NEWBURYPORT -- Mayor Donna Holaday said health officials are tracking four COVID-19 cases in the city "and are awaiting confirmation" of tests Thursday afternoon.
All four individuals are in quarantine, she said in a statement on local cable TV, detailing the steps taken to limit exposure across the city while "keeping local government operational."
In the broadcast, the mayor also declared a local state of emergency, stressing the importance of limiting the spread of the highly contagious virus.
She spoke about "what this crisis demands of each and every one of us," adding, "We are not powerless and we are not alone."
With massive evidence about coronavirus spreading around the country, Holaday said "there is no question, according to all public health reports, that we can expect numbers to increase across the state and within our community."
As of Thursday afternoon the state Department of Public Health reported 328 confirmed cases in Massachusetts including 19 in Essex County.
"This crisis demands that each and every one of us do our part to minimize the spread of this disease," she said. "We are all in this together so we all need to work together and we will all get through this together."
Holaday acknowledged the hardships that have come from closing schools and public buildings, putting severe limits on restaurants and other businesses, prohibiting groups from gathering and the push for people to stay home. But she said "it's clear the severity of this virus may lead to more restrictive measures and additional closures."
By declaring a local state of emergency, Holaday said city officials can deploy resources and personnel necessary to meet the community's needs and put in place "additional directives to the public as this situation develops." She said that declaration also provides a formal mechanism for the city to be reimbursed by the federal government for its emergency response.
There is no vaccine for coronavirus, health officials are facing limited testing capacity and the virus is highly contagious, she said. "That makes this virus a serious public health issue because it can spread quickly and unknowingly."
"The older population and those with existing health conditions are highly susceptible to the disease and highly vulnerable," she said in urging consistent hygiene practices and social distancing for everyone.
Symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Coronavirus is "highly contagious and over 10 times more deadly than the flu," Holaday said.
In her statement, Holaday outlined the steps the city has taken, working with the school department and public buildings while continuing to keep city services running. She praised the City Council for "swiftly and thoughtfully creating policies" to suspend all in-person public meetings "to minimize chances of exposure," while setting up a framework for holding virtual, online meetings.
Many city employees are working remotely and have adjusted their schedules, giving flexibility to those who are sharing in child care or caring for elderly relatives, she said.
She praised city employees. "We can't thank them enough. They leave their families at home every day to take care of our needs and will continue to do so during the COVID-19 situation."
Citing the "devasting" impact on local business owners and employees, Holaday cited the many businesses that have stepped up to help people in need.
But "it will get worse before we things improve," she said.
Hundreds of people have signed up with Newburyport Youth Services to volunteer to run errands, provide childcare and other functions, the mayor said, urging people to volunteer if they can.
"It's incredible how dramatically all our lives have changed in just one week. Last Thursday our schools were still open and it was business as usual. This past week has been hard for everyone," she said. "For many, paychecks are gone and bills are piling up. Childcare has become a serious issue. We are all affected and together we can all do our part to get through these tough times and whatever else this virus brings."
In an interview earlier Thursday, Holaday cited the lack of available testing for the virus that makes work difficult for local first responders. And during a call Thursday morning with numerous mayors and state officials, she said it became clear that the issue is widespread.
“Different communities are having different issues, but the largest one is the lack of testing,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with, and that’s really a concern for our first responders being safe. There is also a serious lack of protective equipment and ventilators across the country and state.”
Holaday also said she has talked with many of the city’s restaurateurs, who are “really, really hurting” from the lack of business caused by the pandemic, and said she has concerns for small business owners and other residents who are suffering because of the current lockdown.
“The not knowing, worrying about city and school employees and small businesses, those are real concerns, and we’re trying to stop as much as possible the spread of this in our community,” said Holaday.
As the number of confirmed cases continues to rise across the state, Holaday said she hopes more testing will become available and that people will be as precautious as possible to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the local area.
To follow the city’s COVID-19 response updates, visit https://www.cityofnewburyport.com/covid-19update
For updates from the state on coronavirus by county, visit www.mass.gov/info-details/covid-19-cases-quarantine-and-monitoring#covid-19-cases-in-massachusetts
For updates from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, visit www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV
Staff reporter Jack Shea contributed to this story.