This week, two emergency meetings in as many days were called by the Manchester Board of Selectmen to quickly move on measures to curtail public activity in the face of the highly contagious and potentially fatal respiratory disease, COVID-19.
The board declared a State of Emergency (SOE) after shutting down of public parks, beaches and personal care businesses the day before. Essex had declared its own SOE just days before, after reporting its first confirmation of COVID-19 Friday.
On Monday, Manchester-by-the-Sea reported its first resident has tested positive for the virus, saying the town's public health nurse was working to inform and provide guidance to all close contacts of the individual. (“The public health nurse is performing extensive contact tracing to identify close contacts of this case,” read an announcement from the town.) By Tuesday, Essex had confirmed three cases of COVID-19.
As of March 28, there were 4,955 cases of COVID-19 reported in Massachusetts—up from 4,257 the day before—with 570 of them in Essex County. (Note: Massachusetts daily testing rates have stood at approximately 5,500 per day.)
According to Manchester town officials, the positive COVID-19 case of a local resident is not unexpected. The town and its Board of Health have been preparing with guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control.
The number of cases in Massachusetts and Essex County are expected to rise as testing becomes more widely available and, as these numbers rise, social distancing continues to be the most important precaution. Closing town parks, beaches and personal care businesses became moot when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker Monday directed the Dept. of Public Health to issue a state-wide “stay at home” advisory through April 7. All non-essential businesses will be closed for this period and residents are advised to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel and other unnecessary activities during this period.
“That is our best strategy for pushing back on this virus,” said MBTS Town Administrator Greg Federspiel, who with BOH members are conferencing with state medical experts daily. “This is all being done to lower that infection rate in the next three or four weeks.” If everyone is compliant on social distancing behavior, he said, “we have a good chance of pushing (the COVID-19 rates) back.”
For Erin Kirchner, Essex Board of Health administrator for the Town of Essex, is more direct:
“A stay at home order really means stay at home,” she said Tuesday. Essex has one part-time nurse for its department of health that works five hours a week, she said, and the sustained diligence of required tracking and follow up is a challenge, but critical.
“There is a lot of follow up required for every case, with two weeks of monitoring and surveillance on top of follow up with anyone who had close contact with the individual.”
What exactly does it mean when a town like Manchester or Essex declares a State of Emergency? According to the declaration, it enables the town to take additional steps to prepare for, respond to, and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to protect the health and welfare of the people of Manchester and broadly allows town officials to expedite the use of resources to protect residents, such as accessing monies for emergency expenditures or limit operating hours and access to public buildings.
"It's about public safety," said Selectman Arthur Steinert in Sunday’s emergency BOS meeting via web conference, the new way town business is being conducted. He pointed out that Manchester's largest demographic is over age 50 and devoting public safety resources on managing compliance on a half-measure could very well compromise police and first-responder resources the town may need later. “I would lean on the side of heavy precaution at this point," he said.
The MBTS and Essex SOEs will remain in effect until further notice is given.
Schools in the Manchester-Essex district closed on March 13 and will remain closed until at least April 7. Essential businesses that are allowed to be operational include grocery and pet food stores, banks (although nearly all banks have relegated retail banking to drive-through service and all are directing customers to use online banking or ATM machines). Food establishments may only provide take-out and delivery options. Town Hall and all other town buildings continue to be closed to the public, but available by phone and email.
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