fb-pixel Skip to main content

Harvard epidemiologist considers how Martha’s Vineyard has managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic

Martha's VineyardDiane Bair for The Boston Globe

Martha’s Vineyard hasn’t suffered any COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began, but one island town this week earned the distinction of being the only Massachusetts community still deemed to be at high risk for coronavirus.

The fact that there have been no COVID-19 deaths on the island is “very surprising,” said Michael A. Stoto, a summer resident of Vineyard Haven who works as an epidemiologist and public health researcher at Georgetown University and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In a commentary that he wrote for The Vineyard Gazette this week, Stoto noted several reasons why the island was able to keep the number of coronavirus cases relatively low and the death rate at zero.


“I think there’s a couple things going on there. We have really have been pretty good at finding the cases that exist — the number of reported cases is much closer to the number of actual infections,” he said in a telephone interview Friday. “We’ve also been good at getting cases treated when they’re caught early. There haven’t been that many cases that have required hospitalizations — far fewer than you’d expect, given our numbers.”

Stoto said extensive testing and contact tracing efforts on the island has also helped keep the number of cases down. He also credited the island community for coming together to make difficult decisions and rallying behind masks and vaccinations to help prevent the spread of the virus.

The fact that Tisbury was still deemed high risk for the coronavirus this week didn’t come as a surprise to Maura Valley, the health agent for the town of Tisbury. But she was surprised to see that Tisbury was the only community in Massachusetts bearing that label this week.

“Tisbury has not been in the red for several weeks, but this week we are,” she said in a telephone interview. “I was not surprised. I knew we were going to be in the red — I just didn’t know we would be the only one.”


But Valley said the number of cases is trending downward, and she expects Tisbury to be out of the high-risk category when the state releases its next round of COVID-19 data.

“Hopefully, I’m right,” she said.

For now, local public health officials are using it as a talking point for educating the public on the importance of getting vaccinated and as a reminder that the virus is still out there.

“We’re looking at it as a reminder that even though the restrictions are being lifted, we are still in a pandemic,” she said.

Valley said that while the state COVID-19 data lists Tisbury and other island towns as separate entities, public health officials on the Vineyard put more importance on the island-wide caseload.

“We have been looking at the island as a whole,” she said. “We are one small community that happens to have six towns on it. It didn’t really make sense to have these artificial boundaries.”

Stoto agrees.

“It’s an example of how misleading these metrics that we look at can be,” he said. “Although we have six towns on the island, we really only have one community. It really makes sense to look at it as one community.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.