Opinion: Just Because You Say It Does Not Make It So

Screen shot of hybrid Town Council Meeting held on January 24, 2022 in both the Town Room at Town Hall and over Zoom. Those in masks were physically present in the Town Room which can be viewed in the bottom right frame.

Maura Keene.

At the January 24 Town Council meeting, Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at-large) again asserted that the council should meet in person because children have been attending school in person since April 2021 and there is minimal evidence of transmission of COVID-19 in school. 

There are several flaws in this argument, which Hanneke has used at several meetings (see e.g. here and here) in the past to push for in-person meetings. Not the least of the problems with the statement is that data do not exist to support the claimed lack of transmission of COVID-19 in schools, especially in the time of the Omicron variant. According to information released by the Amherst schools, there were 187 COVID cases among students and staff from January 3 through January 24. There were 20 cases in the schools for the month of December, and 67 students and staff were positive at the end of winter break. Although the town is doing contact tracing, they are not contacting everyone who tests positive, and specific information is privacy protected. I have not been able to find any data collected by the state or the town that would reveal where these positive cases originated, whether at school or home, so I doubt if Hanneke has that information either. We do know that students congregate without masks when eating in school, and not all are completely vaccinated. 

Friends of my grandchildren (not in Amherst) have contracted COVID when others in their families have not, leading one to believe they acquired it at school, despite mask mandates at their school. And last week in Massachusetts, 28,151 students and 4,758 staff members in the public schools newly tested positive for COVID (see also here).

In addition, contact tracing and quarantining or requiring a negative test for close contacts (Test to Stay) are not recommended in the newly issued policies of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), with the change to weekly antigen testing being instituted in most districts this month. Amherst schools will be doing weekly pooled samples.

All this is to say that Hanneke is making a statement for which there does not appear to be any supporting published data. If she does have data not available to those in public health departments, she should make it public and cite her source.

Another problem with her argument is equating in-person attendance at school with in-person attendance at Town Council meetings. There has been clear harm to the mental health and educational progress of students as a result of long-term remote schooling. Although Hanneke and Councilor Andy Steinberg (at large) stressed their preference for in-person meetings, they can hardly claim the same benefits and tradeoffs to in-person council meetings as in-person schooling. 

Also, in making their arguments, Hanneke and Steinberg ignored the risks that staff members with young children or vulnerable family members would be taking by needing to be in-person to support council meetings. They are entitled to evaluate their own comfort level for risk, but they and the four other councilors who voted with them, two of whom (Anika Lopes (District 4) and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)) were attending remotely, essentially decided on the risk level to which the technical staff and Town Manager will be exposed. 

Yes, under the adopted policy, councilors can opt to attend meetings remotely, as six did at this week’s meeting, but the lack of concern for some of their fellow councilors and support staff who may feel subtle pressure to be present in Town Hall despite risk factors, as well as making claims about diminished risk for which there appears to be no support is shameful and selfish.

Maura Keene

Maura Keene is a retired obstetrician-gynecologist and a staff writer at the Indy. Her four children are graduates of the Amherst schools. She has lived in Amherst since 1982.

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10 thoughts on “Opinion: Just Because You Say It Does Not Make It So

  1. Thank you Maura for providing real data and questioning the unfounded assertions of low school transmission as the basis for in person Council meetings. The insistence on meeting in person with the current level of Omicron risk in Hampshire County was indeed selfish in its disregard for the safety of Councilors, staff and their families.

  2. I don’t have an opinion on what format town meetings should take, or more accurately, what metric should be used to decide when they return to in-person. I’m also not a public health expert (in fact I have zero training in it, like not even a course). I also want to acknowledge that it’s really hard, as you point out, Maura, to get detailed data (if it even exists) about where cases are originating and spreading, and as much as I’d like to have been able to understand that over the past two years, I’ve accepted that reality. But my perspective on the school data is that it does not, in fact, suggest a lot of in-school spread. (Note that “suggest” is doing a lot of work there.) If I could figure out how to paste an image into this comment, I could show you two graphs I made, comparing cases at the high school (I chose that because I have a student there so the best understanding out of all the schools of how things really play out there) and in the town over the same period during this current spike–I chose Jan. 10 as the starting point to get a running 7-day average and the school started reporting data after break on the 4th (so the spike at the start includes all the cases collected over break). What they show is that in fact there appears to be much LESS spread among HS students than among the town generally. I haven’t taken the time to plot data from the other schools, but I didn’t cherry pick the HS because it looked “best.”

