Nantucket Weighs Additional Restrictions After Surge In COVID-19 Cases

A COVID-19 warning on display at the Nantucket Steamship Authority terminal on April 25, 2020 in Nantucket, Massachusetts. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
A COVID-19 warning on display at the Nantucket Steamship Authority terminal on April 25, 2020 in Nantucket, Massachusetts. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Nantucket Board of Health plans to convene for a virtual meeting Thursday afternoon, and could at that time discuss additional pandemic-related restrictions to respond to a local uptick in COVID-19 cases, Sen. Julian Cyr said.

With 30 new cases in the past 14 days bringing the island community's total case count to 79 during the course of the pandemic, Nantucket has suddenly rocketed into the highest-risk "red" category in the Department of Public Health's color-coded ranking of COVID-19 transmission risk levels.

Cities and towns are coded red if they have an average daily incidence rate of more than eight cases per 100,000 residents in the relevant two-week period, and Nantucket's rate now stands at 18.9 cases per 100,000 residents.

Cyr, who represents Nantucket, said during a Thursday morning conference call with other members of the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force, that the rates are determined based on U.S. Census population numbers, which for the Cape and Islands are typically lower than the number of people actually present in the region during the summer season and as it transitions into fall.

Still, he said, the number of new cases on Nantucket "is significant, and we're going to know more as contact tracing goes forward."

Last week, Nantucket officials said in a statement that the majority of those who had recently tested positive "work in the trades, including landscaping, construction, carpentry and painting, as well as cleaning, and are traveling to workplaces together," and asked residents to answer the questions and cooperate with the case investigation if they receive a call from a contact tracer.

Fears around transmission among "three or four people piled in a truck cab" as they head to a job site are part of what led Nantucket and other communities to shut down construction and landscaping activity during an earlier stage of the pandemic, Cyr said.

Cyr said contact tracers have encountered difficulties on Nantucket, with some people who have tested positive being "hesitant to interact with government institutions" or experiencing a language barrier.

"I really want to emphasize that Nantucket is not just this isolated, rarefied vacation paradise for the wealthy that many may imagine," the Truro Democrat said. "Nantucket is actually a very diverse place. Particularly, it has a diverse workforce that supports its seasonal economy. This means this has a potential to be a difficult and dangerous situation."

The sudden rise in cases occurred after the pre-Labor Day spike in island visitations, but is concerning in part due to the island's limited health care infrastructure, with care mainly occurring at its lone hospital.

The high cost of housing on the island means there are "a number of families who have 15, 20, maybe more people living in three- or four-bedroom homes," Cyr said, creating "an environment that is very conducive to the spread of COVID-19."

To aid with contact tracing efforts, Cyr recommended that culturally competent information about the tracing process and COVID-19 be provided in multiple languages.

He described his own experience with a contact tracer, from the Visiting Nurses Association of Cape Cod, after he tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies this summer, as "outstanding." A positive antibody test indicates likely past infection, and Cyr told the Cape Cod Times in July that he felt sick with COVID-like symptoms in March.

When the state in August launched its color-coded COVID-19 risk assessment system, Gov. Charlie Baker said cities and towns designated at higher risk levels would receive additional state support to help address the spread. Those efforts, he said, could include assistance with testing, contact tracing, gathering-size enforcement and public awareness campaigns.

Cyr said he'd like to see "broader access to no-questions-asked testing" on Nantucket, similar to the free testing sites the state has helped set up in other high-risk areas like Chelsea, Springfield and Revere.

A 3 p.m. Thursday meeting of the Nantucket Board of Health is slated to feature "Discussion of emergency orders regarding COVID-19," according to the agenda. The meeting will be held by videoconference and streamed on YouTube.



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