With post-holiday lines swelling at testing sites across the Commonwealth, local health officials are prescribing continued vigilance against the COVID-19 virus -- especially the purportedly milder, but far more contagious, omicron variant.
Convening a wide-ranging confab of the town’s top decision-makers, selectmen Tuesday night sought greater clarity on swiftly changing health guidelines, while asking residents for patience and good judgment in dealing with pandemic-related inconveniences.
“Over the past two weeks the world is just in a different place,” Chairwoman Leah Gibson observed of steeply rising infection rates.
In response to the omicron surge, face coverings have once again been required in all municipal buildings, with a mask mandate still in effect in Foxboro schools.
“A lot of the precautions we’re talking about here are still as critical as ever,” Selectman Seth Ferguson said. “The symptoms might be slightly less, but we don’t know what’s around the corner.”
Providing a statistical snapshot of local conditions, public health Director Matthew Brennan said Foxboro has recorded 171 new cases over the past 14 days and 452 new cases since Dec. 20, for a 9.23-percent positivity rate.
Both figures are significantly higher than similar two-week windows early in 2021, although Brennan admitted that because at-home test results typically are not reported to health officials, Foxboro’s actual count could be higher still.
“These are some of the highest numbers I’ve seen in my time here,” Brennan told selectmen.
Paradoxically, Brennan said that hospitalizations statewide are roughly half of what they were a year ago, despite greater availability of both at-home and clinic-based testing to identify newly emergent cases.
“I think the actual numbers are much, much higher than we have on paper,” added Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Kenvin, who also serves as the town’s public health nurse. “We’re basically at the tip of the iceberg in terms of case counts.”
As a result, Kenvin said health officials are scrambling to prioritize appropriate countermeasures.
“We’re doing the best we can, but I think right now we’re just trying to target and focus our attention on where we can make the greatest difference in terms of larger clusters,” he said of efforts to identify and isolate pockets of infected residents.
On the plus side, Brennan reported that 75 percent of Foxboro’s total population has been vaccinated, with 32 percent also having received booster shots.
“We’re hoping right now -- our crystal ball -- is that omicron is less severe and takes its course,” Brennan said. “Hopefully, it’s not out-competed by another variant that is more severe.”
Kenvin added that newer, more virulent, mutations of the COVID-19 remain a possibility. The good news, he added, is that African nations where the latest variants were first reporter, are currently experiencing a dramatic decline in case counts.
“If that holds true for us, we hopefully will see a peak in a few weeks and then we’ll be in a better position,” Kenvin said, while characterizing the current surge as “incredible.”
Kenvin reiterated that vaccinations and the use of face coverings are the only things that have shown effective in preventing infection since the pandemic’s onset.
“Even if you get sick you are less likely to carry a high viral load and therefore are less likely to transmit it,” he observed. “Wear a mask if you can and increase spacing if you can.”
Both Brennan and Kenvin also encouraged intermittent testing, particularly if experiencing flu-like symptoms, with Kenvin noting that people exhibiting mild symptoms often self-diagnose a head cold or even allergies, when in fact they have contracted the omicron variant.
“A lot of times those symptoms can be very ambiguous, so folks are less inclined to test,” he said, adding that even negative findings should be treated with some skepticism, since the coronavirus may be building internally but not yet at levels that are detectable.
“At-home test kits may not be as accurate, but they do play an important role and they do tell you if you’re positive or not,” Brennan counseled. “Any sort of testing, we believe, is good testing.”
Brennan added the health department is attempting to procure up to 500 at-home test kits, while conceding that even this supply would make but a small dent in growing demand.
“When we get them, we’ll definitely let people know,” he said.
Brennan also announced that two booster clinics have been scheduled over the next week. The first will be held Friday, Jan. 7 at town hall from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m., and the second next Monday at the Igo Elementary School for youngsters age 16 and over.
Both school Superintendent Amy Berdos and Business Manager William Yukna were present at Tuesday’s meeting. Although they did not speak, Gibson pledged to support the school department in any way possible.
“I know that everyone is working around the clock and doing the absolute best they can,” she said. “I can’t even imagine being in your position.”
Lastly, Kenvin suggested the statistically lower hospitalization rate is an encouraging sign when contrasted with the rapidly growing omicron case counts.
“It almost brings it on a par with seasonal flu,” he said. “That suggests that we may be looking at something that’s going to be endemic, rather than a novel viral pandemic situation.”
Kenvin said researchers increasingly believe that, like influenza, different variants of the coronavirus may appear on an annual basis, with shots formulated specifically to address those needs.
“That’s the hope -- that we can get to something and can learn to live with it,” he said.
Participating remotely in Tuesday’s meeting, Town Manager William Keegan announced he had contracted COVID-19 for a second time, despite being fully vaccinated.
In both instances, he added, the virus was transmitted by family members who had tested negative, only to subsequently test positive.
“So, you just never know,” he said. “It can happen to anyone at any time.”