COVID-19 clusters threaten reopening plans in Merrimack Valley

TEWKSBURY, Mass. — For weeks, Jessica Repose and her staff at the Merrimack Valley Pavilion have watched the Department of Public Health’s community-level risk assessment map turn more and more red.

“It’s been nerve-racking,” Repose said.

With an arcade and laser tag, the Pavilion is considered an indoor-recreational business, and was able to re-open Monday under Part 2 of Phase III in Gov. Baker’s statewide reopening plan.

“Without laser tag opening we probably would have had to close for the winter,” Repose said about her company’s biggest attraction.

The Pavilion’s hometown of Tewksbury, currently categorized on the state’s map in yellow as “moderate risk” of COVID-19 transmission, is surrounded by seven red “high risk” communities throughout the Merrimack Valley.

But if Tewksbury becomes high risk, too, Jessica worries her business will be forced to shut down again.

Repose already laid off 20 workers earlier this year, and doesn’t think they can survive closing down a second time.

“Because after paying all our employees and the cost of being open, it’s not going to be worth it,” Repose said.

Several COVID clusters have popped up across the state in recent weeks, throwing towns and cities into the high-risk category.

Last week, North Andover’s town manager said 93 cases at Merrimack College single-handedly kicked North Andover up into the red on the state’s map.

“Without the Merrimack College cases, the town would have an incident rate of 3.8 percent and be categorized as a green (lower risk) community,” North Andover Town Manager Melissa Rodrigues said.

An outbreak last month at the Maples Rehabilitation and Nursing Center was also responsible for bumping Wrentham up to the “high risk” category.

“I think that we’re really starting to realize that it’s some of these clusters that have really driven the pandemic all along,” said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.

Dr. Doron said the key to containing COVID clusters is finding a way to identify super spreaders.

“There are a lot of people who get COVID-19 and infect no one and then there’s a smaller group that seem to infect large numbers of people,” Dr. Doron said.

But researchers still don’t know if it is the person, the virus, or the setting that makes someone a super spreader.

“We don’t totally understand all the conditions that produce that, but it seems that is what’s driving a lot of the larger outbreaks,” said Dr. Matt Fox, an epidemiologist at Boston University.

Dr. Doron said early in the COVID-19 pandemic, it was thought most infected people would spread the virus to at least one or two people.

But now, doctors are finding the rate of transmission falls on a much wider spectrum.

“There are a lot of people who get COVID-19 and infect no one. Then there’s a smaller group that seems to infect large numbers of people,” Dr. Doron said.

For now, health experts anticipate more outbreaks leading to more clusters throughout Massachusetts.

“I think ultimately, our ability to contain this virus without a vaccine is going to be determined by our ability to act quickly on those clusters,” Dr. Fox said.

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