WOBURN - Though the designation will not impact the school district's hybrid learning model, Mayor Scott Galvin yesterday confirmed the city will indefinitely postpone the latest round of business reopenings after the state pegged Woburn's COVID-19 outbreak as falling into a dangerous "red" territory.
In a joint statement issued by the mayor, Supt. Dr. Matthew Crowley, and Woburn Health Agent Jack Fraelick, city officials on Wednesday warned that a forthcoming Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) report was almost certain to reclassify Woburn's COVID-19 status from a warning "yellow" to a high-risk "red" ranking.
With the Board of Health tracking 53 new active novel coronavirus cases over the past two weeks, including 18 confirmed positive test results last weekend, Galvin and other public safety managers had already earlier this week postponed the start of Phase 3, Step 2 business reopenings.
Galvin and school administrators insist the city can still safely keep Woburn's schools open for in-person instruction. For the first time yesterday, the local Board of Health acknowledged it is tracking a handful of active COVID-19 cases involving local pupils, but according to Fralick, only one of those five cases involved a student who had been in close contact with peers at the Joyce Middle School.
According to local officials, no faculty members have tested positive for the viral pathogen, and upon being notified of the positive Joyce Middle School case, the Board of Health was able to immediately identify close contacts and ensure those individuals were placed under a preventative quarantine order.
Previous statements from Galvin appear to validate the Board of Health reports. Specifically, on Monday morning, when the mayor initially revealed he was postponing the latest business reopenings, Galvin confirmed no Woburn students had tested positive for the contagion since schools reopened late last month.
Under that timeline, the five students must have tested positive for COVID-19 during the first three days of this week.
"The Woburn Public Schools will continue on its present course of action at this time," city leaders announced yesterday. "At this time, the City is reporting five cases among Woburn Public Schools students and zero cases among faculty and staff. Of the five cases, only one student from the Daniel L. Joyce Middle School, had contact with others. The other four students were not in school prior to their positive tests and did not have contact with anyone else."
According to the superintendent, he views the quick isolation and contact tracing around the recent positive cases as evidence of the effectiveness of Woburn's COVID-19 prevention and safety protocols.
Crowley, who argues the community needs to balance the benefits of draconian pandemic restrictions against the potential social-emotional harms caused by keeping student out the classroom, assured the public that his office will practice extreme vigilance regarding the situation in the days ahead.
The superintendent's stance is in alignment with the latest safety advisories from DPH and state education officials.
Though the state originally indicated school districts should shift into a full-remote setting whenever a community's COVID-19 designation becomes "red", the governor and Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commisioner Jeffrey Riley have since recommended that such decisions be made based upon three-weeks of DPH reporting data.
"The safety and wellbeing of our students comes first, and I believe the aggressive protocols and precautions we have in place in the Woburn Public Schools have made our schools safe places of learning with as little disruption on our students' learning progress as possible," Crowley commented on Wednesday.
"Therefore, we are confident in our decision to continue our hybrid approach at this time, but we continue to monitor the situation closely and are following state guidelines that ask us to look at several weeks worth of data and indicators before making changes to the model," he added in a prepared statement.
Earlier this week, Galvin acknowledged that Woburn's latest uptick in COVID-19 cases comes amidst a resurgence in viral infections across the state, where as of yesterday, the number of "red" communities has swollen by 400 percent since Aug. 12 to include 40 cities and towns.
The mayor believed a number of factors could explain that surge, including a substantial expansion in the state's previously limited testing capacities and the fact that the public is coming more frequently into contact with others as economic, travel, and recreational restrictions have been lifted.
However, the City Hall CEO also worries that Woburn's citizenry — as well as people across the state — are starting to become complacent about wearing facial coverings and practicing hygiene and social distancing protocols. The phenomenon, which some media pundits and public heath experts are dubbing as "pandemic fatigue", has been blamed for other virus outbreaks across the country.
However, some critics of that label suggest the increase in cases can be largely attributed to aggressive testing protocols that have identified thousands of "asymptomatic" COVID-19 carriers, many of whom would have never gotten tested for the virus during the height of the pandemic.
Especially, in the early months of the COVID-19 crisis, when tests were hard to come by, Massachusetts' residents — including those who reported bedridden for days with classic symptoms of the infection — were routinely told that they did not meet rigid testing criteria.
Now, even people who have no reason to suspect they've come into contact with the virus are being tested in order to return to work, escape travel-related quarantines, or visit doctors and dentists for reasons unrelated to the pandemic, state officials have acknowledged.
According to Galvin, regardless of the reasons for the uptick, the state's classification of Woburn as a "red" community nonetheless indicates that the city's outbreak could spiral out-of-control if not contained. For that reason, city health department staffers have been instructed to step-up pandemic-related enforcement activities, which will include the issuance of civil fines and penalties under some circumstances.
"I want to commend the city and its residents for their diligence and hard work thus far during this trying year. We have seen COVID-19 on the rise this fall nationwide and across many other cities in the Commonwealth much earlier, and we have taken precautions, understanding that the numbers would likely rise here as well," the mayor remarked. "Unfortunately, it appears that Woburn is over the 'red' high-risk threshold, and we need to act appropriately."
Per a new color-coded ranking system unveiled in early August, the severity of COVID-19 outbreaks are measured by a white, green, yellow, or red labels that assigned to local cities and towns based upon a new incidence rate metric.
Woburn's incidence rate as of Wednesday was listed as a 9.1, which falls over the "red" level threshold of 8. The week prior, the city was listed for the second consecutive time as a yellow community with an incidence rate of 7.1.
The new DPH statistic is calculated by tabulating new infective COVID-19 cases over a 14-day reporting window and comparing that figure to the entire population. In order to standardize the measurement and properly account for the varying sizes of the state's 351 cities and towns, the incidence rate is then adjusted based upon an assumed population of 100,000 people.
Besides being asked to utilize the state's weekly color classification to make school reopening decisions, the DPH designations are also tied to the continued imposition of emergency restrictions on public gatherings and business activities.
Per the economic reopening plan unveiled by Mass. Governor Charles Baker in May, the latest loosening of business restrictions in Woburn would have allowed concert halls and entertainment centers like arcades to open their doors to a limited number of customers for the first time since March 23.
The Phase 3, Step 2 changes, which became effective on Monday in cities and towns with "low-risk" COVID-19 infection rates, also lets clothing retailers reopen their fitting rooms and fitness centers expand their maximum customer thresholds to 50 percent of their occupancy permit caps.
"The Woburn Health Department has reported to the Massachusetts Department of Public Heath that there have been 53 new COVID-19 cases in the city in the past two weeks. City officials have calculated that Woburn will very likely cross into the "Red" high-risk threshold as defined by the state," said local leaders in their explanation of why the Phase 3 plan is being postponed in Woburn.