STONEHAM - Insisting compliance with social distancing orders carry life-or-death consequences for many town residents, the Board of Health this week warned it would outlaw the use of Stoneham's parks and playing fields if citizens refuse to take the COVID-19 prevention measures seriously.

This week, the Board of Health in two separate statements reminded Stonehamites that under a series of emergency public health directives enacted by both town and state authorities, no more than 10 people may gather in public to participate in recreational or organized sporting activities.

In spite of those orders, the first of which became effective on March 23 when Governor Charles Baker forced all "non-essential" businesses to close across the state, town officials have received numerous complaints about residents gathering together to play pickup sports.

In some circumstances, the Board of Health reported, members of unspecified athletic organizations have also apparently been spotted holding team practices in public parks.

"While residents are encouraged to exercise and utilize these outdoor areas, the Board of Health continues to receive reports of residents congregating and playing contact sports and conducting team practices," the Board of Health said. "These activities are to cease immediately, as we continue to ask residents to abide by federal social distancing guidelines by remaining 6-to-10 feet apart."

The governor and town officials have both opined that recreational activity, including walking and exercising in public places, should be encouraged as a way to promote good health and reduce stress during the emergency.

For that reason, the state's prohibitions on indoor and outdoor gatherings do not extend to parks and fields, so long as citizens stay a safe distance away from others and refrain from organized group activities.

Apparently, Stoneham's first reminder about those stipulations wasn't enough to discourage the behavior on Monday, because less than 24 hours later, the Board of Health again vented its frustration about fielding similar witness reports.

The second admonishment came as town officials learned Stoneham's COVID-19 caseload had jumped from one confirmed infection to 33 (see related story).

"We continue to implore residents to practice efficient and proper social distancing at this time, as the Board of Health continues to receive reports regarding congregation and group activities on public fields," town officials stated on Tuesday. "As stated [on Monday], continued reports regarding this behavior will lead to the closure of these fields and other areas." 

Earlier this week, Baker renewed the prohibitions on public gatherings and also extended earlier school and non-essential business gatherings until May 4.

According to data published by the state's Department of Health, some 6,620 people across the state had tested positive for COVID-19 as of last Wednesday. Nationwide, the viral infection has been listed as a direct cause of death for some 3,873 people, with public health authorities confirming at least 188,172 people have contracted the disease.

Social distancing

Importantly, medical experts say most who contract COVID-19 will experience mild to moderate flu-like symptoms before making a full recovery.

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 World Health Organization 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 cases. Such caseload surges have nearly crippled the health care networks of countries like Italy and Spain.

The 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.

According to the Board of Health and other public safety officials, the increasing number of positive COVID-19 cases across the region is not necessarily indicative of the real-time spread of the coronavirus, because testing availability has not yet caught up with demand.

In particular, DPH criteria, based upon federal guidelines, still limits testing to persons deemed to be at high-risk from COVID-19, medical personnel and first responders, and those experiencing severe symptoms. That leaves many who experience classic but milder symptoms, such as a fever, dry cough and body aches, unable to confirm suspicions they've caught the virus.

"Further testing continues to become available, leading to a surge in confirmed positives across the state of Massachusetts," the town officials explained this week.

Health officials are also concerned about emerging research that indicates individuals may be able to shed viral loads during COVID-19's projected two-to-14 day incubation period. It's suspected that asymptomatic carriers, or those who never realize they're sick, are also able to infect others.

If true, those disease characteristics could result in the spread of the disease by persons who have yet to develop symptoms. Meanwhile, infectious disease specialists also say the virus can survive for a prolonged period on commonly touched surfaces like handrail and door knobs.

City, state, and federal leaders, taking into account testing limitations and COVID-19's presumed features, have taken unprecedented actions to encourage "social distancing".

Common social distancing measures the public can practice to ensure Stoneham's case totals don't suddenly surge over the next two weeks include:

Avoiding large crowds and keeping a distance of at least six-feet between yourself and other people;

• Working from home and avoiding unnecessary trips to places where people tend to gather;

• Refraining from having visitors and guests at home or traveling to meet acquaintances and friends for face-to-face social interactions.

• and staying away from known high-risk individuals, such as the elderly or persons with frail immune systems.

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