Good evening. I am Roberto Santamaria, your host this evening for Nantucket Pulse programming made possible by Nantucket Cottage Hospital Community Health Initiative. This is a special edition of the Nantucket Pulse program that will air weekly covering the coronavirus impacts for the island and will provide urgent updates as they unfold.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has identified several studies that show individuals can feel completely healthy when infected with this pandemic’s form of the Coronavirus. Others feel fine only at the beginning of their bout with the virus. Both groups can easily infect other people. For this reason, the CDC is advising everyone to wear cloth face masks in places when it is difficult to practice social distancing, like in the grocery store. You may have the virus and not know it; a cloth mask reduces the travel of infectious droplets from mouth and nose. The CDC advises avoiding medical-grade masks like the N95; those are in short supply and desperately needed by healthcare workers. 

One of the biggest provisions of Congress’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is the boost to unemployment insurance. It expands the definition of unemployment to include furloughed workers, increased by up to $600 the weekly benefits to its recipients, added 13 weeks of additional benefits to those who have exhausted the regular unemployment compensation, and more. 

The government has received many questions about the benefits to the self-employed, independent contractors, and freelancers covered in the section called “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance” (PUA). According to the Department of Labor, to qualify for the PUA, you “must not be eligible for regular unemployment benefits and be unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable or unavailable to work because of certain health or economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic” Currently, the federal government is working with states to offer guidance about when to start offering PUA benefits. Once available in Massachusetts, benefits can be applied retroactively back to the week ending on February 2nd. 

The state has created the first in the nation collaboration amongst health organizations, government offices, and public health college students to track the contacts and whereabouts of those that tested positive for COVID-19. Called the COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative, it will produce valuable data about the spread of the virus by deploying over 1,000 contact tracers throughout the Commonwealth. We spoke to them Thursday morning and they offered to remain on standby for us. Since we don’t have so many cases, we do not need their help at this time. 

The Department of Public Health just convened a meeting with medical experts from all over the commonwealth, including from the preeminent medical academic institutions, to draft a voluntary guideline to maximize the ethical, equitable, and efficient treatment of patients when resources are limited. It addresses topics like quantity of medical equipment, distribution of resources, transparency, barriers to care, and other topics. To read the complete guideline, please visit the link at the bottom of your screen and in the description.

The commonwealth also sent an $800 million infusion into MassHealth to support health care providers. This payment comes on top of the $550 million in accelerated funding sent to providers in March. The new money pays for a 20% rate increase of COVID-19 care and 7.5% increase for all other care. It also gives extra funding to programs like personal care attendants, community health centers, Adult Day Health, behavioral health centers, and more. 

The Department of Public Health and the National Guard have expanded their rapid COVID-19 testing program at nursing homes. Since the program’s beginning last week, they have administered over 1,300 tests. For more information about testing and other pandemic-related resources available to those in Massachusetts nursing homes, please call (617)-660-5399 between 9am-5pm, 7 days a week. 

On Wednesday, Governor Baker filed legislation to protect healthcare workers from liability and suit due to COVID-19 related care. Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito supported the decision, saying, “Massachusetts is blessed to be home to some of the world’s best health care workers and institutions, and it’s important that the fear of liability does not prevent them from delivering the kind of medical response we need during this pandemic.”

All grocery stores in Massachusetts must now restrict the number of customers allowed in the store to 40% of their maximum occupancy. Stores with a maximum of 25 people or less are exempt. 

In response, the Mid-Island Stop & Shop has closed the Pleasant St. Entrance so they can keep a count of all the customers entering in the other entrances. 

Stop & Shop released a public statement to NCTV today saying, 

“To better enable associates and customers to practice social distancing, Stop & Shop has limited the number of people at our stores in Massachusetts and will comply with the new state requirements. Customer counts in each store will be limited to a specific number based upon the square footage of the store. A store associate is stationed at the entrance monitoring customer counts to ensure that the proper capacity is maintained. Periodic in-store announcements will also be made about the capacity limits.

