READING - Two Reading police department employees recently tested positive for COVID-19 after developing mild symptoms of the viral infection in recent days, Town Manager Bob LeLacheur and Police Chief David Clark confirmed last Friday.
According to Clark, who is assuring the public that the news will not effect the force's willingness or readiness to respond to emergencies, the Reading Board of Health was notified by state authorities on Friday afternoon about the testing results.
Both employees, whose identities are safeguarded by state and federal privacy laws, are reportedly experiencing mild symptoms of the illness and have been asked to self-quarantine at home while recuperating. It's unclear whether the workers are employed as uniformed police officers or as members of public safety department's support personnel.
"We wish these two employees well and hope for a quick recovery," Clark said in a prepared statement released early Friday evening. "I also want to remind the Reading community that our number one priority is and always will be maintaining public safety."
"Though there are some changes to normal routine to help keep our personnel safe, the department will continue to respond to all emergency calls," the police chief added.
In the wake of Friday's announcement, the local Board of Health began identifying close contacts of the two municipal workers in an effort to prevent other potentially-infected individuals from further spreading the highly-contagious virus.
According to town officials, based upon the working circumstances of the latest confirmed cases, the general public should not be overly concerned about the possibility of having come into recent contact with the employees.
Those who may have spent a prolonged period of time with the individuals have already been contacted directly by the Board of Health.
"Close contacts (defined as someone who has spent more than 15 minutes within six feet of a positive case) have been quickly identified and contacted by health officials” said Town Manager Bob LeLacheur. “The general public should have no specific concerns about this news, although we all have the two employees in our thoughts and prayers. Thus far they are recovering well.”
The Town of Reading, in response to a myriad of emergency orders enacted by Governor Charles Baker, have already reduced staffing levels within most municipal buildings due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
As part of those precautions, public access to the police station has been restricted, with walk-in business operations suspended indefinitely. Those looking to speak with public safety personnel about non-emergency matters are being asked to contact the station via telephone at 781-944-1212.
According to Clark, as part of efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing, first responders have already been asked to keep a safe distance away from the general public while responding to calls for service.
"The Reading Police Department will continue to respond to all emergencies and are taking the proper precautions when coming into contact with residents and community members," LeLacheur and Clark explained in a prepared statement released on Friday.
"Out of an abundance of caution, offices may practice social distancing while interacting with the public, if it is feasible to do so. As always, please call 911 for any emergency," the town leaders added.
Public health officials in Reading and across the region have previously reminded residents to contact their personal physicians, if they are experiencing mild COVID-19 symptoms like a dry cough, low-grade fever, or a manageable sensation of being short of breath.
Trying to keep local 911 lines and first-responders free to respond to medical emergencies, local authorities say nearly 80 percent of all people who contract COVID-19 will fully recover after suffering from an illness akin to the seasonal flu.
Local cases continue to climb
News of the municipal workforce's first COVID-19 cases comes as officials from the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) continue to confirm hundreds of new statewide cases of the novel coronavirus, which can in worst-cases cause serious and sometimes fatal lung infections.
On Sunday afternoon, the Reading Board of Health confirmed that the number of individuals who had tested positive for COVID-19 in Reading had climbed from 17 cases to a total of 23.
The Board of Health and other town leaders have generally refrained from commenting about the ages and health statuses of every confirmed COVID-19 case. Instead, town officials have updated the public about notable testing results, such as the community's first-confirmed case and that individual's potential links to the school community through close relatives.
Infectious disease specialists say most who contract the novel coronavirus will experience mild flu-like symptoms.
However, public health experts continue to express grave concerns about elderly and immune-compromised populations, who are significantly more likely to develop serious lung infections from the contagion. Based upon CDC projections, roughly 20 percent of those who contract COVID-19 will require hospitalization and advanced medical interventions.
Though most of those critical cases will come from at-risk populations, front-line emergency room and ICU specialists have cautioned the general public about a number of young and middle-aged adults who have been admitted to hospitals across the country.
Labeling COVID-19 as highly contagious, infectious disease specialists are worried that the nation's hospitals and medical facilities could be overwhelmed by a sudden spike in critical COVID-19 cases. Such caseload surges have nearly crippled the health care networks of countries like Italy and Spain. Those tragic overloads have left overwhelmed doctors, who may have otherwise been able to save most COVID-19 patients, to make tragic life-or-death decisions about which people to treat with incubators and other life-saving devices.
In order to prevent such a nightmare scenario from unfolding in Massachusetts, city and state officials have ordered the unprecedented closures of schools, early childcare services, and all "non-essential" businesses.
State wants local case numbers withheld
On Friday afternoon, during a press conference in Boston, Baker advised media organizations that cities and towns are now being directed to end the practice of updating the public about new COVID-19 cases in their communities.
Instead, according to Baker, DPH officials want municipalities to reference total case numbers by county. Middlesex Country, the geographic zone that encompasses Reading and 53 other cities and towns within a 847 square-mile land area, currently has at least 981 confirmed novel coronavirus cases, according to the latest information provided by the state on Sunday.
So far, the Reading Board of Health has continued to update local case totals, which in recent weeks have been recorded on the town's website through a special COVID-19 section that includes community press releases, statistics, and other information of note to individuals and businesses.
Based upon the most recent data, a total of 48 people have now died across the state due to COVID-19-related complications, while nearly 400 Massachusetts residents remained hospitalized as of Sunday afternoon due to the viral infection.
Overall, some 4,955 people have now tested positive for COVID-19 in the state. Middlesex County has long sat at the epicenter of the outbreak, but over the weekend, Suffolk County — which includes Boston — briefly became the geographic area with the highest numbers of coronavirus cases.
By Sunday, Middlesex Country had regained the unfortunate distinction of having more COVID-19 cases that any other part of the state with 981 confirmed cases. A total of 940 residents of Suffolk County have tested positive for the infection.
Nationwide, the United States now has more confirmed COVID-19 cases that anywhere in the world. With the national death toll climbing to 2,414 people, the US had at least 137,294 novel coronavirus cases as of Sunday, according to data maintained by John Hopkins University.