COVID Surge Straining Town Resources

By: William F. Galvin

Health officials are hoping widespread mask use will slow the spread of the very contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19. Surgical (left) and KN95 masks (center) offer the best protection. Cloth masks appear to provide limited protection against Omicron. FILE PHOTO

HARWICH - Over the previous 10 days, more than 150 COVID-19 cases were reported in town, Health Director Dr. Katie O’Neill told selectmen Monday night. Some 18 percent of the town’s workforce is unable to operate in person due to COVID, colds and the flu; even Town Administrator Joseph Powers reported that he has COVID.

The strain of the pandemic is weighing heavily on the health department, O’Neill wrote in a letter to selectmen.

“The Harwich Health Department is the only department on the Cape that has not decreased any of its regular services that protect the health of the community,” she wrote. “In fact, we have increased our services to include regular COVID testing for employees and board members. Our 2021 revenues of routine services brought in almost $20,000 more than we did in 2020.”

But neither funding or staffing levels have been increased at the local level to meet the ever-growing workload, she wrote. Staff has been dealing with “psychosocial strain” on top of a significantly increased exposure risk.

The health board put a mask mandate order for town buildings in place a week ago. The selectmen will be returning to a remote access option for board meetings on Jan. 18. Participants will be able to attend meetings wearing a mask or they will be able to participate remotely, Selectman Chairman Michael MacAskill said.

A bulletin issued by the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment last week indicated that the Cape has COVID-19 positivity rates of 20 percent; numbers above 5 percent typically indicated uncontrolled spread of the virus. A seven-day rolling average of tests taken by Cape Cod Healthcare yielded rates over 25 percent.

“The health department urges all residents, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask or face covering when indoors (and not in your own home) and to ensure that you and your children are vaccinated and have received booster shots as soon [as] you are eligible,” the bulletin reads. “In addition you are also urged to resume physical distancing of at least six feet and to minimize attendance at social events and other gatherings.”

“While we are trying to keep schools open and minimize the risk to healthcare staff, first responders, and workers, we are asking the public to resume masking and physical distancing in indoor public settings like grocery stores, retail settings, and places of worship, and to please avoid attending social gatherings,” said county Health Director Sean O’Brien. “We need to put the skills we learned during past COVID surges back to work, and we are in the biggest surge we’ve ever seen right now.”

Meeting in emergency session last Thursday, the Chatham Board of Health ordered the mandatory use of masks in businesses, clubs and other places of assembly, including stores, restaurants, bars, churches, libraries and municipal buildings. The mask mandate replaces a previous recommendation that face coverings be worn in indoor public places.

In its own emergency meeting last Thursday, the Orleans health board ordered people to mask up in all public parts of town-owned buildings, but stops short of a mask mandate for all public indoor spaces. Health Agent Alex Fitch said that as of Jan. 4, there were 57 active cases of COVID-19 in town. That’s up from just 12 active cases recorded as of Dec. 16.

Harwich Health Agent O’Neill requested that selectmen support her department by utilizing federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to increase availability for testing, provide hazard pay for health department staff and increase staff levels.

The town has received $635,443 to date in ARP funding, Finance Director Carol Coppola said Monday, and will receive another $635,443 by June. The town has just received detailed instructions on how the funds can be used, including to “support the COVID-19 public health and economic response.”

Selectmen have until Dec. 31, 2024 to decide how to spend the money, which must be used by Dec. 31, 2026. The board discussed at length using some of the funds to relieve the pressure on the health department.

Alan Pollock contributed to this story.