Though it could not be confirmed through public health channels, the COVID-19 virus has apparently claimed the life of a retired priest who was affiliated with Christ Church, Harwich Port.
According to the Rev. Brian McGurk, rector at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church of Chatham, the Rev. Dr. Richard Ottaway, an Episcopal priest and college professor, died Sunday night at Cape Cod Hospital as as result of COVID-19. Rev. McGurk said Rev. Ottaway had been a member of St. Christopher's but joined Christ Church Episcopal of Harwich Port about 10 years ago as a parishioner who also assisted their rector on a regular basis.
According to McGurk, Rev. Ottaway’s wife confirmed that her husband had tested positive for the virus.
“She is not hiding this fact,” McGurk said. “She wants us all to know that COVID-19 is a very real fact here on the Cape.”
Over the telephone, McGurk was able to pray a final blessing for his friend. A similar service was also performed for Rev. Ottaway by a priest from Christ Church.
“The nurse at the desk at CCH and the bedside nurse were extremely accommodating. After I said the final blessing, the nurse holding the phone said, ‘We really appreciate this.’” McGurk said. “A nurse also brought him a bible to hold during his final day, since family could not be present. Neither a priest.”
Because of medical privacy laws, public health officials are unable to confirm the identities of people who have tested positive for COVID-19. While a county health official reported Tuesday that there were no confirmed deaths from COVID-19 on Cape Cod, such information is sometimes delayed by several days because of the reporting process.
Christ Church Episcopal Warden Deborah Aylesworth said Rev. Ottaway had last been in church on March 8 and 11, and the church has reached out to congregants who were present on those dates and asked to monitor their health closely.
“By Sunday, anybody in our community will probably be free from worry,” Aylesworth said. So far, no worshipers outside Rev. Ottaway’s family have shown symptoms. Christ Church ceased offering public services on March 14, before many other local churches did so. Rev. Ottaway was first hospitalized on Friday, March 20, Aylesworth said.
As of early Tuesday, pubic health officials had tallied 30 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Cape Cod, but the numbers were expected to jump by around 10 by the end of the day as more patients are tested for the coronavirus.
“This is a virus that can affect all ages,” Barnstable County Health and Environment Director Sean O’Brien said Tuesday. Of the 777 confirmed cases in the state, 399 were patients between the ages of 20 and 50. The illness is more likely to be serious or fatal for older patients and those with certain other health problems. Key to slowing the spread of the illness is social distancing; to that end, Governor Charlie Baker issued an emergency order Monday requiring all businesses and organizations that do not provide “essential services” to close to the public and continue operations remotely. He also directed the Department of Public Health to issue a stay-at-home advisory.
As of Tuesday morning, there were confirmed cases of the virus reported by Chatham, Harwich and Brewster, along with seven other towns on Cape Cod. Orleans was not on the list.
O’Brien said he was dismayed to see news footage of people congregating outdoors in New York City and Washington, D.C., at a time when social distancing is key.
“These are things we can’t have,” he said. Crowds of people, indoors or out, are “just absolutely unacceptable,” O’Brien said.
Chatham Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told selectmen this week that it’s important for people to stay at home if possible, and if they venture outdoors, to keep a safe distance away from other people.
“Try to maintain that social distancing of six feet,” he said. “It’s clear that social distancing is going to be the way that we’re going to beat this thing.” Public health officials are also urging people to wash their hands frequently and to call their healthcare provider if they develop symptoms of COVID-19.
Chatham officials were notified by the state of the first confirmed case in town on Saturday. While several people have called the town asking for more information about the patient, “we can’t give that out under medical privacy laws,” Duncanson said.
While non-essential businesses and organizations have closed, town construction projects will continue, Duncanson said. Work remains underway on the sewer project, the trap dock reconstruction and the fish pier observation deck, he said.
Already closed to the public, town offices are staffed with a skeleton crew, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said, and will remain closed at least through April 7. The town’s goal is to continue essential services to citizens while safeguarding the health of town employees, she said.
“We’re trying to rotate staffing. We understand this is going to be a pretty long event,” she said. The transfer station remains open, harbormaster operations continue as needed, and the shellfish department will remain on patrol. The town clerk will accept election-related material and process vital records via email at email@example.com.
Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis praised Goldsmith and her staff for responding well to the emergency so far.
