As of April 8, there are 15,202 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts with 1,194 of those in Plymouth County. According to data received on April 7 there have been 356 deaths in the state as a result of COVID-19. The state is releasing the number of confirmed cases and deaths by county only citing privacy concerns as the reason for not releasing statistics by city and town. According to Mass.gov, “To protect privacy and confidentiality of individuals who test positive for COVID-19, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health only publicly reports positive case counts and deaths by county. The decision to share more detailed case counts by community rests with each city or town, based on the assessment of the situation in their own communities.” Local communities have made varying decisions regarding whether to share this information with residents, but Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton have all elected to share information regarding town-wide cases on their town websites.
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Halifax was reported on March 20. Since that time, the number of confirmed cases has increased to 10. According to town administrator Charlie Seelig, the numbers are continuing to increase incrementally.
He explained, “Because of the small population in Halifax, there’s some randomness in that the town may not have any for a couple of days, then have two cases on a particular day.”
Seelig said that he believes residents are adhering to social distancing guidelines. “They are being creative about trying to get together while following the guidance on social distancing.
For instance, having “birthday parades” where friends and family will pass by a child’s house in cars with noise and greetings to celebrate the child’s birthday,” he explained.
When asked why the town has elected to share the town-wide numbers, Seelig said he believes it is about both transparency and trust. “If the town is giving out information, then our hope is that the residents trust that the information given is accurate. Part of that trust is based on transparency, such as providing the number of positive cases.
We’ve not provided any other information (demographics, geography) because, especially with a small town, residents may try to use that information to identify the individuals.”
Seelig was clear to state, however, that short of a sudden increase by several magnitudes, the number of cases in town should not be cause for a change in behavior. “Residents should follow the social distancing protocols and practice good hygiene. That’s what will be most effective,” he said.
According to Seelig, one of the most persistent requests coming into the town is for information regarding the recent whereabouts of those with confirmed cases. It is the public health nurses, rather than the Board of Health, who are responsible for contact tracing. Those with close, sustained proximity to the infected are then given recommendations for how to proceed.
Seelig said that giving too much information as to the infected person’s recent activity could jeopardize their privacy. “If someone wanted information such as “On Friday, Individual X was at 10 Main Street from 8am to 4pm, then went to the Acme Grocery Store from 4pm to 5pm, and got take out from Generic Pizza at 5:15pm and then went to 100 State Street for the rest of the day” it would almost certainly end up in the identification of the individual,” he explained.
Like Halifax, the town of Kingston has also elected to share updates on their town website including the number of confirmed cases in town. As of April 7, the number of confirmed cases in Kingston has been holding steady at nine since March 30.
Chair of the Board of Selectmen Joshua Warren said, “Although it is impossible to quantify if or how the Town’s proactive approach to closing public buildings, parks and playgrounds weeks ago has contributed to our number of cases remaining at 9, we are confident that everybody’s ongoing efforts to stay at home unless it is absolutely necessary, and to maintain social distancing guidelines and proper sanitation practices has only helped to keep Kingston’s number of confirmed cases at 9.”
Plympton, who has a much smaller population than Halifax and Kingston, has two confirmed cases as of April 7. Chair of the Plympton Board of Health Arthur Morin said it is the responsibility of the Visiting Nurses Association (VNA) to perform an interview with infected individuals and perform contact tracing.