WHITMAN – The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Dec. 21 voted to close and limit access to Town Hall and other town-owned buildings to appointment-only business as of Monday, Dec. 27 for a minimum of two weeks – as well as to establish a testing site as soon as the state can furnish testing supplies, in the face of the fast-spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Selectmen will revisit the issue on Tuesday, Jan. 4.
Staff would be in the buildings at socially safe distances, with office phone numbers posted at doors. Simple transactions could be handled at the door or bringing the resident in to larger spaces in Town Hall to help them.
Selectmen also asked that the Board of Health consider mandating masks in town-owned buildings, as well as revisiting vaccination mandates as federal courts and agencies have not agreed on the issue.
Scheduled interviews with finalists for the assistant town administrator position were postponed until 6 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 4.
“From everything we’ve heard on the news, we’re about to hit a pretty big wave of Omicron,” said Selectman Randy LaMattina. “My question was, should we try to get in front of it tonight and do what we can to protect our infrastructure – protect our employees, possibly?”
He suggested going into a two-week “bunkered-down situation” with Christmas as the starting point and limiting interaction with employees and closing town buildings – Town Hall, the library, senior center, DPW, police and fire stations. In the meantime, he suggested the town work on getting a testing site ready for residents.
“For the last seven weeks, our positivity rate has risen week-to-week,” said Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman. “These past two weeks … it is about 10 percent, so it has plateaued a little bit in the last two weeks, but plateaued at a pretty alarming rate.”
Heineman added the Health Inspector Daniel Kelly polled the board’s members about closing building to appointment-only status and said perhaps two weeks was not long enough. A third member also supported it.
Scheduled vaccinations has continued to “creep up” by about 1 percent per week, he said. The town is now 63 percent fully vaccinated.
“It’s cranking along,” Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Timothy Clancy said. “We see the numbers, I send them to you every week. … We’re concerned about the infrastructure. If it comes through the Town Hall, we’re crippled – and our police, fire and DPW, as well as the library. If it gets into our buildings, it’s going to cripple us and the effects could be devastating to the town.”
Chief Clancy, the town’s COVID-19 clinical coordinator and health officials have worked to made sure booster clinics, with more than 300 residents receiving their booster shots in the past two weeks. Upcoming clinics – 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Jan. 5 and from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m., Jan. 20 – can be signed up for on the town’s newly redesigned website. The state has purchased rapid tests for communities where a qualifying percentage of residents are below the federal poverty line. Whitman is not one of those communities, but the town will be able to purchase the much cheaper rapid tests by January.
Clancy said a drive-in test facility, if that’s what the town prefers, could be set up after the New Year.
“My only concern is that there is a limit on them right now,” Clancy said of the tests. “If we are looking to buy the ones the state is going to provide, I think we’re pushing this down the road a little bit.”
Clancy added they can get the tests on hand to the town’s high-risk residents in the meantime.
Heineman has been discussing with health officials whether Whitman should purchase some of those tests for residents and whether the town wants to use American Rescue Plan funds for that.
“That would be the natural source of funds,” he said.
President Biden announced earlier in the day that the federal government “is prepared today for what’s coming” with enough gowns, masks and ventilators (PPE) to deal with the surge in hospitalizations among the unvaccinated, and plans to reinforce hospitals.
Vaccination and booster shot efforts have been stepped up “significantly,” the president said, and more than 20,000 free testing sites have been set up nationally, and the Defense Production Act has been used to spend more than $3 billion to purchase enough at-home testing kits for purchase at the pharmacy or online. Hospital-administered PCR tests will be covered by insurance. National Guard troops are also being deployed to support, and FEMA ordered to provide additional hospital beds, ambulances and EMTs to overwhelmed hospitals and first responders.
Starting in January, private insurance will also cover at-home testing by private insurance via reimbursement, Biden said. The federal government also moved to set up emergency testing sites in areas that need additional testing capacity – the first in New York City. Google search for more information by: “COVID tests near me.”
Another 500 million free, at-home rapid test kits have been ordered by the federal government, with delivery also starting in January.
A federal court order for requiring vaccination or test orders for employees and adult school staffs are being used to support businesses and K-12 schools to keep them open based on a “test to stay” CDC order.
