Is Plymouth prepared for a pandemic?

PLYMOUTH - Is Plymouth prepared for a pandemic? Town boards and health officials are working on a plan with medical professionals on how to best to contain the coronavirus known as COVID-19, should it become a threat to the community.

Now, with the first possible case in Plymouth (see related story), the town is ramping up efforts to communicate precautions and advisories to residents while coordinating efforts with local medical professionals.

"There is no serious threat, but we need to be ready," said Birgitta Kuehn, chair of the Board of Health. Her committee held a hearing Wednesday with the town manager and Select Board chair, as well as representatives of the Fire Department, Brewster Ambulance and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Plymouth, about what needs to be done. These groups announced they are in constant contact with each other and plan to meet regularly to review updates and adjust planning as required.

Tenny Thomas, a doctor and chief medical officer for BID-Plymouth, said his facility assesses each case by guidelines developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Massachusetts Department of Public Health to determine the next course of action. Medical professionals first try to determine if a person with flu-like symptoms was recently traveling overseas.

"We have a limited number of test kits," he said. "We contact the DEP with anything that meets the criteria but have not been advised to do any testing yet. The protocol is to send people home and have them do self-isolation."

Officials with the Plymouth Fire Department and Brewster Ambulance stated they have adopted protocols recommended by the federal and state health agencies and are coordinating efforts with the medical community.

"This is similar to the Ebola outbreak," said Deputy Fire Chief Neil Foley. "The protocols we are following are very similar to what we had to do then. When we come across a suspected case, we don our PPE (personal protection equipment)."

Because this strain of the coronavirus is so new, no vaccine exists yet to inoculate people against infection. Nancy O’Connor-Gantz, a health board member and registered nurse, discussed what residents can do to stay healthy.

"The precautions for the coronavirus are the same as for the flu, which is a bigger health risk at the moment," she said. "One of the ways both are spread come from coughing and sneezing. Droplets containing the virus land on surfaces, such as desks, tables, door handles, railings and more. How long those germs survive, no one knows. It could be days or even weeks."

O’Connor-Gantz recommended the following steps to limit exposure to the coronavirus and flu:

Frequent hand-washing Avoidance of facial touch with unwashed hands Avoidance of close contact with infected persons Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces Covering coughs and sneezes with tissue, which is then properly discarded, followed by hand-washing Stay home when sick

Concern was expressed over foreign tourists arriving for Plymouth’s 400th anniversary commemoration this year. Officials said they were taking initial precautions but that it was still too early to determine what kind of impact that would have. O’Connor-Gantz suggested the town install sanitizing stations with disinfecting gel throughout Plymouth.

"We need to do this," she said. "It is important to install hand sanitizers around town with signage urging people to use it."

While concerns of a pandemic are premature, the town, state and federal governments along with the medical community are preparing in case the situation becomes worse. This week, the CDC announced it had awarded $500,000 to Massachusetts in support of efforts to address a potential outbreak of COVID-19. This initial funding comes in advance of a Senate vote on a $7.8 billion appropriations package that would provide additional emergency funding to Massachusetts and other states.

"We want to stay ahead of this," said Nate Horwitz-Willis, the town’s former health director and a trustee with BID-Plymouth. "We need to understand it, but we don’t want to create hysteria. It’s important that we stay on top of it so we are prepared to take the next best step."

All parties agreed to continue discuss this issue and plan to set up regular meetings to review the situation and make adjustments to protocols as needed.

More than a century ago, Plymouth met the challenges of another pandemic. The Spanish flu sickened thousands and killed 73 in town in 1918-19. The Old Colony Memorial ran this article about the epidemic on Jan. 20, 2018. Read all about it at https://plymouth.wickedlocal.com/news/20180120/one-century-ago-spanish-flu-lays-waste-to-world.