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COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc; major outbreak at Devens prison

Corrected and updated Jan. 8, 2021

As Massachusetts COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continued to rise last week, a mid-December outbreak at the Federal Medical Center in Devens has now infected roughly 36% of inmates. In Harvard, 14 more residents tested positive for the virus for the two weeks ending Jan. 5, prompting more protocol changes at Town Hall, and the General Store closed for two days after an employee there tested positive.

On Jan. 5, the Bureau of Prisons reported 266 active COVID-19 cases at the Federal Medical Center, or FMC, in Devens, a federal prison for male inmates who need specialized medical or mental health care. Eleven staff also tested positive. The virus took the lives of two FMC Devens inmates during the last few weeks of December, a 73-year-old man and an 84-year-old man. Both men had preexisting medical conditions. The total virus-related deaths at the facility is now four.

Conditions at the prison drew fire from two Massachusetts congressional representatives, Lori Trahan and James McGovern. On Jan. 5, they sent a letter to the bureau’s director, citing staffing shortages and hospitalizations as a factor in the FMC Devens outbreak. They urged him to permit onsite staff testing, enforce mask wearing, move medically compromised inmates to home confinement, and “continue appropriate use of compassionate release.” FMC Devens now ranks fifth nationwide among the 127 Bureau of Prisons facilities for the number of COVID-19 cases in inmates.

Locally, Town Administrator Tim Bragan told the Select Board at its Jan. 5 meeting that Town Hall employees had been divided into two teams and the teams would be alternating working in the building and at home on a weekly basis. The move was made in reaction to the recent increases in COVID-19 cases locally and in the state, and the new plan will continue until the end of the month. He also said there will be no in-person appointments during this time, and access to Town Hall, including mail delivery and visits from vendors and staff from other departments, will be limited.

Also this week, the Harvard General Store released an email regarding an employee who had tested positive for COVID-19. According to the email, the positive result was reported on Jan. 4; the store was immediately closed and cleaned, and, under the guidance of Nashoba Associated Boards of Health, or NABH, contact tracing was performed. All staff members who were in contact with the employee are currently getting tested and are under quarantine; no customers were in close contact with the employee. The store was cleared to reopen with unaffected staff members on Jan. 6 in a limited capacity.

First phase of vaccination continues

Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccinations continue across the state for the first two groups in Phase 1: health care workers in direct contact with COVID-19 patients and residents of long-term care and assisted living facilities. On Jan. 4 Gov. Charlie Baker announced that residents 75 and older will move up in the vaccination order to the first group in Phase 2, which is scheduled to begin some time in February. The move was made in response to a Dec. 20 recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Jan. 11, the third group in Phase 1, first responders, will begin receiving the vaccine. NABH Director Jim Gareffi told the Press his organization will be operating a regional clinic to vaccinate first responders in the 16 towns that NABH covers, including Harvard. According to the state’s published list of vaccination sites, the clinic will open the third week in January at the Boxborough Regency hotel. This site will also serve first responders from Devens. Appointments will be required, and an online link to make an appointment should soon be available at

Editor's note: This article has been corrected and updated with current COVID-19 numbers.

COVID-19 Vaccination Distribution Timeline

Phase 1: December – February (in order of priority)

  • Clinical and nonclinical health care workers doing direct and COVID-facing care
  • Long-term care facilities, rest homes, and assisted living facilites
  • Police, fire, and emergency medical personnel
  • Congregate care settings (including corrections and shelters)
  • Home-based health care workers
  • Health care workers doing non-COVID-facing care

Phase 2: February – April (in order of priority)

  • Individuals with 2+ comorbidities and/or age 75+ (high risk for COVID-19 complications)
  • Early education, K-12, transit, grocery, utility, food and agriculture, sanitation, public works and public health workers
  • Adults 65+
  • Individuals with one comorbidity

Phase 3: April – June

  • Vaccine will be available to general public.
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