Tracking COVID-19 Deaths, Tracing Contacts of People Testing Positive is Tricky for Watertown Officials

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Details of the cause of death from the death certificate of a Watertown resident.

Details of the cause of death from the death certificate of a Watertown resident.

Like many aspects of COVID-19, figuring out the exact number of deaths related to virus in Watertown is complicated and confusing. This is just one issue the Town of Watertown is facing, along with trying to trace contacts of people with active cases of the Coronavirus.

The officially confirmed number of fatalities in Watertown, as of May 5, is 17 residents — up from 12 the previous day. When looking at the death certificates in the Town Clerk’s Office, as of May 4, 18 people who live in Watertown, or whose last known address was in Town had COVID-19 as one of the causes of death. The town has 286 confirmed cases of the virus, with 157 of them still active, according to the Town’s COVID-19 webpage.

Before a COVID-19 death is confirmed and added to the town’s official count, Watertown’s Public Health Nurse Wil VanDinter has to confirm whether someone who died actually tested positive for COVID-19, and whether the person lived in Watertown at the time of their death. He gets reports from the state’s infectious disease surveillance, reporting and control system.

The list, however, is just where the work begins for VanDinter.

“The number (of COVID-19 cases) from the state is a raw number before any investigation starts,” VanDinter said.

Where someone lives can be a complicated question. If someone is living in a nursing home when they pass away, VanDinter said, they officially are counted in the community where the facility is located. Sometimes the death certificate lists an out-of-date address, which slows investigations because a record will not be sent to Watertown until the other community discovers they do not live in their jurisdiction.

“A person may die in Cambridge, but they discover they do not live in Cambridge, but actually lives in Watertown,” VanDinter said. “Then they send it to Watertown.”

VanDinter said he could not release the ages of residents who died from COVID-19 due to privacy protections in HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996).

“Their identity could be traced using other documents,” VanDinter said.

He did say that most of the deaths were people over the age of 65. The death certificates in the Clerk’s Office indicate that 14 of 18 COVID-19 related deaths were people in their 80s and 90s, while two were under the age of 70. However, nine of those people lived in nursing homes, only one of which was located in Watertown.

Since the surge of Coronavirus cases started in Watertown, VanDinter said he receives calls reporting new cases all times of day and night.

“It’s non-stop,” he said, noting that he had recently got a call after 11 p.m.

Much of his day is spent trying to trace the contacts of anyone in town who has tested positive. He even has people helping reach out, but the effort has been frustrating.

“It would help if people cooperated with contacts investigation,” VanDinter said. “Half of people don’t even answer the phone number provided to us.”

He said the caller’s phone number will likely come up as “Town of Watertown,” or “Watertown Health Department.”

When VanDinter or his assistants reach someone who tested positive for COVID-19, they will ask them who they have been in contact with. Then the tracers will reach out to the contacts so that they can alert them and those people can self-quarantine for 14 days.

“It is important if you get a call from us for people to answer,” VanDinter said. “It is the only way we can keep the curve flattened.”

People who feel sick and think they may have been infected by COVID-19 should contact their primary doctor, VanDinter said. Those who do not have a doctor can go to an urgent care facility such as AFC Urgent Care, which has locations on Arsenal Street in Watertown and Main Street in Waltham.

3 thoughts on “Tracking COVID-19 Deaths, Tracing Contacts of People Testing Positive is Tricky for Watertown Officials

  1. The fatality rate of Covid-19 is not really known.

    But increasingly some doctors are saying that the number of people who have the Covid-19 virus (but may have few or no symptoms) may be many times the number of persons who have tested positive.

    This is just one of many articles that, with some exceptions, one will not find in mainstream media (though this article is in a mainstream paper):

    There are also comparisons to the Hong Kong flu of 1968 in which the US did not lock down.

    Some doctors are comparing the death date of Covid-19 to that of seasonal flu. This raises a lot of public policy questions. especially concerning the lockdowns, that have not been answered.

  2. Now that things may be settling down a bit for all of us I think it’s time for the town to evaluate how they handled the COVID crisis and where they need to make improvements.

    First, getting a weekly Robo Call was very insufficient. Those updates should have been far more frequent than once a week and should have been far more detailed than just saying how many have it, how many have died, and the recoveries.

    Second, our schools lagged behind many other public school systems in terms of being organized and keeping students learning. Most parents will tell you that their kids had at least 3 weeks of very disorganized and unstructured school work. There is no doubt that these kids will be behind compared to the many districts and schools that were better prepared.

    But maybe even more important is to look at how high our COVID Cases in town were, especially given that we are a small town in terms of size. Burlington, for example, a much larger town has had far less cases than Watertown. A recent article in the Boston Globe also points out that the communities hit the hardest are the communities with more poverty and very dense housing. Watertown, Framingham, Everett, Chelsea, Waltham, etc are all examples with high amounts of cases. And because we know that this is not going away anytime soon it would really make sense for our Town Council, Zoning, etc to really take a hard look at our housing, our zoning, and make some serious policy changes. If you have a two family home with large numbers of people in both units then that becomes an environment for community spread of COVID. In Watertown we do have a zoning law that states no more than 4 people in a unit but that is very often overlooked and not enforced. The exception is a family. Then add to that the amount of illegal apartments in town and that too adds to our high numbers. The increase in condo buildings is also worrisome. If tenants have to go in and out of one set of main doors then they too have a higher chance of being exposed to COVID.

    Residents have been complaining for. years about the overbuilding in town and the effects it has on all of us. I would add overcrowded housing to that complaint as well and now we know that all of this overcrowding is actually harmful to all of us. See the links below for the Globe piece and the MASS GOV Dashboard that lists the cases in each town.

    • You make some very good points. Especially about the overcrowded and illegal apartments that are abundant in the east end which the to town always looks the other way.

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