An outbreak of COVID-19 cases among Swampscott High School students following a recent off-campus event is having a widespread impact on the town, prompting officials to switch the school to remote learning and urging unvaccinated residents to get tested for the virus as soon as possible.
On Saturday, town and state public health experts were working to determine the scope of the outbreak, which Superintendent Pamela Angelakis has deemed Swampscott’s largest since the pandemic began. The high school will be limited to remote learning until April 5, she said.
An estimated 100 residents were exposed to COVID-19 as a result of the new outbreak, said Sean Fitzgerald, the town administrator, though that figure could change as the town’s contact tracing continues.
Fitzgerald said any unvaccinated resident — even those who don’t have any connection with the high school — should get tested for COVID-19.
“We certainly have a significant outbreak and we all have to be mindful that our behavior affects the entire community and the entire Commonwealth,” he said in a phone interview Saturday afternoon. “We cannot let our guard down.”
Swampscott officials’ work to stanch any surge in new cases came as the state Department of Public Health reported 1,880 new confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts, which brought the state’s total to 577,902.The department also reported 29 new confirmed coronavirus deaths, bringing the state’s death toll to 16,498.
Swampscott, which is where Governor Charlie Baker lives, will be mounting a renewed offensive against COVID-19 as a result of the outbreak as much of the state follows the governor’s directive to ease restrictions on many businesses, performance venues, and public gatherings starting Monday. Baker has also been pressing schools to bring students back for full-time, in-person learning.
In Swampscott, the town’s health and school departments became aware last week of an increasing number of cases among high school students related to a “non-school event,” the town said in a statement released Saturday afternoon.
Swampscott’s Health Department and school nurses immediately began an extensive contact tracing process, according to the statement.
“This process is ongoing and those individuals who have tested positive or have been identified as close contacts are isolating and quarantining in accordance with state guidelines,” the statement said.
Swampscott’s Health Department is in regular communication with the state public health agency regarding regarding the outbreak, the town said in the statement.
A Community Mobile Testing Unit will provide COVID testing for Swampscott High School students and staff on Monday, it said.
Families of high school students were notified about the cases in an e-mail Friday from Angelakis, who said the school switched to a remote learning model due to the outbreak of COVID-19 cases in consultation with the town Health Department and Swampscott’s Emergency Management Team.
The outbreak “has resulted in a large number of positive individuals and even larger numbers of close contacts, and these numbers are still evolving as contact tracing continues,” Angelakis said in the e-mail.
Marianne Hartmann, the town’s middle school nurse and chairwoman for the Board of Health, said she is among five nurses working on the contact tracing efforts.
While residents have been cooperative, Hartmann said, the work remains difficult.
“We don’t have to be here. We shouldn’t have to be here,” Hartmann said in a phone interview. “COVID is definitely not done with us.”
Town officials and residents expressed frustration that despite progress against the virus, Swampscott residents faced a setback that threatens public health.
Fitzgerald said town officials are actively investigating the circumstances that led to the outbreak, citing the town’s loss of lives over the year since the pandemic began.
“Swampscott has lost 20 citizens to COVID ... and 20 families have endured tremendous loss and pain,” Fitzgerald said.
The community, he said, “must not forget about these families and keep our guard up.”
“The reality is that something happened, and it likely reflected some lack of mindfulness,” said Fitzgerald, who repeatedly emphasized that people should not let down their guard.
Speaking generally, he said, “There shouldn’t be parties. Don’t gather in large groups. Don’t take off your mask.”
Cheryl Dwyer, a parent of a Swampscott High School senior and the treasurer of the SHS Parent Teacher Forum, said school officials made the right decision in switching to remote learning.
“It’s a difficult time for everybody, nobody wants to be in the middle of a pandemic,” Dwyer said in a phone interview. “But we have to continue to follow the guidance from public health officials.”
Her son had been attending school as part of a hybrid schedule and the move to remote learning will have a negative impact, Dwyer said.
“This could be avoided, if we maintained vigilance,” she said.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.