    This does not “prove” that there is no spread at the HS, and I’m not sure what would. But it certainly suggests that the HS is no worse an incubator than every other activity townspeople are engaged in (and in fact I’d argue it shows that the ~6.5 hours a day the kids are there may be limiting their exposure, although readers should consider that a double “suggest”–maybe kids spread less effectively, period?). I also note that at this point roughly half the students in the district are in pooled testing, so the schools are catching cases that might have gone unnoticed in the general, non-surveillance-tested population (though of course a lot of our town does regular testing at work–I do). And in my household, as I suspect in many others, we are allowing the HS student more freedom to socialize indoors than we are giving ourselves, because of the widely publicized crisis in adolescent mental health.

    Two final points: 1) I have a similar anecdote to yours about a school student catching COVID and his family not (yet, fingers crossed!) catching it. The student is my son, and my bet based on timing is that he caught it at an indoor track meet in Boston. He is asymptomatic, and we only caught it because we rapid tested him out of an abundance of caution because one of us had a stuffy nose. (That right there should help place me on the spectrum of COVID caution!) Point being: yes, he’s in school, but that doesn’t mean he caught it there. He also hangs out with a few friends and, most relevantly, ran around breathing heavily in a space with other kids doing the same, some of whom probably weren’t vaccinated. So far none of the kids he eats lunch with at school have tested positive.

    2) I appreciate how much data is public, but I really think it would be helpful if the public data were presented in a way that is more easily digestible. Total cases and active cases on the Amherst town website is not helpful–those active case numbers fluctuate WILDLY, and the total cases don’t tell you what’s going on right now. As my friends know, I’ve been keeping a bunch of running graphs to show trends, which I find helpful–would be great if the town had resources to do that (and by resources, I mean literally less than an hour a week, and that’s for someone who is actually really inept with graphing Excel, which I hate).

    And I guess I have a third point, which is: I feel really fortunate to live someplace where there hasn’t been a lot of strife between community members around things like wearing masks. I think the school closing/opening stuff last year was the worst it got, and even then I heard a lot of people prefacing their opinions with acknowledgment of others’ perspectives and feelings. I really hope we as a community can make it through whatever this next stage is, where we move from pandemic to endemic and figure out how to live in a non-crisis state, without turning on each other. Right now people have very different levels of comfort with different measures, and it’s not clear to me that there is an obvious right answer much of the time. The answer of “do the most conservative thing,” which has honestly been my approach for much of the last two years (obviously not now, see the indoor track meet example, which I would do again), is not without costs. Again, I’m not saying this because I think Town Council should or shouldn’t meet in person–as with many things, I’m glad I don’t have to decide that.

  3. Do viruses “care” much about all these details? What matters to viruses is the availability of hosts: the more hosts in a virus-concentrated space, the greater the chance of viral infection. In case of an airborne virus, diffusion in the ambient air happens quickly, so their concentration (the number of viral particles in a given volume) is more important than who’s sitting next to whom. This is why effective ventilation and masking — to prevent exhalation as well as inhalation of (a fraction of) viral particles — is necessary to keep the virus concentration low.
    It’s amazing (and alarming) that schools are back to hosting activities (like indoor track meets) which not only offer up plenty of viral hosts, but also allow viruses to concentrate in an enclosed space.

    Gesundheit to Kate and her family — thanks for sharing the cautionary tale.

  4. Maura,
    My family is one of those where one child got COVID, but no one else in our family of four did. This happened over the holidays (Jan 1st was the positive test date). We had been together all of Christmas break. My child literally was not in any context that the rest of us were not, yet multiple PCRs showed only one of us was positive. My brother in law tested positive shortly after we’d seen him for the holidays, so our best guess is that it came from him. All to say 1) it clearly didn’t come from school; 2) there’s no rhyme or reason as to why we were all in the same house with him yet out of 11 people in the house, only 3 (incl him) tested positive. So the data you note is not at all an indication of in school transmission. It’s the reality that one family can experience the same exposure but react differently.

