Q&A with Health Commissioner Dr. Swannie Jett: COVID-19 updates

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Contributed by Swannie Jett

Dr. Swannie Jett is the Health Commissioner of Brookline. Jett helps to oversee the Brookline Health Department, which is now concentrating its efforts on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health Commissioner Dr. Swannie Jett oversees Brookline’s public health actions and initiatives. During normal times, these initiatives include addressing air pollution and climate change, conducting restaurant and food inspections and protecting against infectious diseases. Due to COVID-19, however, the focus of the Brookline Health Department has shifted to address the pandemic head-on and implement mitigation strategies.

How are Brookline’s case numbers looking? Do you think we have reached the peak or are we still heading there?

We currently have over 220 cases in Brookline, and our numbers are still inclining. I will have a better idea in the next two weeks if we start to see a decrease in number. I measure how many new cases we see every three to seven days. An influx in cases can be based on testing, so if we have an exuberant amount of tests, we can expect the cases to increase dramatically.

What recent mitigation measures has Brookline taken?

It is now mandatory that everybody wears a mask once they leave their home, whether it be exercising, walking, or doing an essential task such as grocery shopping or going to the pharmacy or the doctor. We made sure that there was some type of preventive measure in place to stop the spread of disease.

How strictly is this new regulation being enforced? What happens if you happen to be outside and you’re not wearing a mask?

Right now, we hope that people voluntarily do it without enforcement. We are really focused on the business aspect right now to ensure every business is requiring their employees to wear masks and also people who enter the facilities to wear a mask. If people are not wearing masks, we might look toward doing some enforcement at that time, but we haven’t set that plan in motion yet. If we were to fine individuals, the fine would be $50. If we fine a facility, it would be $50 for every employee who is not wearing a mask and the fine would go to the employer.

What safety precautions should everyone be taking?

Stay away from people, stay within the cohort of your family, don’t engage in public with anybody else, wear a mask and stay further than six feet from anybody in public. I would limit my access to going outside and stay in the confines of my home and leave only if necessary. The more you leave your home, the more you’re putting yourself at risk.

When do you expect Brookline and other areas to begin reopening?

I think most of the country will start moving toward reopening no later than June 1. You will see some reopening happening around the country, but it should depend on how many cases you have in a community, if your cases have peaked and if you have been on a decline of new cases over the last two to three weeks. You don’t want to reopen a community and all of a sudden you have a spike in new cases. The key is the ability to control it. You have to have the ability to control the outbreak and not introduce more cases to an outbreak like this.

When we do reopen, what might the “new normal” look like?

You would see how to do social distancing in a workplace, what type of personal protective equipment (PPE) frontline workers need and staggered work schedules. You would also see facilities clean more than usual just to ensure that people coming in and out don’t spread the virus. You would see a lot of facilities requiring not only employees but also people coming into the building for services to wear a mask.

If a second wave of COVID-19 were to occur, what would it look like and how would we go about addressing it?

A potential second wave would be a spike in cases again. I think the system that we have in place now would be better prepared to handle it. I think we would be more alert with monitoring and surveillance. You would readily see people respond a little bit faster, and they will be able to build up their supplies and what’s needed to be able to address it.

Is there any way to predict whether or not a second wave will occur?

No. Everything is still unknown because we don’t know if between now and September if we’ll have a vaccine. But if we still have cases occurring, which we probably will at that point, then there’s always a likelihood of an outbreak to occur or a second wave to emerge. There are one or two things that can happen: we have a vaccine or everybody practices the mitigation measures put forth and stick to them, which means you always wear a mask, gloves and goggles and practice social distancing. Those things have proven to stop the re-emergence of disease.

When would a possible second wave occur?

As soon as schools reopen, so in Brookline, we’re looking at September. Whenever schools reopen and everyone returns back to work.

What message do you want to give to high schoolers?

Stay safe and stay smart. The key to it all is that what they do might save somebody’s life. It might not be visible, but this impacts everybody. We don’t want anybody to be careless this summer. We want everybody to be safe and be healthy.