The Department of Public Health announced Sunday afternoon that the statewide death toll from COVID-19 rose to five, and officials revealed that a woman in her 50s from Ayer was the second to die of the virus a day earlier.
Meanwhile, Billerica announced in a public statement that a fifth person in Billerica tested positive Sunday, and said that individual was a first responder in town who had previously responded to a call involving an earlier confirmed COVID-19 patient.
The Department of Public Health identified the second person to die from COVID-19 as a woman in her 50s from Middlesex County on Friday evening, and said the woman suffered from a pre-existing medical condition. On Saturday morning, the Town of Ayer released a public statement identifying the woman as one of the multiple Ayer residents who were already known to have COVID-19.
The town announced on Friday afternoon that an undisclosed number of “citizens” of Ayer tested positive for COVID-19, and that the Board of Health had already identified and contacted those who were in close contact with the diagnosed individuals.
“Anyone identified as a ‘close contact’ has already been notified by the Board of Health and has been requested to self-quarantine for a period of fourteen days,” the Board of Health said in a press release on Friday.
“The Town of Ayer would like to express its sincere sympathy to the family of the deceased during this difficult time,” the town said in a public statement Saturday. “The Board of Health is actively involved with investigating and providing the appropriate guidance to the family as well as to all individuals involved to ensure that the protocols of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health are followed.”
In the statement, the town reiterated that those in town who were in close contact with those who have tested positive have already been contacted.
“Unless you have been contacted by the Board of Health, it is not likely that you have had exposure to these individuals,” the town said in a public statement.
Early Sunday evening, there was limited activity on Main Street in Ayer. A couple walking their dog said Ayer is a sleepy town, but usually not this sleepy.
Several Main Street businesses had hours on their doors suggesting they should be open, but the businesses were motionless and dark inside. A sign in front of Osawa Japanese Bistro dated March 18 said, “Closed until further notice.” Another sign taped to the door of Ayer Nail Care revealed the business would be closed for a week.
The only vehicles parked on Main Street on Sunday evening were two TV news trucks sitting in front of Town Hall.
Eric North, a 31-year-old Ayer resident, was standing at the building’s door reading an extensive note posted there announcing Town Hall’s suspension of nonessential town programs.
“I’m just trying to keep up with the news and trying to stay as prepared as I can and not panic and just try to take the most logical and rational approach I can,” North said.
April Torhan, 44, also stopped to talk while out for a walk on Main Street. She had just found out about the Ayer resident’s death.
“It’s sad and it’s unfortunate,” Torhan said. “But it’s not shocking. You know?”
Torhan said she works in the public health sector and is among staff who operate a hotline for those to call and ask health-related questions. She said the hotline has received calls from those under the COVID-19 self-quarantine who need clarification about what they can and can’t do.
“I’m not worried about myself, as I’m not in the high-risk category, but I am worried about the people I know and the overall mental health of everyone,” Torhan said.
“Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands,” she said.
After hearing about the Ayer resident’s death, town resident Doug Wells expressed concern about the economic health of the state and nation, and the safety of the community.
“I’m a bit concerned whether or not the state is telling us the answers to the questions we’re interested in,” the 72-year-old said. “There doesn’t seem to be an actual plan for solving the problem. After we end up with all these self-quarantines and isolation, we are still going to have a vulnerable population.”
In Billerica, Town Manager John Curran reported last week that a paramedic was being tested and in quarantine while the results were pending. On Sunday night, he said he could not release more information on the first responder confirmed to have it, though.
Billerica Police Deputy Chief Roy Frost said he could not comment on confirmed cases, but said police and first responders in Billerica have been taking steps to protect themselves.
Those steps include reducing the number of medical calls that police and firefighters respond to so that personnel are only responding to calls where they are urgently needed. Only medical personnel respond to less urgent medical calls. And Frost said first responders are wearing personal protective gear for any call where they will have to be within 6 feet of a potential COVID-19 patient.
Curran encouraged all residents to take precautions as well.
“There is community spread in Billerica,” Curran said. “There is community spread all over the town like there is everywhere else, so you should stay home, avoid going out, and social distancing should be practiced by everyone.”
The developments came as the Department of Public Health said three more individuals statewide died from COVID-19 on Sunday — a man in his 70s from Hampden County, a man in his 70s from Berkshire County and a man in his 90s from Suffolk County.
Only the man from Berkshire County had an underlying medical condition, but Ann Scales, a spokeswoman for the DPH, said in a prepared statement that all three men were in the age group that is considered high risk regardless of underlying conditions.
Scales said that as of Sunday at 4 p.m., 6,004 Massachusetts residents have been tested for COVID-19 and that 646 of those have tested positive.
Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters as he left church Sunday morning that he expects the numbers to continue rising.
“The reason that number is going to climb is because we’re testing more,” Baker said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And by the way, people are recovering at the same time that new people are coming on.”
Scales warned that COVID-19 activity is increasing across Massachusetts.
“At this time, if people are only mildly symptomatic, they should speak to their health care provider about whether they need to be assessed in person,” Scales wrote in a press release. “If not, they should stay at home while they are sick. Asymptomatic family members should practice social distancing and immediately self-isolate if they develop symptoms.
Material from State House News Service was used in this report.