    In school transmission would be indicated by multiple people in a shared classroom, lunch group etc testing positive. To my knowledge, those data are not available. the state did report data on clusters last year but I suspect they’re no longer doing that.
    Best,
    Allecia

  5. Data questions aside, in making policy on resuming in-person meetings during a Covid surge, it seems only fair to distinguish between different levels of risk affecting different members of a given group and vote accordingly. Since 7 out of 13 members of the Amherst Town Council are in the 65+ years higher risk group for Covid, deference to that risk factor from councilors outside the higher risk group would have been a reasonable course of action. Also, when one group votes on in-person meetings that determine the risk level for another group (in this case, Town staff and their families) it would be respectful to consider their level of comfort with risk as well. Prior to the vote, none of these factors appear to have been considered in the discussion.

  6. I didn’t realize what I initially wrote as a comment, and then edited into a Letter, would also post as a comment! But I do think it’s worth replying to Rob’s comment about the indoor track meet. First, I suspect that’s where my son picked up COVID, but I certainly don’t know it. He also plays (vaguely masked) indoor soccer 1-2 times per week. Second, the school did not “sponsor” this event–they allow students to participate via the school team, but no one has to go. Third, actually the ventilation at the Reggie Lewis Center is pretty great–they upgraded the HVAC systems there when it was turned into a vaccination site. (The indoor soccer site where he plays is also really well ventilated.) Proof of vaccination is required for spectators, masks required (and mostly worn well in my observation) for spectators, masks required for athletes who aren’t actively racing (some wear them while racing, some don’t). None of this means participating in an indoor track meet is close to 100% COVID risk-free, and in fact that is probably the riskiest activity engaged in recently by a member of my household. And yet, echoing what I take as Allecia’s point above, it doesn’t seem to have started a major outbreak. The rest of his team didn’t all get COVID (I think one other ARHS kid who was there tested positive in the same time frame). For our family, the COVID risk in our son attending an indoor track meet was almost certainly less (in terms of dire health outcomes and/or death) than the risk of his taking a bus on the Mass Pike to get there.

    That’s not to say everyone would be, or should be, comfortable with that risk. Not everyone has the same health risk profiles in their household, and not everyone has the same risk tolerance–not just for COVID but for everything! One of the things that makes COVID risk calculation hard for me is that it’s not just about my own (or my family’s own) risk but also about others’; I find it really challenging to understand (and act on) what the risk is to others because my son went to an indoor track meet. We have made different choices when we knew we were going to be around people with more health risks. If things like indoor sports in the winter, or small groups of indoor socializing for kids, were only about the risk, then the safest thing for everyone would be for our son and everyone else to forgo those activities. But of course they’re not just about the risk–it has been almost 2 years of really profound isolation for a lot of kids, and the health effects of that have been staggering. Parents–myself included–need to balance that very real risk around mental health with COVID risk, which is why I said “I’d do it again” about the track meet. You describe it as “a cautionary tale,” but I really don’t see it that way–our kid missed 4 days of school because we happened to rapid test him, and his vaccine worked great, and so far ours have too.

  7. “Yes!” to Kate’s statement: “One of the things that makes COVID risk calculation hard for me is that it’s not just about my own (or my family’s own) risk but also about others’; I find it really challenging to understand (and act on) what the risk is to others because my son went to an indoor track meet.”

    Given her acknowledged* uncertainty about how many others were exposed and infected at the indoor track meet itself — or to and from the event on a long bus ride, which was entailed by holding the event at a distant location — and the happenstance** nature of the post-event testing, readers can decide for themselves whether hers is indeed a cautionary tale. Couldn’t the sponsors have at least had pre- and post-event testing protocols in place to reduce some of these uncertainties — and allay some of Kate’s concerns?

    One beneficial side-effect of the pandemic may be improved ventilation (and filtering) and a greater awareness of air quality: “pretty great” and “really well” are a good start, but quantities which can be measured and compared would be even better….

    ================================

    *”The rest of his team didn’t all get COVID (I think one other ARHS kid who was there tested positive in the same time frame).”

    **”I really don’t see it that way–our kid missed 4 days of school because we happened to rapid test him, and his vaccine worked great, and so far ours have too.”

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