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Debate rages over publicizing Harvard’s COVID-19 numbers

The first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Harvard last week, but the actual number of cases remains unavailable to the public. The decision to release those numbers publicly is up to local boards of health, and last week, Harvard’s Board of Health decided to follow the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) recommendation not to release case numbers by town.

That decision was the subject of much debate at this week’s Select Board and Board of Health meetings April 7, which were both held at 7 p.m. Because the two meetings were held simultaneously, neither board could hear or participate in the discussion of the other, and when discussions ended, the boards had landed on opposite sides of the debate.

At the Board of Health meeting, members Libby Levison and Sharon McCarthy reiterated their reasons for keeping case numbers private. Levison said it’s difficult to explain to people that the numbers represent only reported cases, not the number of infected people. That could give people a false sense of security, making them less cautious about social distancing and handwashing. “Whatever number is out there doesn’t represent what’s happening,” she said.

Chair Tom Philippou disagreed, saying the number would provide a barometer as to whether reported cases are increasing or decreasing. McCarthy said that information is obtainable from the Worcester County numbers. She added that Harvard’s number doesn’t matter because residents travel to other towns for groceries and other supplies. Although no vote was taken, the consensus was two to one in favor of keeping case numbers private.

At the Select Board meeting, the story was different. Four of the five members argued that the number should be published on some sort of regular basis. All four said it was important to be honest with the public during this crisis and not to have residents feel as if the town is hiding something. Member Rich Maiore summed up the majority’s position, saying, “In unsettling times like these, folks need to have as much information as we can possibly provide to build trust.”

Member Kara Minar argued against releasing the numbers on the same basis as Levison and McCarthy—that the number of cases is underreported and knowing it won’t help people make good decisions. But other members said the town could explain the caveats associated with the number of reported cases. Several members also mentioned nearby towns that are reporting case numbers, including Concord, which stopped reporting numbers a week ago but recently started again after resident pushback.

Member Stu Sklar will convey the board’s position to the Board of Health and to the Emergency Response Team, which is also in favor of keeping the numbers private. Sklar will ask them to revisit their positions, and the issue will be discussed again at the next Select Board meeting, scheduled for April 21. The final decision rests with the Board of Health.

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