The board also formed a subcommittee to review how the town might help financially-strapped residents by providing relief from certain fees or application deadlines.
Elders or other citizens who have “absolute needs” like prescription medications or grocery deliveries can call Chatham’s Emergency Operations Center at 508-945-5191 weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Citizens can also call 211 for live help with social service needs. Council on aging staff is available for information and referrals by phone at 508-945-5190; Meals on Wheels programs will continue.
In a virtual meeting on Friday, Harwich town officials provided an update of the response to the virus in town. Harwich received word of its first positive case on Thursday, Health Director Meggan Eldredge said. She said it’s safe to assume that the town will experience additional cases in the future.
Selectmen Chairman Larry Ballantine said while social distancing is essential, it’s key to remain connected during the emergency.
“The more we can communicate and keep people informed, the better off it is,” he said. The virtual meeting was coordinated by town officials and Cyndi Williams of the Harwich Chamber of Commerce.
Monomoy Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter said the grab-and-go lunch service for students has been working well, and the district is considering dispatching school buses with food to support families that can’t get to the feeding sites. Distance learning for students began this week at Monomoy (see story on page 3).
“I can’t say enough about our Monomoy staff,” he said. The district developed a plan to ensure that every student has face-to-face interactions with teachers, virtually, every day, he said. The school system must be ready to support that effort “as long as we have to,” Carpenter said.
The Family Pantry of Cape Cod continues to operate its drive-through operation for clients, Executive Director Christine Menard said. “They’re actually shopping off of a grocery list,” and hand that list to volunteers who go inside the pantry and collect the items, to maintain social distancing. “The food supply is looking very good,” she said, thanks to a supply chain that is still mostly intact. The only thing that might restrict their operations is a shortage of volunteers, Menard said. “So far, so good.”
The Rev. Dianne Arakawa of First Congregational Church said her church is serving people of all ages, but “we are particularly concerned about our older adults.” Pastors are often unable to visit parishioners in nursing homes, and traditional worship services have been suspended, “which was a great change for us.” She said she would be speaking with colleagues for guidance about how to conduct funerals.
The Rev. Christian Holleck of St. Peter’s Lutheran said his church has begun connecting with worshipers virtually, maintaining social connections despite the need to stay physically apart. “Otherwise we’re trying to offer moral and spiritual support,” while praying for the wellbeing of the community, he said.
“We’re going to be OK,” Fire Chief Norman Clarke, Jr., told the group. “Your public safety people are on this,” he said. He urged people to stay at home and take precautions, and said his department takes the temperatures of every employee twice a day. “What we’re trying to do is maintain a real high level of health security,” Clarke said. He urged people to refrain from “panic shopping” at grocery stores and to only purchase what they need.
Health Agent Bob Canning said that while Orleans has yet to record an official case of COVID-19 (as of Tuesday morning), the disease was in all surrounding towns. Left unchecked, it could “outgrow the Cape's ability to handle people affected with the virus and create a situation where the care provided is probably less than we normally see,” he warned. “The best way to level that peak is social distancing.”
The board of health voted unanimously to close all town buildings and facilities to the public except the transfer station through April 5, and all town committees are being encouraged to postpone business instead of meeting before April 5. Town Administrator John Kelly said staffing at town hall has been kept at a minimum.
Fire Chief Geof Deering encouraged citizens to follow the safety guidance published by the CDC and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
“There’s lots of misinformation out there. At the FD, we’re comfortable with the level of personal protective equipment. As this evolves, the supply chain will be an issue. We’re trying to acquire back-up equipment. Stuff comes in almost every day,” he said. “We’re very concerned about keeping the community safe, and also our staff. We don’t want to lose personnel to this.” While public access to the fire station is limited, people who show up with medical emergencies will receive care.
Police Chief Scott MacDonald said the department is seeking to minimize the risk of exposure for officers. Every non-emergency call is being reviewed by a supervisor to determine whether it can be resolved without a police response. The department has seen a slight uptick in call volumes, particularly related to domestic incidents.
Selectman Meff Runyon asked whether some services like traffic enforcement could be set aside during the emergency.
“I will not get into specifics about what changes we have made, for obvious reasons, as it relates to enforcement,” MacDonald said. “I assure you we have made changes.”
Ed Maroney contributed to this story.