(Editor's Note: This story was published on Wednesday, March 18, 2020)
STONEHAM - Though the local Board of Health holds the ultimate authority, Stoneham's top administrators and public safety heads continue working together to ensure continuity of government services during the COVID-19 emergency.
On Monday, Stoneham Fire Chief Matthew Grafton, who also serves as the community's emergency management director, assured town residents that the community's front-line public safety personnel are ready and able to respond to medical emergencies, including those that may be related to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Grafton appraised the public about the town's planning efforts as members of an emergency management team meet on a regular basis. Amonst others, those involved in the discussions include Schools Superintendent John Macero, Health Agent John Fralick III, Town Administrator Dennis Sheehan, and Stoneham Police Chief James McIntyre.
"Residents should be aware that police, fire, and inspection service members have all been instructed to maintain a social distance of six feet between individuals when responding to a call and avoid all unnecessary personal contact," emergency managers advised the public in a prepared statement on Monday.
"The police and fire departments are working with dispatchers and ambulance staff to take precautions against the spread of COVID-19, and dispatchers will ask residents to answer specific questions to help identify possible cases of COVID-19 so that first responders can take appropriate steps to stay healthy," the public safety heads added.
As of Tuesday, Stoneham had not recorded any positive novel coronavirus cases.
However, as the size of a statewide outbreak grows, leaders in Stoneham and neighboring cities and towns are increasingly convinced that the region will be impacted by the public health emergency. During a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) authorities revealed 218 people in Massachusetts have now tested positive for COVID-19, with approximately 89 of those cases centered in Middlesex Country.
Nationwide, the novel coronavirus has infected 6,519 people in the country and caused 115 deaths, according to a database maintained by John Hopkins' Center for Systems Science and Engineering. None of those fatalities had been recorded in Massachusetts.
Infectious disease specialists, though worried severe outbreaks could overwhelm hospitals and critical healthcare infrastructure, have stressed that roughly 80 percent of people who contract COVID-19 will experience mild flu-like symptoms.
However, that mild case rate still leaves 20 percent of all other patients requiring hospital care and advanced medical interventions. Senior citizens and those with compromised immune systems are considered most-at-risk of developing serious complications from the illness, which can cause a severe form of pneumonia.
Common first symptoms of the disease include a dry cough, low-grade fever, shortness of breath, and body aches. Residents are being advised they can limit their exposure to COVID-19 by practicing meticulous hand-washing hygiene, disinfecting commonly-touched surfaces in their homes and workplaces, and by keeping away from crowds of more than 25 people.
"There are three simple things you can do as a resident of Stoneham to help slow down the spread of this dangerous illness," said Grafton. "Practice social distancing, washing your hands, and calling your healthcare provider if you believe you may have symptoms of the virus."
"Additionally, town officials want residents to be aware that they can call 2-1-1 to reach the Massachusetts Department of Public Health with any questions relating to COVID-19. The hotline is available 24/7 and provides information, resources and referrals in multiple languages," town officials added in advisory earlier this week.
In order to combat the spread of the contagion, an unprecedented closure of meal and beverage service within bars and restaurants went into effect across the state on Tuesday. The emergency order, implemented by Mass. Governor Charles Baker, also forbids organized gatherings of more than 25 people, including activities within churches and social clubs.
Below is a list of coronavirus-related impacts around Stoneham, which are the result of a combination of emergency directives issued by Stoneham's Board of Health, Macero, and the governor over the past week.
All city schools will be closed until April 7. The closures effect both regular classes and all special events and extracurricular activities like high school athletics.
According to Macero, school officials are planning on introducing new "distance learning" initiatives for pupils stuck at home, but he first wants all families to gather themselves and set new routines in light of current events.
"I hope you are all coping well over these last few days," Macero remarked in a message to the community on Tuesday. "As a reminder, there will be no school assignments given this week. Our purpose this week is to allow families and staff to digest the new reality of what is going on and take a breath…In the coming days principals and/or teachers will be reaching out to you regarding next steps."
The superintendent this week also announced parents of those enrolled in the district's free-and-reduced meal program can take advantage of ready-to-go breakfasts and lunches for their children.
Breakfast is being offered between the hours of 8 a.m and 9:30 a.m., while lunches will be ready for pickup between the hours of 11:30 a.m and 1 p.m. All of the free meals are being distributed from the Robin Hood Elementary School at 70 Oak St. and at Stoneham High School off of Franklin Street.
Beginning this week, the library was closed indefinitely to the public in order to protect staff members from potential coronavirus exposure.
The emergency order issued by the Board of Health last Friday also resulted in the suspension of all public events and special programming at the Main Street facility.
All recreation department programming is suspended indefinitely, and town officials have also forbidden the use of all town-owned athletic fields, playgrounds, and recreation facilities until April 6.
With persons over 60 considered particularly susceptible to severe forms of COVID-19, the Senior Center off of Elm Street was also shuttered to the public indefinitely starting last week.
All in-house programming has been suspended at the facility, but residents can still make arrangements for meal deliveries from Meals on Wheels. Senior Center Director Maureen Canova has also reminded residents that staff members are also able to make transportation arrangements for local seniors, who are invited to contact employees with questions by calling 781-438-1157 between weekday hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.
"Although all programs and activities have been suspended at the center indefinitely, our staff is available to answer any questions and concerns, or if you need to be connected to resources such as Meals on Wheels, please do not hesitate to give us call,” Canova remarked.
Also in order to help seniors and other at-risk populations, Recreation Director Steve Angelo has been designated until further notice as Stoneham's emergency Director of Volunteer Fulfillment. Under the role, he will help connect seniors citizens and others in need with essential services and donations.
"Any individual or group who wish to volunteer or contribute toward assisting our at-risk and most vulnerable community members are encouraged to reach out to the Recreation Office at 781-279-2609 or firstname.lastname@example.org," town officials advise.
Municipal waste and recycling
There are no impacts to curbside trash pickup schedules.