In Somerville, we’re keeping up the pressure on all fronts

This isn’t the time to let up as we work to tackle COVID-19

DURING THE Great Depression’s darkest days, FDR said: “There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.” As we face a crisis rivaled in modern times, we in Somerville are taking that advice to heart.

Earlier this week, I announced several new COVID-19 initiatives: Testing for all who want it; tracking of those who test positive; tracing the contacts of those who test positive; safe isolation support for those who are sick, mandatory face coverings for anyone out in public; and a pilot for new remote sensing technology to monitor at-home patients who have the virus but do not need hospitalization.

The new measures are part of our “Somerville Covid Action” program, a multi-pronged attack we began in late February when we started consulting with infectious disease experts. Their dire warnings led to us being among the first cities to close schools, limit public gatherings, shut bars and restaurants, and eventually advise people to stay at home.

Since then, we’ve been working furiously on several fronts, part of an all-out push we hope will save lives and, eventually, help us reopen our city and resume some level of normalcy. Here are the latest elements of our campaign to defeat COVID-19.

We’re Sticking with Social Distancing, and We’re  Wearing Face Coverings. As the curve flattens, the weather warms, and the Trump administration continues to make it seem simple to reopen the economy, it’s easy for people to relax their commitments to social distancing. That’s a recipe for a second surge that we’re determined to prevent.

In Somerville, we’re not only keeping those measures in place, we’re doubling down, moving from encouraging people to wear face coverings to making them mandatory. There are of course, exceptions for those who medically can’t tolerate a mask, young children, and other vulnerable persons. Our police officers will even be ready with educational handouts and masks for those who need them. But if we want to forge a path to reopening our city, we must cut transmission routes wherever we can. The sooner we all commit to face coverings, the better prepared we’ll be to get back to life that is closer to normal.

We’re Ramping Up Testing, Tracking, and Tracing. The only way to get ahead of this virus is to test everybody — and I mean everybody. We could have achieved that by now if the Trump administration had not failed the American people so catastrophically. Instead, we’re left to play catch-up at the local level.

But catch up, we will.

Earlier this week, we announced on-demand testing in Somerville, beginning with 3,500 tests. We’re setting up two test facilities, one at Somerville Hospital and another in East Somerville, the neighborhood with the highest concentration of low-income residents, many of whom are frontline workers. The virus has disproportionately impacted low-income people in densely populated areas. Protecting them is a top priority.

Once we test people, our health and human services team will track them and make sure they have the supplies and information they need to safely isolate or quarantine. If they lack insurance or a primary care physician, we’ll provide them with nurses to aid in their care.

And we will trace any people they’ve been in physical contact within recent days, insisting those folks get tested and quarantine immediately. We’re also offering isolation facilities for those who cannot quarantine at home.

Testing, tracking, tracing, assisting – we’re going all out to make sure we protect our residents, gather data, and chart our course forward.

We’re Trying New Technologies. In late March, a startup company, Cherish Health, brought a potentially lifesaving new product to my office, a remote-sensing technology that can monitor the vital signs of non-critical COVID patients at home. Cherish’s innovation can help keep precious hospital beds open while also making sure at-home patients are closely monitored. If the system picks up any signs of a worsening condition – escalating fever, increased heart rate, rising blood pressure levels, or decreased oxygen levels — a doctor or nurse contacts the patient immediately.

We immediately introduced Cherish to executives at Cambridge Health Alliance (which owns Somerville Hospital, Cambridge Hospital, and Everett Hospital). Today, the treatment is already being offered at Somerville Hospital.

We also launched a pilot program at the Massachusetts Bay Veterans Center, a residential complex in Somerville run by the Volunteers of America, Massachusetts. While COVID cases have yet to be reported at this facility, we know this is a vulnerable population – older, many with underlying conditions, all living together in a large facility.

Working with Cherish and Health eVillages, we’re equipping residents with remote sensors as well. If the system shows any troubling changes in vitals, it alerts the doctors and nurses, so they can immediately reach out via phone or video with tele-medicine or get the patient to the hospital right away if needed.

We’re being nimble, being quick. As we now know, the virus waits for nobody. As Dr. Fauci has said, the efficiency of the spread of the virus is “really unprecedented.” It requires us as government officials to match its speed – to move more quickly, more boldly, and more decisively than ever.

In mid-March, Partners HealthCare contacted us about finding a place to house their mammoth new system for decontaminating hospital masks. Within 48 hours, we used our emergency powers to seize the vacant Kmart building at Assembly Row, fast-tracked permit approvals, and handed the building over to Batelle, the firm installing and managing the system. Today, it is sterilizing tens of thousands masks each day.

That’s what we mean about being nimble, being quick. The virus demands it.

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We’re far from done in this brutal battle against COVID-19. Still, our statewide hospitalization rates are now flattening, and our new case rate is slowing. It is a sliver of light at the end of this tunnel. But it is no time to cut back or for government officials to slow down. Our unprecedented collective sacrifices are working – for now. We must stay the course on social distancing while acting decisively to conquer this relentless disease.  We have to keep moving, not standing still. Lives are still at stake.

Joseph Curtatone is mayor of Somerville.