Dr. Clark urges ‘heightened’ self-isolation for all travelers from mainland

Council cautions about ‘minimal medical resources’ on the island
Thu, 03/19/2020 - 6:15pm
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With developments about the impact of the novel coronavirus changing daily, the Block Island Town Council asked Town Manager Jim Kern and Town Solicitor Kathy Merolla to draft an emergency declaration that was speedily approved at an emergency meeting on Tuesday, March 17. The ordinance cancels all town meetings and requires that intentional gatherings of people not be more than 10 individuals. It mandates that anyone traveling to the island who has been overseas must self-quarantine for 14 days once they arrive here.

In the meantime, Dr. Mark Clark stated at a meeting on Monday, March 16, that all travelers from the mainland, regardless of where their trip originated, practice what he called “heightened self-isolation” to minimize the possibility of the COVID-19 spreading to the island. (See related story on p. 5)

Attending that Monday meeting were all five members of the Town Council, Town Manager Jim Kern, Dr. Clark, director of the Block Island Medical Center; School Supt. Mike Convery, town Emergency Management co-directors Bill McCombe and Pete Gempp, Police Chief Vin Carlone, and case manager Tracy Fredericks. Town Solicitor Kathy Merolla attended by phone.

The Council addressed the concerns, if not outright fear, that some year-round residents are expressing about the potential sudden influx of people coming to the island that may overload island resources, such as those provided by the Medical Center and the grocery store.

“I’ll say it,” said Second Warden André Boudreau. “If you don’t have business here, don’t come.”

Councilor Chris Willi also noted that anyone coming to the island will discover “there’s nothing open. There’s nothing for them here.” He said that if people realize “their presence will tax what resources we have out here that may deter them” from coming out to the island.

Councilor Martha Ball asked Dr. Clark to speak about the limitations of the Medical Center.

Clark began his response by saying the island “had a golden window of opportunity” to stave off the spread by being vigilant and avoiding social encounters that are unnecessary. If the virus did come out here, “it will be very difficult to contain and quickly overrun what we can provide. We want to be available for what we primarily do: care for the people of the island. This is all about prevention. If you are sick or ill, this is not the place to be right now.”

While the council members understood that no restrictions either could or should be put on those who decide to come to the island during this time of crisis, especially if those people were homeowners, the members felt that when word got out that all restaurants and other basic forms of entertainment had been stopped, it would become apparent that Block Island was not the place to be. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo ordered all restaurants be closed except for takeout and restricted gatherings to no more than 10 people, as well. It was noted that the Block Island Town Council could approve an emergency declaration more restrictive than those enacted by the state, which in some instances it did.

Clark said that the island medical facility had very limited resources — just three exam rooms and one trauma center — that could not handle a large-scale medical emergency.

If the coronavirus did appear on Block Island, he said, “it would be very difficult to contain.” He said anyone diagnosed with the virus would not be treated here, but taken off the island.

Clark said he strongly recommends that anyone who is on the island now limit their social interactions to activities that are only absolutely necessary, but he said those types of social restrictions should be “heightened” for anyone who has recently come to the island from the mainland, or is returning from an extended stay elsewhere. He said that testing for the novel coronavirus “is ramping up and there will be great availability in some centers.”

“Is testing available on the island?” asked Lacoste.

“Absolutely not,” said Clark. He said that tests only take place in designated sites.

He said anyone feeling “mildly ill should shelter in” and added that “what we’re seeing here is a moving target, a shift to greater and greater caution... and we should behave as though the virus is already here.” He said no one should panic, but added that everyone should avoid going out unless absolutely necessary.

McCombe, who is also director of security for the Block Island Ferry, said that the ferry has closed its concession stands on the ferries, and will add more signage regarding social distancing so that everyone taking the ferry will stay at least six feet away from others. He said the ferry will continue to operate its scheduled runs, and that the only person with the authority to suspend ferry operations is Gov. Raimondo, and added that anyone seeking information about the ferry should visit blockislandferry.com and he cautioned everyone to avoid spreading rumors about the ferry service.

As to any influx of people to the island, McCombe said “there are people who have homes out here and are coming out. For us to restrict who comes out is not on our radar.”

“If you come here from anywhere, you should self-quarantine,” said Risom.

“Block Island is not immune to the same problems as other parts of the country,” said Lacoste. He said the island “could very easily be overrun” and asked “if there is a national travel band, will the ferry still run with freight and mail?”

“We’ll operate within the federal and state guidelines. As long as we’re allowed to run, we’ll run,” McCombe said. “It’s very clear we are a lifeline.” McCombe said his worry was not so much about what would happen in the near future, but rather than when things may relax. People will need to remain vigilant and “not be complacent.”

Kern said that the council at some point “will need to discuss the actual operations of Town Hall.” He said “we need to be serious about it and practice what we preach” in terms of social distancing. Limiting public access to town hall records to two hours a day will also be a possibility. He said that the emergency declaration will allow any employee over the age of 60 to leave work without penalty. “We are essentially trying to overreact,” he said. 

Supt. Convery noted that school was closed this past week, and said the reason why it was still being called a vacation was so that the days would not be included in the mandated 180 service days the school must offer its students. He said teachers were preparing online teaching tools that are scheduled to begin Monday, March 23. Gov. Raimondo announced that schools would be closed for at least two weeks.