Health agent: ‘Community spread’ underway

Valley blames complacency and lax contractors; provides an update on Cronig’s cluster.

Tisbury health agent Maura Valley, shown here during Tuesday's Zoom meeting, says community spread is underway on the the Island.

Tisbury Health Agent Maura Valley told board of health members Tuesday that “community spread” is underway on the Vineyard, and that could hamper contact tracing moving forward. She gave the board an update on the infections at Cronig’s and in the school system, and singled out contractors for lack of adherence to fundamental COVID-19 safety measures.  

“The health agents, as a result of the recent uptick, have re-established regular communications with the hospital,” she said. “The hospital has resumed incident command — emergency preparedness mode — where they meet daily with their upper management and talk about where the cases are, and whether they need to look at changing any of the operations in the hospital.”

Tisbury has the most residents infected with COVID-19 on the Vineyard, with 29 out of 51 positive cases since Oct. 26, she told the board.

“The only difference this makes is in the state reporting, because we may end up on their bad list this coming week,” Valley said. “But as far as these cases being in Tisbury, we’re all, the health agents are all, kind of jumping in and doing what needs to be done with contact tracing regardless of what town they live in.”

The numbers in Tisbury are based on residential addresses, not Post Office boxes, Valley said. “When we contact them, we find out where their actual residential address is,” she said. “If it was postal, it would be even higher.”

Board member Jeff Pratt asked, “Are these families and or households, or is this scattered with no connection?”

“Several of them are connected with family social groups,” Valley said. “We do have, as you know, a cluster of cases related to Cronig’s. Right now that cluster currently stands at 12 individuals — 10 employees have tested positive. One of them is actually a person who lives and was tested off-Island. So there’s 10 employees that have tested positive, and two immediate family members of employees have tested positive.”

Valley went on to elaborate to the board about Cronig’s. “We have not had a Cronig’s employee come back positive in the past 24 hours,” she said. “Right now they have 50 employees; 46 of them have been tested. Ten have tested positive, 16 have tested negative, and 20 test results are still pending.”

Valley speaks with owner Steve Bernier “a couple times a day” in order to monitor the situation. 

“Grocery stores are considered an essential service, and grocery workers are considered essential workers … so therefore, barring a big increase in the number of positive there, Cronig’s will probably go for a soft opening on Thursday [Nov. 12] if they have the staff,” she said. “We’re still waiting on the test results … You know, one of my concerns with Cronig’s closed is the number of people who are now using the other grocery stores … could become problematic for spread.”

Community spread

“Honestly, I think people are getting a little complacent,” Valley told the board. “I think that you are having social gatherings. I think people are not wearing masks, not socially distancing. Part of it too could be we’re now going into a new phase where more things are reopening and people are spending more time indoors.”

She went on to say, “I truly believe we’re seeing the beginning of community spread. The problem with that is when you have true community spread, it becomes very difficult to determine what the source of the infection was. And I think we are beginning to see that.”

Chair Malcolm Boyd asked at what point response gets amplified and lockdowns return.

“I don’t have an answer to that at the moment,” she said. “I think that if we felt like it got to that point, that’s something we would want to look at as an Island as we did early on, because I think that it doesn’t do any good if one town does that. I think we need to see what happens this week with these cases, where they go, and decide if this is something we want to start looking at — taking more extreme measures.”

A return to greater restrictions requires discussion with the boards of health, the boards of selectmen, and the town managers, Valley said.

Valley informed the board of three positive cases in the “Tisbury School community,” which she described as “two in the Tisbury School, one in the Grace Church preschool.”

She downplayed the risk of exposure. “None of the three students were in school during their infectious period, so the school community was not impacted,” she said. “This is where it was key that we had a protocol in place. The teachers were well-versed in the appropriate protocols.” 

She also said good communications with school administrators and her office was helpful. 

The two Tisbury School students were under quarantine, she said. 

“The Grace Church preschool student came to school,” she said; “the teacher noticed that the child was coughing, and brought her directly to the treatment room, where the mother came and picked her up. So at no time was she in contact with any of the other students or teachers …”

Valley said in general, Vineyard health agents are intimately connected to the schools. She and her peers “meet frequently with school nurses,” she said, “and we also serve as members of the school health and safety committee. So we meet a couple of times a week with the school administration, school nurses.”

She added that the health and safety committee is busy. “R]ight now we’ve established district-wide protocols for positive cases in the schools, and we’re working on COVID metrics or the decision making, and a comprehensive testing program for the school,” she said. 

Naughty contractors 

Valley told the board her office is working on a letter to the Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association. She said the association “has been very responsive in the past with working with us and getting the message out to its members. So I have no doubt that they will do so again this time.” 

The reason for the letter, she said, was laxness of basic COVID-19 protocols in the building community. “One thing I do notice quite frequently is these work vehicles driving around with multiple passengers and no masks,” she said. “And that needs to be addressed. And also the lack of masking on job sites. Cathy [Fuller] went out today and went and visited different job sites, and spoke to them about the need to wear masks. A lot of people say they’re not aware of the fact that they need to wear masks all the time … So there was a little pushback from people, but they did eventually put on their masks.”

She suggested to the board the owners of the contracting companies, as opposed to the workers, should be penalized 

“I think that we really need to reach and put a lot of responsibility on the business owners,” she said. “We see your truck driving around, you know, packed with people and not masked, we’ll fine you. I don’t know how else to go about it — to put more responsibility on the business owner to be sure that their employees are following the rules.”

She added her office is aiming to expand its outreach to the Brazilian community. “We’ve reached out to Brazilian clergy,” she said. “We’re working on putting out an educational video directed at the Brazilian community.” She also said her office plans to reach out to the Island’s two newspapers. 

As far as contact tracing goes, she told the board the Island boards of health have been cooperating well. “For the most part, we’re doing a lot of contact tracing,” she said, “For the most part, people are being really good. They seem to be being honest with us about their contacts. We do have a couple of problem cases that we’ve had to call the department of public health about.”

She described one situation where somebody was “not really wanting to let housemates know of their positive status …” However, there wasn’t much the state could do about that, she said. 

Asked by board member Michael Loberg for an update on the Steamship Authority, Valley said she’d gathered the ferry line is “kind of getting a little lax in their observance of wearing masks and everything.”

She said it was her understanding SSA board chair Jim Malkin has reached out to try to reinforce the need to adhere to protocols. “You know, as I’ve said before, it’s pandemic fatigue,” she said. “You know, it’s starting to become more normalized — people are just getting a little bit less compliant or more likely to think it’s no big deal if my nose is hanging out of my mask — I have it around my chin, you know. It’s time for people to really get back onboard with all of the precautions that we took early on that kept us from having a big surge in cases. It’s disappointing. We got through the summer with the tourists, and to have this surge like this now — I mean, I don’t know what else to say other than it’s disappointing.”