It is beyond question that face coverings reduce the spread of this deadly virus. Yet small groups of protesters have targeted school committee meetings and other public sessions to compare masking with genocide, equating mask requirements with the most heinous acts in human history.

Going forward, the pandemic is entering another difficult phase, full of nuance and subjectivity. People are naturally racing forward, trying to will the pandemic behind us, seeking to return to normal life with friends, family and society.

COVID has not disappeared, however, and new variants will likely vault back into the picture, requiring re-imposition of sweeping public health requirements.

This will create significant challenges for municipal leaders. Cities and towns will need to rapid-switch between the new normal of living with COVID in the background and the need to respond to new variants and future surges that threaten public well-being. Without public cooperation, efforts to change gears will not be smooth.

The next stage of the pandemic will be complicated because a growing number of people appear to be so fatigued that they will resist the kind of safety precautions that were normalized during the first three surges. People will hear what they want to hear unless it is made very clear. The best way to navigate this complicated phase of the journey will be with a three-pronged strategy: communication, communication, communication.

As municipal leaders, you have served during a time of enormous stress and upheaval, and you have led during a time of great consequence and impact. Working with your federal and state colleagues, you have saved countless lives, made your neighborhoods more resilient and safer than ever, and placed your communities in the best possible position to emerge from the pandemic with strength and vigor.

However, this journey is not over. Another complex stage is ahead of us. Ironically, it is more complicated because of your success locally — flattening the curve(s), increasing public resiliency, and creating safe pathways to engage with schools, businesses and civic life.

Thank you for your leadership, and as always, the MMA is right by your side.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO