Health director: 60 active COVID cases, but town still far better off than most

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Hopkinton health director Shaun McAuliffe, during his COVID-19 update to the Select Board, said Tuesday night that the town has 60 active cases, although he expects to see a drop this weekend, optimistic that the post-holiday surge will start to wane.

McAuliffe said there have been 299 cases in town since Sept. 21.

“We’re experiencing a second surge of cases that’s related to the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, a little bit of vacation time,” he said. “These cases in Hopkinton are the result of holiday gatherings, travel, some workplace exposure and … we’ve seen an uptick in cases related to hockey.”

McAuliffe said the current percent positive rate just dropped slightly, to 3.72, after being at 4 just prior to Christmas. He said ideally the number would be below 1.

The town remains in the yellow risk category on the state’s chart, and McAuliffe said, “We’re one of the few in this region that are still yellow.”

He credited the new attestation software being used at the schools as being a help, noting that on Monday morning, “We stopped two cases from entering the building.”

Parents use the program to fill out a brief survey indicating if their child or anyone in the family has been exposed to the virus.

“We’re finding the residents who are using are finding it useful as a reminder,” McAuliffe said, adding: “If nothing else, it is getting people to stop, reevaluate their morning routine and either follow up with the Health Department or the school nurses.”

After Thanksgiving the schools went fully remote for a week, but students returned to hybrid learning after winter break.

“We’re one of the only districts in this immediate region who haven’t had a full school closure,” McAuliffe said. “We were able to make it into the holidays with the hybrid programming intact. I believe if we continue to do what we’re doing — face covering, distancing, staying home when we’re sick, completing our attestation in both our workplace and our schools — we’re going to see an improvement over the next few weeks and we run a good shot at getting through the vaccination period, and right up until June in either hybrid or maybe something beyond that. So it’s just requesting that parents, employers focus on the basics.”

McAuliffe said he was on a teleconference call with fellow health directors last Thursday, and many of them looked “beaten.”

“There are communities that are blowing up right now,” he said. “We are seeing a dramatic surge in certain communities.”

Hopkinton has kept things in control with a team effort, although he cautioned against getting complacent.

“It’s the work of the residents, the fact that we’re all working together, from the Select Board throughout the municipal offices, and parents have played a big role in helping us stay on track,” he said.

“That said, I think we’ve had over 680 people travel since Thanksgiving. And it’s that travel, that added exposure and risk, that’s driving our numbers.”

Statewide, the surge continues, and McAuliffe said he expects it will take “several weeks for us to recover. But people are starting to focus on better behaviors coming out of the holidays.”

On a related note, the Hopkinton Public Library announced today that due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in town and regionally, it was closing to the public as of 4 p.m. on Thursday and would remain closed until at least Jan 22. Library services are available on a remote/curbside-only basis.

In Framingham, where McAuliffe lives, Dr. Samuel Wong resigned last week as health director, reportedly due to exhaustion and frustration from constant criticism.

“It’s nice to see our community support our Board of Health and our officers, rather than the witch hunt that went on in Framingham for months with Dr. Wong,” Select Board chair Brendan Tedstone said.

McAuliffe, who praised Wong as his “mentor,” said other health directors are surprised at how much support he, public health nurse Kasey Mauro and the rest of the town’s health workers have received in Hopkinton.

“My peers were astounded that we were getting holiday cards and holiday calls,” he said. “People were just reaching out to thank us for all the work. And it’s that — I can’t tell you. I’ll admit I’m a little fragile right now. But people calling, stopping by and figuratively shaking my hand — I was a weeping mess around Christmastime. That just means a lot. It’s really kept us going.”

Looking ahead, McAuliffe said vaccinations will be administered to first responders next Monday. The town teamed with several neighboring towns to put together a clinic to disperse the vaccine in this initial phase.

He said some local pharmacies have teamed up with Fairview Estates and Golden Pond Assisted Living to vaccinate the seniors and staff there within the next week or so.

“We’re just looking forward to them getting into the vaccination process and hopefully turning a new page with respect to those facilities and the risk reduction,” McAuliffe said.

Regarding the next phase of the vaccination process, McAuliffe said he was expecting to learn more today, but officials delayed the information for about a week.

“Right now we’re sitting here waiting for the schedule for the start of Phase 2 and how they intend to deliver the vaccine to us,” he said. “With that instruction we’ll start making plans for the Phase 2 vaccination. To that point, that’s about all I know. We have the plan, we have the generators, we have everything we need to run a mobile facility.”

Select Board members offered praise for McAuliffe and his staff, who recently received a financial bonus to show appreciation for all the additional hours they have worked.
Said board member Brian Herr: “They’re doing extraordinary work in extraordinary times.”

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