Officials: Protests Caused No Spike In COVID Cases

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19

An attendant directs people at Outer Cape Health Service’s pop-up COVID test site last week.  STAFF PHOTO

HARWICH PORT — When large crowds of people came together on the Lower Cape recently to protest the murder of George Floyd, they did more than voice their outrage and solidarity; they heightened the risk of spreading COVID-19. To help control that risk, more than 1,200 people attended a pop-up testing clinic in Harwich Port last week.

“We were a bit overwhelmed with the incredible response for testing in our three sites,” Outer Cape Health Services CEO Patricia Nadle said. Outer Cape operated three of the four sites on Cape Cod that provided free testing last Wednesday and Thursday as part of a statewide initiative in response to widespread protests and demonstrations. On Wednesday, with 240 people signed up to receive COVID tests, clinic organizers had to make a trip to Wareham to get additional supplies in the middle of the day. The Outer Cape Health Services (OCHS) test site in Harwich Port saw 544 people tested Wednesday, and another 711 on Thursday.

The OCHS sites in Harwich Port had twice the attendance of either of its other locations in Wellfleet or Provincetown. At times, the health center in Harwich Port experienced lines of cars, having drawn “an awful lot of folks from the other towns across Cape Cod,” Nadle said.

Results from all of OCHS’ 2,242 tests were expected to be in by the middle of this week, and were to be reported to state and town public health officials. But on Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker said preliminary statewide results were encouraging.

Of the 17,617 test results available Tuesday morning, 2.5 percent came back positive for the coronavirus, “which is reasonably consistent with the statewide numbers that we see in our daily testing,” Baker said. The percentage is low “considering the frequency and the size of those protests,” he observed.

Barnstable County Communications Manager Sonja Sheasley said Tuesday that all of the test results available so far are reflected in the case numbers reported by the state, which continue to show a steady decline in positive cases.

“So the testing done did not generate any cluster of positive tests,” she said.

At the pop-up clinic in Harwich Port, attendees reported an extremely efficient traffic flow, despite the large number of people who came to be tested. Arriving motorists were marshaled in the Saquatucket Marina parking lot across the street, and attendants in safety vests directed them to other workers who took their information. Testees were then directed to a tent in the OCHS parking lot, where, without leaving their vehicles, they received the test swab from clinicians in protective gear. Each attendee received paperwork explaining the testing and when to expect results, along with pamphlets with information about preventing the spread of the virus and obtaining financial assistance during the pandemic.

Most of those who attended large public protests in Harwich and Orleans wore masks during the event, as did protesters across the state. That appears to have helped limit the transmission of the virus, Baker said.

“And in many cases they were moving, which I think made a big difference,” he said. “And, of course, they all took place outside.”

Despite the increasing availability of COVID testing on Cape Cod, more needs to be done, State Sen. Julian Cyr, D–Truro, said last week. Based on data published on June 3, only about 6.6 percent of the year-round population of Barnstable County had been tested for the coronavirus, far below the state goal of 20 percent per county. More testing will not only provide a more accurate assessment of the virus locally, but will support local businesses seeking to reopen safely and quickly, he said.

The Cape Cod Reopening Task Force has asked the state to provide at least an additional 5,000 test kits, and is establishing a “rapid response team” that can provide quick on-site testing at key workplaces. A similar system was used for testing residents and employees at local long-term care facilities, county Health and Environment Director Sean O’Brien said.

“It was much easier to bring the testing to the facility than to have everybody go to one of the testing sites,” he said. The rapid response model is being supported by local fire departments including the Hyannis Fire Department, which has “extensive experience doing this already,” O’Brien said.

“Our testing capabilities remain strong,” Cape Cod Healthcare CEO Michael Lauf said last week. The drive-through test site at Cape Cod Community College remains in operation, though it will eventually be relocated to Cape Cod Hospital, and a second test site is being opened at Falmouth Hospital. Ultimately, Cape Cod Healthcare expects to have the ability to test between 1,000 and 1,500 people per day without relying on outside partners for help, Lauf said.

Another key goal, Cyr said, is to ensure that there is sufficient testing to detect any outbreaks that happen during the summer visitor season.

“By and large the public is taking personal responsibility” by wearing masks, washing their hands, and staying home when they are sick, he said.

On Monday, Gov. Baker opened the second part of Phase 2 of the economic reopening plan, allowing restaurants to resume limited indoor seating, along with the resumption of certain personal care services like nail salons. Clothing stores are now allowed to reopen their fitting rooms by appointment only. The county is providing ready-to-print informational signs for businesses, which can be downloaded from Officials are urging visitors and residents to continue taking precautions to prevent the spread of the illness.

“Keep in mind, COVID-19 will not take a summer vacation,” Baker said Tuesday.