The light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel can be seen, with the first vaccinations by the Watertown Health Department starting last week, but Health Director Larry Ramdin said people must continue their virus prevention practices even after they get their shots.
On Jan. 14 and 15, members of the Watertown Police and Fire departments received their first COVID-19 vaccine shots, Ramdin said. He and Public Health Nurse Wil VanDinter have begun planning for public clinics in Town, but do not know when they will be able to administer the vaccine to the general public, Ramdin said.
“We are currently registered to receive vaccines and (Thursday) Wil and I are going to go out to do some site visits to see sites in town to see if they will be appropriate for a vaccination site,” Ramdin told the Board of Health on Wednesday night. “The challenge we have is we have to wait for people to wait for 15 minutes. It is an extremely new vaccine, we need to make sure (people) are not having adverse reactions.”
The wait time will mean that the COVID vaccinations will not move as quickly as, say, a flu vaccination clinic does. VanDinter said another limiting factor is having to have at least 6 feet of distance between people as they wait.
“We need significant area to house all these people. Unfortunately, we can’t do any outdoor clinics because of the temperatures,” VanDinter said. “We may be able to when begin to do the general population — maybe move outdoor and use bigger spaces like a football field where people can space out.”
If they can set up six to seven stations up and run a full-day clinic and a half-day one during a week, VanDinter said the Health Department could vaccinate 1,000 people per week. At that rate, he said, the vaccinations could be completed in about 25 weeks.
Ramdin noted that people will also be able to get vaccinations through their personal doctors, or through clinics hosted by pharmacies. CVS and Walgreen’s, for instance, have partnered with nursing homes to immunize residents at those facilities.
The Health Department will work with the Senior Center to set up clinics for older resident in Town, Ramdin said. People age 65 and older are in the Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination plan. Phase 1 includes frontline health care workers and first responders. The general public is in Phase 3.
Public vaccination dates have not been announced, Ramdin said, and he will hold off until the details can be confirmed.
“The clinics are not going to be scheduled until we have vaccines,” said Ramdin, who said he does not want to have people sign up to get a vaccine and then have to cancel if the vaccines do not show up.
Ramdin also told the Board of Health that he will be looking for people to volunteer at the clinics, both administering vaccinations and checking people in.
Board members expressed concern that the Health Department does not have enough personnel to do everything expected from it. Arnold noted that Ramdin and his staff have been planning for the clinics along with the extra COVID-19 inspections.
Board member Barbara Beck added that the work is “on top everything that the Health Department has to do. Your other work hasn’t gone away.”
COVID-19 in Town
Watertown has seen an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases starting around Halloween, Ramdin said, who saw spikes after Thanksgiving and again after Christmas.
“We are still dealing with the fall out from that,” Ramdin said.
VanDinter said that contact tracing efforts have found that certain activities and events have been contributing to the increase in positive cases.
“The biggest offenders we see that contribute to the increase case counts are group sports activities and interfamily gatherings or celebrations,” VanDinter said. “It is very likely that if two or three people in a household are positive, the rest of the family members will follow.”
One frustration, Ramdin said, has been that about 40 percent of people reached out to by contract tracers do not respond.
Watertown recently went into the state’s Red, or high risk of COVID-19 transmission, status for a week, and then went back to Yellow (moderate risk) the next week. Ramdin cautioned about reading too much into those numbers, since part of it is based on projecting the numbers into what they would be if the town had 100,000 residents.
Board of Health member Richard Arnold said the case numbers do not tell the whole story.
“As someone with a public health background, one thing that came to mind is you need to take into account socioeconomic status. I suspect we have more larger families living within a unit than a lot of surrounding communities,” Arnold said. “In the same vein, they may be frontline workers, in terms of food service, cleaning and they may be in a position where, ‘If I don’t go to work I lose my job.’ It is hard really to do a straight comparison with Watertown and Weston or Watertown and Belmont. I think those are factors we need to consider.”
Generally, Ramdin said Watertown residents have been good at following steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Face covering compliance is high in the Town,” Ramdin said.
The Health Department does receive complaints about people at businesses, or even at Town Hall, not adhering to the state’s regulations, and inspectors go out to investigate.
“We are out every working day in the field,” Ramdin said. “We have had complaints that we have been sent into the Department of Public Health and the Department of Labor Standards. We have investigated those. In some recent number of complaints, on a number visits, we issued fines. And if they still fail to comply then we will move to the next phase, and order closure based on the governor’s order.”
Ramdin said most times when they are investigated the places are found to be in compliance, and he has not seen people in Town Hall failing to wear a face covering.
Getting those who still do not wear masks to do so has been a challenge. Early in the pandemic when it was more difficult to get masks, all Health Department inspectors and police cruisers had extra ones to hand out to people see in public without one, Ramdin said, but often efforts were not well received and the people offering the masks were even berated. Ramdin experienced this first hand.
“Right behind the Boys & Girls Club there is a basketball court. One evening I spoke to guys playing basketball there, and I was almost assaulted,” Ramdin said.
The Health Department will focus on getting information out to residents about the vaccine and reminders out continuing practices to prevent the spread of the virus. Information can be found on the Town’s COVID-19 Information page, www.watertown-ma.gov/978/Coronavirus. The Health Department also puts out information on Facebook (facebook.com/WatertownMAHealthDepartment), Twitter (twitter.com/watertownhealth) and Instagram (instagram.com/watertownhealth).