Hopeful Signs In COVID Fight, But Danger Remains

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19


Stay-at-home Advisory, Business Closure Extended To May 18

The human toll of COVID-19 continues to grow, but key public health indicators hint that the virus emergency could be starting to level off on Cape Cod.

“We’re starting to see that plateau start to happen,” Barnstable County Health and Environment Director Sean O’Brien said Tuesday. But at the town, county, state and federal level, public health officials stress the need to maintain social distancing and other precautions that stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. As of Monday, there were 798 confirmed cases of the virus on Cape Cod, and 39 deaths.

On Tuesday, 35 days after the state put in place its emergency closure of non-essential businesses, Governor Charlie Baker announced an extension of that order through at least May 18. The stay-at-home advisory and the prohibition on gatherings of 10 or more people were also extended through that date.

The governor acknowledged that the closures have stressed families, separated loved ones, kept kids out of school and caused people to lose jobs or whole businesses. “Not acting, however, was not an option,” he said. “Those decisions were made to save lives” and have successfully “flattened the curve” of COVID-19 cases, he said. While there are hopeful signs, they do not support lifting the restrictions on May 4.

“I know we’ll get there soon, but we have to be smart about how we do it,” the governor said.

On Monday, Broad Reach Healthcare announced that a resident of Liberty Commons nursing home had tested positive for the virus. Following protocols, the person was moved to a temporary care space in the outpatient clinic with nursing staff dedicated solely to her care. All patients and residents were placed in isolation in their rooms, and all residents of the Stage Harbor wing were being tested. The facility set up a dedicated information line for concerned family members to call. In an automated call to family members, Broad Reach President and CEO Bill Bogdanovich said the company is taking all the appropriate precautions and is adhering to directives from local and state health officials.

According to figures from the Mass. Department of Public Health Monday, the Wingate at Harwich nursing home had between 2 and 10 coronavirus patients, but there were no other reported cases at nursing homes in Harwich or Orleans. Statewide, the number of cases in nursing homes is increasing, and skilled care center residents represent 56 percent of the total COVID-19 deaths in the state.

“The numbers are tough to comprehend, but they illustrate the lethal grip” the disease has on senior citizens and those with preexisting health problems, Gov. Baker said Monday. Baker announced a second round of assistance providing $130 million for skilled care centers that agree to meet infection control standards and which agree to have all staff members and residents tested. The Massachusetts National Guard is using a mobile testing unit to provide rapid tests at nursing homes, and helped public health officials learn of an outbreak of the disease at Pleasant Bay Nursing and Rehabilitation in Brewster last week.

CDC guidelines call for people to wear masks or face coverings while in public places where they cannot maintain six feet of separation from other people. A number of Massachusetts communities have issued regulations requiring the use of masks; Harwich officials rejected the idea last week, saying it would be impossible for town officials to enforce (see related story), but sent an advisory urging people to choose to wear masks when shopping. When exercising outdoors, people should at least have a mask ready to put over their mouth and nose when passing other people, Harwich Health Director Meggan Eldredge wrote.

At its meeting on Monday, the Chatham health board is expected to discuss a regulation requiring masks in public places. While other towns are adopting such rules, “they’re realizing that enforcement is nigh to impossible,” Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told selectmen this week.

Resident Elaine Gibbs said she favors a mask requirement for public buildings, saying it is “thoughtless and really inconsiderate” to put others at risk by not wearing one. The town has other regulations that are challenging to enforce, she noted, like the 30-minute parking restrictions at Lighthouse Beach.

Cape Cod Healthcare CEO Michael Lauf said there is sufficient hospital capacity at Cape Cod and Falmouth hospitals, as well as in the step-down facilities in Brewster and Falmouth. The extra beds are not in use now, but if the Cape had seen the same surge of patients that Boston saw, “we would’ve absolutely needed them,” he said. Conventional coronavirus tests can now be done in as little as three or four hours, rather than three to five days as was the case several weeks ago, he noted.

In a news conference last week, Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wendy Northcross asked when testing will be available to Cape Cod employers, “to ensure a level of comfort for their employees.” Lauf noted that some private labs are providing those tests already.

Baker warned against drawing conclusions from commercially available antibody tests, which have not undergone the usual rigorous testing from the Food and Drug Administration. Those tests can deliver false positives and false negatives more than 30 percent of the time, he said. When it works, “what the antibody test is going to tell you is, who had it,” he said. So far, there is no proof that having the antibody present means a person is immune to COVID-19, he warned.

Baker said he is eager to reopen the state’s economy, but only when the time is right. To that end, he has created an Economic Reopening Advisory Board that includes business leaders, public health officials and municipal officials. By May 18, it will make its recommendations for how to conduct a phased reopening of businesses and communities when it is clear that COVID-19 case numbers are declining.

“This process must, and will, be guided by the public health metrics that we watch so closely every day,” Lieut. Gov. Karyn Polito said.