Selectman Brian Bezanson said he listened to the president’s speech Tuesday about Omicron and the home test kits being made available.
“I thought that’s a great opportunity, because I’ve tried to get some (testing kits) for the last two weeks and, though I did end up getting some for family members, they are scarce,” he said. “It’s good news.”
Selectmen also discussed the option of using its ARPA funds to purchase its own test kits to distribute to residents.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Bezanson said.
LaMattina said his only concern was in how the town would be able to do contact tracing. Selectman Dan Salvucci asked if the whole issue shouldn’t be addressed in concert with the Board of Health.
“How do we track positivity rates? That’s what scares me about the home [tests],” he said.
Bezanson suggested taking a page from the Fire Department’s notebook and have firefighters administer tests, which would make contact tracing easier.
Clancy said he had already spoken to Heineman about that issue.
“My main concern with home test kits is there’s a 15 percent false positive,” Clancy said. “I would not want people doing home test kits thinking they can go to a family function and they’re great, when in all actuality there’s maybe that 15 percent chance that they’re not. … We’d be able to track them if we were doing, but it would be an undertaking – but that’s OK.”
Of a possible drive-up rapid test, Clancy said it could be done and he has plans already laid out for that type of thing. He just needs to know how many tests, and how long they would be used, The PCR test is the “Golden Rule” of COVID tests, according to Clancy.
Selectman Justin Evans said the odds of two false positives is about 2 percent, and the home tests are supposed to be done twice over two or three days.
“That brings it right in line with the PCR test,” he said. PCR tests are not likely to mean people will wait at home two or three days for the results.
“This is [the Board of Health’s] territory, basically,” Salvucci said.
Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski asked if the health board had been discussing the variant and its implicatons.
“The Board of Health needs to be involved,” Kowalski said.
Member Dawn Varley, who attended the Selectmen’s meeting said that panel wouldn’t meet until Dec. 30.
LaMattina said the board was giving the Board of Health time to meet with the fire chief and develop a plan as they “limit the battlefield.”
Varley also said, as Town Clerk, she does not feel comfortable having her staff meeting with people at the doors in the dark when offices were closed before.
“It made our work harder,” she said of the need to run from door to door.
“It’s nine days,” Bezason said. “That’s all it is – and it’s a holiday week when, probably, not a lot goes on.”
“When all COVID spending is considered, after Dec. 31, there’s a difference how we, as a town, should look at it,” Heineman said. CARES Act money must be spent before the stroke-of-midnight end of 2021 on Dec. 31, and they must be spent on COVID response issues. ARPA funds passed earlier this year, may be spent on a broader context of things, according to Heineman. He envisions one of those “other things” would be in providing great relief to sewer rate payers to reduce the amount of money needed to be borrowed and paid for the sewer force main project.
“Obviously, public health is paramount, and obviously, whatever is the wise public health decision to address COVID, I think almost everyone would agree, should be the primary use of the ARPA money,” Heineman said.
Bezanson said reporting he has heard from South Africa indicates the wave may last about three weeks.
The Fire Department has about 140 tests in stock as of Dec. 21, for which the department paid nearly $25 per test kit, but about a week and a half ago, the state put out a mass procurement request for tests, but Heineman said he does not think a response has come back yet.
“I’m not sure that they’re $5,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been promised by the state Department of Public Health, but frankly, I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Heineman also said the rapid tests coming from the federal government are less expensive than those on the market today, but also will not be available until January, and are therefore ineligible for CARES Act funding.
Biden’s advice to Americans also includes vaccinations.
“If you’re not fully vaccinated, you have good reason to be concerned, you’re at a high risk of getting sick and, if you’re sick you’re at a high risk of spreading it to others, including friends and family,” Biden said. “The unvaccinated have a significantly higher risk of ending up in a hospital, or even dying.”
The president stressed that almost everyone who has died during the course of the pandemic since March 2020 has been unvaccinated. While some fully vaccinated people will contract COVID, because Omicron spreads so easily, he said, such cases are highly unlikely to lead to serious illness. Getting the booster shot reduces the reason for concern.
Fully vaccinated people are advised to wear properly fitting, secure masks indoors and in public settings – preferably N-95 masks.