We have tape on the floors at each register so customers understand the 6-foot distance they should keep from others as well as signage and reminders for customers on our in-store radio broadcasts. Plexiglass shields have been installed at every register as an added protection for our cashiers. 

Aisles are one-way traffic only across the entire store. Signage is provided to inform customers of this shopping pattern and directional arrows are placed at the top and bottom of each aisle.

We are strongly encouraging the use of masks among all associates. We’re procuring N95 masks for our store associates that will be delivered next week.

We have been ensuring our associates continue to have access to items like disinfecting wipes, gloves, and hand sanitizers to use at work to help keep themselves and customers healthy. Our associates are also conducting handwashing at more frequent intervals as well as using hand sanitizer on a regular basis.”

Currently, all “food establishment” workers are required to wear face masks. Not every Stop & Shop employee fits that designation; only those that work in departments like the bakery and deli. The Board of Health cannot require everyone to wear masks; it is a civil liberties issue.

On April 3rd, the governor signed Chapter 53 of the Acts of 2020. This offered flexibility to localities experiencing pressure from the pandemic and the numerous statewide closures. Three of the Act’s provisions are of particular interest to the Town of Nantucket. Section 10A allows the Town to push back the property tax deadline, exemptions, and deferrals from May 1st to June 1st. Section 11 allows the Town to waive excise tax, real estate tax, and betterment assessment interest and late penalties until June 30th. This only applies to bills due March 10th or later. This week, the Select Board voted to full advantage of these provisions.

The ferries continue to operate at reduced schedules. In an open letter to the community, the Scudder Family, owner of Hyline Cruises, said,

On April 3rd, the governor signed Chapter 53 of the Acts of 2020. This offered flexibility to localities experiencing pressure from the pandemic and the numerous statewide closures. Three of the Act’s provisions are of particular interest to the Town of Nantucket. Section 10A allows the Town to push back the property tax deadline, exemptions, and deferrals from May 1st to June 1st. Section 11 allows the Town to waive excise tax, real estate tax, and betterment assessment interest and late penalties until June 30th. This only applies to bills due March 10th or later. This week, the Select Board voted to full advantage of these provisions.

The ferries continue to operate at reduced schedules until further notice. In an open letter to the community, the Scudder Family, owner of Hyline Cruises, said, 

“We have markedly increased cleaning and especially sanitization efforts in our terminals and on our vessels. We instituted drastically reduced vessel capacities to afford those traveling with us the opportunity for recommended social distancing. In addition, we scaled back our number of departures to a level commensurate with efficient, essential travel only…. Ridership on our vessels has been down more than 90% from the normal levels for this time of year. We are only averaging a daily total of 95 passengers on all 6 of our departures combined. Because of the pandemic and the measures we’ve taken to continue our service, even at the current reduced levels, we are operating with substantial losses, daily. However, we do it because we are an integral part of the year-round, Public/Private Ferry Transportation System to Nantucket. And we do it because many islanders have come to count on our service as essential to their way of life.”

I would like to congratulate the Nantucket community on doing such a great job social distancing. The hospital’s COVID-19 tests confirmed the first case on the island 21 days ago. If the community had carried on, business as usual, this virus would have infected 2.5 people every 72 hours. At that rate, we would have 400 people in the community sick within 30 days. About 25% of people with the virus will have no symptoms; they can easily and unknowingly infect many people. Even more have no symptoms in the beginning. Because of our community’s sacrifices — chiefly social distancing — our infection rate is dramatically lower. In fact, we’re probably better than the 80th percentile, according to Gary Shaw, CEO & President of the hospital.

We have roughly a .08% infection rate. The Cape has more than double that at .198%. The company Unacast, which analyzes human mobility data with their team of engineers and PhDs, created scorecards for communities in terms of social distancing. Our island earned an A. Barnstable County has a B. In my conversation with my colleagues at the Cape & Islands Health Agents Coalition, they were explicit in saying that they wished they had instituted strict social distancing guidelines as early as we did. They think if they had, they would have probably gotten ahead of the infection curve like Nantucket. 

