Officials from Gloucester — along with those from eight other North Shore communities — say they are prepared to restrict indoor activity and roll back reopening plans if COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
"We are particularly troubled about impacts to our hard working residents in the health care workforce," reads a joint statement released Wednesday. "With little remaining capacity at our region’s hospitals, everyone is negatively affected, even if the reason for your hospital visit is not COVID-related.”
The statement was signed by officials from Gloucester, Salem, Beverly, Danvers, Peabody, Swampscott, Marblehead, Nahant, and Lynn. They said they released the joint statement to encourage residents to continue to take the virus seriously and avoid contact with people from outside their households.
“Everybody has grown weary of this, but we are not out of it yet,” said Danvers Town Manager Steve Bartha about why so many communities felt the need to work together. “We have got to stay the course a while longer.”
Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt said the regional leaders continue to discuss potential action going forward.
“The concern is the increase in numbers and trying to drive home the message that this isn't going away. We need to remain vigilant and do things to stop the spread,” he said. “Certainly I was affected, my family and I, so I can speak first-hand to the fact that anybody can get COVID and to the dangers of it. We just felt we needed to have a regional voice.”
Bettencourt contracted the virus in December. He said Thursday that the virus "beat (him) up" for a few weeks, but he is symptom-free.
According to Bettencourt and Bartha, officials from across the North Shore regularly communicate with each other and often work together on various projects and issues. Over the past year, both said, much of the inter-community communication has focused on the coronavirus pandemic and how the region should attempt to slow the spread of the disease.
“What was a little different this time is we expanded to surrounding towns,” Bettencourt said, noting that public health officials, epidemiologists and hospital representatives participated in the conversations leading up to the statement.
Prior to the December holidays, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll and Lynn Mayor Tom McGee reached out to several officials about taking a regional approach to COVID-19 response, Bettencourt said. According to Bartha, Driscoll was motivated to act after a distressing conversation with spokespeople from Salem and Beverly hospitals about the potential for local hospitals to run out of beds for new patients.
Roxanne Ruppel, senior vice president of operations at North Shore Medical Center Salem Hospital, said the hospital has been hovering between 95% and 97% capacity for the past few weeks.
“I would say we are full,” Ruppel said. “The ICU is a bit better this week, but really, we are at capacity.”
A Beverly Hospital spokeswoman said as of Wednesday, the hospital has 68 COVID-19 patients, including seven in the ICU, in addition to patients there for emergency surgery, cardiac issues or other medical needs.
"That number has increased significantly since the week before Christmas, and we are uncertain if this most recent surge has reached its peak," the hospital said.
Bartha said the full impact of the holiday season on hospital capacity is yet to be seen.
"There is a lag between positive case counts and hospital trips," he said. "We still haven't seen that wave crest yet."
In Danvers, about 1.5% of COVID-19 tests were coming back positive in November. But Bartha said since December, the positivity rate has been upward of 6%. He said other municipal leaders have noticed similar trends.
“We wanted to talk together as a group about what steps we should potentially be taking as a region,” Bartha said. “Potentially beyond what the governor was doing.”
According to the Jan. 6 statement, none of the local leaders involved are taking additional steps to roll back reopening plans, but "should case numbers rise, several communities in the region are prepared to restrict unnecessary indoor activities that may contribute to the spread of the virus.”
Bettencourt said the local leaders have talked about potential rollbacks, but there has not been a consensus.
“I can say there were some people very much in support of rollbacks and some not,” he said.
He added, “We’re certainly not in agreement on everything, but all of us are concerned about what COVID is doing to our communities. The large number of increases since the holidays is disturbing and troubling.”
Erin Nolan can be reached at 978-338-2534, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @erin_nolan_.