The recent spike in COVID cases has shown no letup. In fact, it continues to get worse. The good news is the illnesses have not been as severe. The bad news is the absences caused by COVID have put a major strain on town services — especially the schools.
“All of our metrics have significantly increased over the last month,” Health Director Shaun McAullife reported at Wednesday’s Board of Health meeting. “Our percent positivity as reported by the DPH is 13.7, so it’s almost double since May 5th. Our 14-day incidence rate went from 34 on May 5th to 75.4. Our 14-day case count went from 78 on (May 5) to 173.
“As of [Wednesday], the DPH [Department of Public Health] is reporting that we’ve had 324 cases [in May]. Now, what I did is I took a look at all of the emails that [our staff] has sent out, I looked at all the cases that have been reported for the school, and did some basic math. It looks like DPH is under-reporting our case count by a factor of four, which basically is consistent with what [our staff has] seen. So we’ve had roughly 1,200 or 1,300 cases during the month of May.”
McAuliffe said there was one COVID death and three hospitalizations last month.
Focusing on the schools, McAuliffe said it’s been a challenge due to the large number of absences of both students and staff.
“We had 470 kids out, so that’s roughly 12 percent of the school district population that was out sick with COVID,” he shared. “Eighty-six teachers were out, which is roughly 31 percent of the school district which was out.
“So again, this gets to this whole issue where it’s not necessarily the virulence or the severity of the illness that’s the issue, it’s just an operational issue. The superintendent and I were discussing how do you operate a school where you’re having trouble getting substitute teachers and you’re missing 31 percent of your staffing for 5-10 [days]; there were several teachers who were out for at least three weeks. So our concern is that we should be taking steps to protect the operational integrity of not just the school district but the municipal offices. When we bring this up with DESE [the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] of the Department of Public Health, their verbal recommendation is that we consider masking, distancing, increase hygienic activities, try to limit the size of our events — basically all the preventive barriers that we had been implementing early on in the pandemic.
“In the school setting or even in Town Hall over the last couple of weeks, what they would have recommended is that we consider recommending face coverings on the floors where we were experiencing illness until the spike subsided. In the schools they recommended that in the classrooms that experience an increase in cases we recommend an increase in face coverings.
“As a department what we’re trying to do is — we’re discussing these issues. We have the face coverings if they’re needed. On top of that, we obtained a significant number of home tests kits to help with the assessment of illness.”
Part of the problem, McAuliffe added, is that the current variants making their way through town appear to last longer, while people continue to follow the guidelines based on an earlier variant.
“The issue is being exacerbated by the fact that there are anecdotally, and there are reports coming out just this week, that people contracting the Omicron BA.2 and BA.2.12 variants are experiencing a longer period of contagiousness. So the recommendation is that people be testing beyond Day 5 to make a determination when they’re no longer contagious and that they wear face coverings for as long as they’re contagious.
“Given all that, and having discussions with the school district, our recommendation is to make recommendations to wear face coverings. We’re not mandating … but we’re just trying to figure out how do we make it through the next three weeks running a school? And then we’re working on how we operate the extended school year. And then outside of the district we’re trying to figure out what things can we do operationally to keep the camps and the Parks & Rec programs going?”
Board of Health Chair Lisa Whittemore said mask-wearing has “totally fallen off,” but she supported the department recommending rather than mandating masks.
“I think as a board, we should continue the efforts that [the department staff], all of you have been doing, which is education and recommending masks,” she said. “I think a mask mandate will go nowhere for all sorts of reasons.”
Added Public Health Nurse Simone Carter: “I think at this point in this pandemic/endemic, we take our lead from the state and the fed, which is we recommend [rather than mandate].”