COVID-19: Towns Bracing For The Worst

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19

With public health experts saying that the peak number of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts is still about two weeks away, local officials say social distancing is more important than ever. The number of confirmed cases in the state and county climbed steadily this week, but Chatham Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said it’s not wise to focus on those numbers.

“Everybody should probably assume that the large majority of our population may be infected, and that’s why social distancing is so critically important,” he said. Because testing is not yet widespread, and because it appears that many of those who are infected have no symptoms, the official case counts are almost certainly too low. “I would strongly suggest that everyone assume that the person standing near you may have COVID-19 or the coronavirus,” Duncanson said.

Harwich Health Director Meggan Eldredge reported Friday that state public health officials have instructed city and town health agents not to disclose numbers of people who have contracted COVID-19 in their specific communities. She said the reason is that some towns have reported cases of online bullying, with people demanding to know who has been infected and where they live.

Based on the course of the disease in China, Italy and Washington State, public health officials expect numbers of cases and deaths to increase over the next two weeks. As of Tuesday, the number of cases in Barnstable County stood at 173, with two fatalities. The first death was a retired Episcopal priest from Brewster; the second was identified only as a man from Yarmouth. County Health Director Sean O’Brien offered his condolences to the families, and said he believes the number of cases on the Cape will likely peak or plateau in about two weeks.

“The sooner it peaks, the better for us,” he said. Hopefully, the number of cases will then begin to recede steadily. Even if the decline in cases is temporary, “it gives us the time to stockpile what we may need later on” in terms of equipment and supplies, O’Brien said. Key to getting the region over the peak is social distancing, he said.

Some have raised concerns about crowds that have gathered at places like Nauset Beach in Orleans and Lighthouse Beach in Chatham, and others worry about people contacting one another in supermarkets or on sidewalks. Duncanson said in the case of COVID-19, it’s possible for people to be within six feet of each other briefly without the likelihood of transmitting the virus.

“You really need to be within six feet of somebody for 15 or more minutes,” he said. For people passing one another on a sidewalk, beach stairway or store aisle, “that shouldn’t be an issue” if they are also practicing frequent hand-washing, cough etiquette, and the need to stay at home if they feel ill. People who are 60 or over, or who have underlying medical conditions that make COVID-19 more dangerous for them, are advised to more carefully limit their contact with others.

For that reason, Duncanson has recommended against closing town beaches, parks and walking trails, unless there is evidence that people are obviously not following social distancing guidelines.

“As this thing goes on longer, when you’re trying to keep your entire family in the house day in and day out, that becomes more difficult,’ he said. When small groups of people are seen together in public, “they tend to be family units,” Duncanson said.

Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis agreed with the policy of keeping beaches open.

“The water is a source of emotional and physical benefit to the town,” she said. Davis suggested the installation of temporary signs at key beaches reminding people of the need for social distancing.

Chatham Board of Health member Dr. Allen Ward said it’s clear some people are still not keeping proper distance from one another. He said he was “pretty appalled by the gaggles of people” he observed on Main Street in Harwich Port. “There were about nine girls all in a huddle,” he said. Ward said he’s seen similar clusters of people on the bike trail, and saw one rental home that had 10 cars parked around it that all left after the weekend. “This isn’t distancing in any way,” he said.

The county has begun receiving funds from the state Department of Public Health for COVID-19 response. The first two rounds of funds total $200,000, which will be distributed to town health departments. The county has also received a limited number of sets of personal protective equipment (PPE’s) from the strategic national stockpile, O’Brien said. The delivery provides some limited help to first responders and medical professionals, who are now actively seeking donations of masks and other particular medical supplies like isolation gowns, face shields, surgical masks, nitrile gloves, N95 masks, disinfectant wipes and no-touch or forehead thermometers. Locally, Cape Cod Healthcare is accepting those donations at the Fontaine Medical Center in East Harwich.

In a news conference last week, Cape Cod Healthcare CEO Michael Lauf said the company had enough PPE’s for a minimum of eight days, and staff are searching “around the world looking for additional supplies. We won’t stop until we get enough,” he said.

Lauf also announced that he was foregoing his salary for the month of April, saving the organization $78,000.

In a televised presentation Monday, Orleans Fire Chief Geof Deering said staff is being screened for symptoms and temperature when they start their 24-hour shifts and twice more during that period.

“There’s been a marked increase in the level of decontamination we do,” he said. People calling 911 will be asked additional questions to establish whether they or other people at the location have the virus or symptoms to allow responders to prepare accordingly. When they arrive, only one member of the department will enter the residence or business at first. “You’ll see our crews wearing much more personal protective equipment, masks and eye protection,” Deering said.

Over the weekend, Deering said, the National Guard delivered a shipment of surgical masks and protective eyewear. “It was quite a scene,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’re out of the woods yet, but we’re in a better spot.” He thanked local businesses and the public for “really awesome” donations of masks and gloves.

Also at the forum, Dr. Anne Sigsbee underscored the importance of “flattening the curve” of the spread of the virus so that an early spike doesn’t exceed the capacity of the healthcare system to respond. “We have the ability to change the future,” she said. “I have been pleased to hear from people in Orleans, and looking around our community virtually, that people understand and are staying in their homes and remaining distant. Flattening the curve matters.”

At Cape Cod Hospital, she said, “morale is good. People are rising to the occasion. Staff are very aware of the community’s support. Their estimation is that supplies are good for about eight days at this moment, and some of that is because the community has stood up and donated medical supplies.”

Sigsbee also shared news from Council on Aging Director Judi Wilson, who told her that staff is answering phone calls from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for immediate needs such as getting medication from a pharmacy, and all staff remains available by voice mail or email. Essential bus rides for grocery shopping, pharmacy, banking, and necessary medical trips are being provided, but drivers are taking only one passenger at a time so they can carefully disinfect their vehicles between visits.

“Judi notes that food is quickly becoming an issue for many,” Sigsbee said. With the help of the Nauset schools, the council on aging offers supplemental meals on Mondays and Fridays, the same days they were served at the senior center. The monthly brown bag supplemental food program for seniors will take place April 3 via drop-and-go delivery.

The Chatham Council on Aging is also reaching out to clients, sending an automated telephone message to provide key information and reassurance. Chatham Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said he received such a call, “and it would be a comfort if I were even older than I am,” he said.

Chatham Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said the town has been in “critical services mode” since March 24, and will continue through at least April 7. Key staff and committee members take part in conference calls three times each week, she said, and key meetings are taking place by video-conference. Many people are paying their real estate tax bills online or by mail, which Goldsmith said is helpful.

Selectmen uniformly offered their praise for town staff for their work during the crisis.

“I want to give a big shout-out to the transfer station personnel,” Davis said. She urged residents to flash the thumbs-up to workers to thank them for remaining on the job.

Ed Maroney and William F. Galvin contributed to this story.