HAVERHILL — Mayor James Fiorentini is asking residents to wear masks, avoid family gatherings and take other safety precautions after a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases in the city.

He said the increase in cases could result in Haverhill being moved from the state's yellow moderate-risk zone to the red high-risk zone.

Although Haverhill has been in the yellow zone for the past few weeks, the mayor said the number of COVID-19 cases had been dropping to where the city was close to reaching the preferred green low-risk zone.

In a social media post Thursday, Fiorentini said things changed suddenly over the previous two days with 11 new cases reported one day and 13 another day. 

He said he anticipates additional cases to be reported by Friday and that in all probability, when a summary of this week's numbers are released next week, the city will pushed into the red zone.

Being in the red zone serves as a warning to the public about a higher risk of being exposed to the virus. It also puts the city at risk of more remote online learning from home for students instead of time in classrooms, depending on how long or often Haverhill is listed in the red zone.

Fiorentini said he is reaching out to the state to see if he can bring the state's Stop the Spread program to Haverhill to increase testing.

Stop the Spread is a strategic testing program for Massachusetts communities that continue to have an increasing number of residents testing positive for COVID-19. The program supports testing asymptomatic (tested positive but show no symptoms) people in those communities to help stop the spread of the virus.

The mayor said there are several reasons for the recent spike in cases in Haverhill, including a large outbreak at one nursing home, which he did not name.

"People are still being tested, but staff and patients are both infected," he said. "The state is in there now working with them. I do not think I am allowed to release the name of the home, but will find out."

He said a second factor is something he warned about: Family gatherings and other social occasions over the Labor Day weekend.

"At least some of these cases are from family get-togethers and parties," he said. 

Spread of the virus among family members continues to be a big problem, the mayor said.

"For whatever reason, some people can't (or won't) isolate from the rest of their families," he said. "We are seeing repeated instances where one family member tests positive and then multiple members of the same extended family test positive. This is particularly so if one member of the family tests positive. If that occurs, your entire immediate family is asked to quarantine. It is really, really critical that members do that."

He said one cluster of cases is related to a church outside Haverhill.

"In one family cluster where 10 people tested positive, the first person to test (positive) was from a church outside the city," he said. "If you go to church, please observe social distancing and wear your mask."

Fiorentini noted that many of Haverhilll's recent cases are linked together.

"Only about 20% of the cases are not linked to another case, which means that the community spread is still not great and of course we need to keep it that way," he said. "Many of the infected cases were people who were already quarantined because another family member was positive."

None of the infected people who were questioned for the sake of contact tracing mentioned going to a local restaurant, he said.

The mayor urged residents not to panic and said he will speak with the city's health advisors to see what steps can be taken to prevent more spread of the virus. He said he will be working with the city's Board of Health to strengthen mask and contact tracing rules.

"I will be speaking with the police to see if there is anything further we can do about gatherings,'' he said of enforcing efforts against people spending time in groups, "and believe me, we hate to do this.''

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