We must keep it up. If we don’t, we run a significant risk of ruining our low rate of infection and seeing so many critical cases that the hospital becomes overwhelmed. A big challenge will come with the influx of visitors to the island in the warmer months. Currently, the Nantucket Board of Health is telling all people coming from off-island to quarantine for 14 days. That applies even if they were quarantined somewhere off-island. The Board of Health, along with state entities, are studying this matter to stay ahead of the curve. 

We don’t know exactly when we shall return to our normal lifestyles, but it’s not too late to consider what that might look like. In a public statement, Dawn Holdgate, Chair of the Select Board, said the Town is developing “Back to Work” plans for construction, landscaping, and restaurants that will contain safety measures & protocols for a gradual return to work. However, there are no plans to designate a start date. 

Shedding these intrusive restrictions will not happen all of a sudden; rather they will gradually dissipate. How will we know when this process can start? The hospital and my team are looking for certain milestones in the metro areas along the coast of the NorthEast, from where most of our visitors come. When we see a peak in infection rates in those areas followed then by a steep drop off in deaths about two weeks afterward, we will know the spread of the virus has begun to slow significantly. 

The most accurate way to analyze the presence of the virus on the island is with two types of tests. The first is the standard test — called PCR — that determines whether or not someone is currently infected. The second test — called an IgM antibody test — determines if someone had the virus in the past, but no longer does. Unfortunately, neither test is widely available. The good news is that the turnaround time for the PCR test has been reduced to about 24 hours and the IgM test should be available in a few weeks. Widespread testing is key to track how safe it is to reduce social distancing. Please note, the hospital is still offering tests to the public between 9am-5pm every day, except between noon and 1. The samples are sent out at 3pm, so for the quickest turnaround, please come before then.  

To this end, the hospital has about 20 test kits for a machine called a Gene Xpert System made by the company Cepheid. This device runs a molecular test on the sample to look for the presence of SARS-CoV2, which is the official name of the virus. The hospital is not using these limited test kits for the public. They are saving them in case medical professionals or first responders need a timely diagnosis for themselves. The hospital is pursuing more test kits and expects to receive about 60 a month in the near future. 

In an address to the Select Board, Gary Shaw said, “You may feel the bands of the hurricane have come past us — we’ve had some cases and we’ve seen a death. And we’re a little bit in the eye of the hurricane, but the next side, the next 10 days, is really the defining period as to what it will look like… I believe it’s going to be good, but it has to coincide with the decline in the death rate on the coast or we’ll end up with that disease transitioning back to us.”

What might an “all clear” look like? Tune in to next week’s Select Board to hear how the initial plans are looking. Gary Shaw hypothesized that in the future restaurants might let a quarter of their occupancy dine-in, while continuing their take-out programs. Perhaps construction crews will be allowed to work with a skeleton staff. The Town and state officials are starting to work on these ideas now. 

I would like to shift gears to talk about another important matter, the Census. Despite the pressing matters of the pandemic, the future of Nantucket’s funding and political representation depends on every Nantucketer filling out the census. 

We will continue to provide you with updates on the Coronavirus and impacts for Nantucket. This week, Nantucket Pulse debuted a wellness segment series hosted by Natalie Ciminero with our local health PROFESSIONALS ON CHANNEL 18 AND NCTV18.ORG. Please share this with friends and family, ITS DESIGNED TO CONNECT OUR VIEWERS WITH LOCAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS THAT CAN HELP US TAKE CARE OF OURSELVES AND OTHERS AROUND US. It’s important that communications remain in place as events continue to unfold and we all remain connected. It’s crucial to get the facts from your local news sources such as the Inquirer and Mirror, 97.7 ACK FM radio, and NCTV Channel 18.