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Stay-at-home extended; BOH won’t release town’s COVID-19 count

As COVID-19 surges in Massachusetts, it will be anyone’s guess when it has crept into Harvard. At its March 31 meeting, the Harvard Board of Health said it would follow the recommendation of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) for smaller communities to refrain from reporting the number of positive COVID-19 cases to the public.

In a conference call with state boards of health earlier that day, Director of the MDPH Bureau of Infectious Disease Kevin Cranston said that reporting COVID-19 numbers in a small town could constitute a HIPAA violation. HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, is a law that protects personal health information. Cranston told the boards to consult town counsel first if they choose to release numbers in their towns.

Board Chair Tom Philippou said that while he understood the need to protect individuals, releasing a number does not violate anyone’s privacy. “There will be rumors either way,” he said. He asked if the board would be comfortable making the total number of cases in the 17 towns covered by the Nashoba Associated Boards of Health public, but member Sharon McCarthy pushed back on that idea, saying, “What benefit would that be? Publishing numbers won’t make people more aware of social distancing or washing hands.” The three-member board did not vote on the issue, but McCarthy and member Libby Levison were both opposed to making the number of cases in Harvard public.

The town of Concord had been publishing its COVID-19 case tally on the town’s website, but removed that information this week, replacing it with this statement: “The Town has made a decision to remove the information on the number of positive COVID cases in Concord because we feel it under-represents the true number of cases and may lead to a false sense of security.”

State, county numbers climb

The MDPH continues to publish daily the number of positive cases of COVID-19 and the number of deaths due to the disease by county. On March 31 it reported that, in the past 24 hours, the number of deaths in Massachusetts had jumped from 56 to 89, while the number of confirmed cases had increased by 868, bringing the total so far to 6,620. Worcester County was reported to have 433 cases, while neighboring Middlesex County had 1,340.

Also on March 31, the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association daily tally of COVID-19 patients by hospital reported that Emerson Hospital had five confirmed cases, all in the intensive care unit. On the previous day, only one of the five confirmed patients was in the intensive care unit. Emerson also had a total of 24 admitted patients who were classified as “persons under investigation,” up four from the day before. The number of COVID-19 cases admitted to Nashoba Valley Medical Center was not available at press time.

Baker expects surge; extends orders

Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Baker and health experts predict that cases of COVID-19 will surge between April 7 and 17, peaking later in the month. That information has led Baker to extend the state’s advisories and orders until May 4. These include the advisory that residents stay at home and orders that require residents who don’t live in the same household to maintain a social distance of 6 feet when they’re together. Gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited. Non-essential businesses must remain closed until May 4. Baker had already closed all state schools until May 4.

“If we can limit face-to-face, person-to-person contact now, we can slow the spread and get back to work as soon and as safely as we can,” Baker was quoted as saying by the Boston Globe. “People should be staying at home.”

His concerns were echoed by Town Administrator Tim Bragan in a Tuesday morning interview with the Press. “The lack of [reported] cases in the town of Harvard should not give people a false sense of security,” he said. “We believe that there are people in town who have it, they just haven’t been tested yet.” People need to be vigilant and follow the stay-at-home advisory, Bragan added. “Slow the spread, and save a life.”

Tuesday was Harvard’s 14th day under a state of emergency. State and town orders and advisories aimed at slowing the spread of the virus remained in effect. Fields and parks are closed, with the exception of conservation areas such as Bowers Springs. Only businesses designated as essential remain open, which allows restaurants, power equipment and hardware stores, garages, food stores, and package stores to continue operating.

At a glance:
Federal and state orders and initiatives

  • Gov. Baker extended his stay-at-home advisory and his order to close nonessential businesses to May 4. The new order took effect at noon Wednesday.
  • The Trump administration’s social distancing guidelines have been extended to April 30.
  • Baker announced that an online portal has been created to make it easier for individuals and companies to donate or sell personal protective equipment (PPE). For details go to https://bit.ly/2UxBo5a.
  • The state is partnering with the Massachusetts Medical Society to match health and medical volunteers with communities and health care providers in need of additional personnel. For more information about both programs, go to https://bit.ly/2wLi7nP.
  • All travelers arriving in Massachusetts must self-quarantine for 14 days. Visitors are instructed not to travel to Massachusetts if they are experiencing symptoms. Health care workers, public health workers, public safety workers, transportation workers, and designated essential workers are exempt from this requirement.
  • The Massachusetts 2019 individual income tax filing and payment deadline has been extended from April 15 to July 15.
  • Tax filings and payments for all federal income taxes (including self-employment tax) are also due July 15.
  • The state Legislature is considering bills that would give towns the power to defer payment of property taxes and to continue spending beyond June 30, 2020, in the absence of an approved fiscal 2021 budget.
  • Motor vehicle licenses and inspection stickers due to expire between March 1 and April 30 have been granted a 60-day extension.
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