With Covid-19 now racing through the Vineyard community, the Martha’s Vineyard boards of health issued a public health message Tuesday urging Islanders to take all precautionary steps to protect themselves from infection.

“We are currently experiencing rapid and extensive spread of Covid-19, due primarily to the highly-transmissible Omicron variant,” the six boards of health said in a statement. “While the young, healthy and vaccinated are likely to experience mild or moderate illness, the unvaccinated, the elderly and the immunocompromised remain at high risk for severe illness and hospitalization.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital also announced it is curtailing all non-emergency visits to focus on the sickest people, with staff out due to Covid and the first case reported at Windemere, the Island’s only nursing home which shares the hospital campus.

“We’re deeply concerned,” hospital president and chief executive officer Denise Schepici said at a press briefing Wednesday, one day after the boards of health issued their statement.

From left, Maura Valley, Island Health Care executive director Cynthia Mitchell, IHC public health officer Kathleen Samways. — Ray Ewing

In the statement the boards of health urged all adults and children over the age of five to become fully vaccinated, and it encouraged residents to wear N95 or K95 masks instead of cloth or paper surgical masks. An indoor mask mandate remains in place in every Island town.

“The N95 and KN95 masks have special filters that block the fine aerosols that frequently spread Covid and they have a tighter fit with less gapping,” the statement said. It also said:

“People should carefully consider which social gatherings are worth the risk and which are not. When indoors wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask except when with family and those in your pods. Whenever possible, avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.”

Speaking to the Gazette by phone Tuesday afternoon, Tisbury health agent Maura Valley said while contact tracing remains an all-out effort, the high volume of cases have been a game changer for public health officials.

“With these numbers you can’t possibly contact everyone who tests positive,” said Ms. Valley, who has been the spokesman for the boards of health throughout the pandemic. “We’re not going to stop the spread through contact tracing; it’s more reaching out to people with information at this point,” she added.

Ms. Valley said while the Omicron variant has not yet been positively identified on the Island, “just based on the transmission numbers it’s pretty safe to assume that it is [Omicron],” she said.

Ms. Valley said the virus is now widespread throughout the Island community, with no particular hot spots.

“Yes, there are cases in the schools, in students and in staff . . . but it’s throughout the Island population,” she said. “With community transmission you can’t say where it is . . . there’s such widespread community transmission that what we are concerned about is younger children who are unable to be vaccinated, and people who are at risk for more adverse effects from the virus. Those are the people our contact tracers are focusing on.”

Led by coordinators Marina Lent and Betsy Van Landingham, the small team of contact tracers are working practically around the clock, Ms. Valley said.

She said contact tracers are sending a text or an email to every case they become aware of. “But we are looking at the list and trying to reach out to anybody who falls into those [high risk categories].”

As of Tuesday the Island had logged 682 positive cases since the start of the new year, a record high.

Ms. Valley said rapid home testing has been a factor with more people rapid testing and reporting their information. Early this month TestMV, the free testing site on the Island, launched a website for home testers to report their information.

Ms. Valley said the site has seen a robust response.

“The more people that let us know, we can sense the true positivity rate for the Island, and it’s high,” she said.

At the press briefing Wednesday morning, Ms. Schepici and chief operating officer Claire Seguin reported there are currently 12 members of the hospital staff and three Windemere staffers out with the virus.

“It’s not hampering our ability to give treatment, we do have some back-up,” Ms. Schepici said. “We don’t have a very deep bench, so it’s the rapidity of the spread that gives us concern. But our staff is taking great precautions, this is definitely about community spread.”

She confirmed that a resident at Windemere tested positive Tuesday, that the hospital is delaying wellness visits for at least a month, and that visitors to Windemere are being discouraged.

There are currently two people hospitalized with the virus, both of whom are in fair condition, according to Ms. Seguin. Four people were hospitalized last week. One patient was transfered off Island as a result of the virus, Ms. Seguin confirmed.

The hospital does not comment on the vaccination status of individual patients, but Ms. Schepici said the sickest patients are unvaccinated.

“If you are not vaccinated, it’s not too late. So I urge you to get your shots now and get boosted if you are eligible,” she said.

The Island is 81 per cent vaccinated, Ms. Seguin said.

Ms. Schepici asked people not to come to the emergency room looking for a test kit. The hospital tests only symptomatic people, but Ms. Seguin asked that symptomatic people use an at-home test kit if they have access to them.

“The hospital, and especially the emergency room, is not a depot for rapid test kit distribution,” Ms. Schepici said. “If you do test positive, we ask you to the best of your ability to manage your care at home, unless your symptoms are severe.”

Ms. Schepici said the hospital is expecting cases to peak in about two weeks based on national and international modeling.

“We’re still in the thick of it,” she said. “[Cases will] be on the rise for at least the next two weeks, so these next two weeks are critical.”

The hospital expects to administer over 600 doses of the vaccine this week to add to the roughly 35,000 doses it has given as of Monday, Ms. Seguin said. Vaccine appointment times are released at 4 p.m. every Friday. There will be appointments available on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“We have vaccine. All we ask is you make an appointment on our website mvhospital.org so our staff can meet the demand in an orderly fashion,” Ms Schepici said.

Ms. Valley said the public health statement issued Tuesday afternoon is an effort to give Islanders practical information and urge common sense.

“It’s about weighing the risk of what you’re doing. You’re going to go to work, to school, the grocery store,” Ms. Valley said. “Think twice about going to that crowded party . . . the bigger groups . . . and the closer you are . . . give some thought to what you are doing.”

She declined to make any predictions for the future.

“I threw my crystal ball away a long time ago,” the veteran health agent said.

But she said in the near term health agents are meeting daily and facilitating the Islandwide distribution of rapid test kits, which will take place weekly going forward.

Another 10,800 kits were delivered to Island Health Care, the Vineyard’s federally qualified community health center, Tuesday morning. Distribution begins Wednesday.