A single residence in Middleton is a culture of COVID-19 so virulent that it shaded the entire town red on the state’s map of coronavirus hot spots. It’s not a nursing home or a college dormitory but instead the Essex County Jail on Manning Avenue. And its scarlet numbers are unfairly pinned on the town, freezing Middleton and its population of some 10,110 people on the state’s reopening timeline.

Gov. Charlie Baker is resistant to change the label, telling reporters this week the state’s job is to “put the data out there as it stands” and work with city and town leaders on how to respond. Until those data are refreshed and the number of new cases drops, the entire town will be forced to abide occupancy limits on outdoor venues and other restrictions associated with earlier phases of reopening from the COVID-19 shutdown.

Numbers get updated Wednesday evenings, so Middleton at this point could still be riding out its fever, or it could be sprung from its COVID-19 timeout with a yellow or green designation indicating a reduced likelihood of spread.

In either case, it should not have been made to wait.

This isn’t to minimize the COVID-19 spike at the jail. Last week Sheriff Kevin Coppinger announced 139 prisoners had tested positive, or about 1 in 7 people held in the lockup, as well as 33 employees and vendors. The virus snuck in despite a litany of precautions, said Coppinger, who announced additional steps to contain the coronavirus. The vast number of cases had no symptoms at all, he noted. A more aggressive testing regimen was expected to discover even more cases.

But unlike most any other COVID-19 cluster — college students, for example, with freedom of movement and the inclination to use it — there’s little likelihood the inmates of Middleton’s jail will stop for a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts or pick up some milk and peanut butter at the market. They’re not granted freedom to leave, they’re not sharing our space. Jail employees don’t necessarily live locally, so their cases wouldn’t sway the town’s numbers like those of its prisoners.

This is to say nothing for the stigma of a red blot on Middleton, which lends itself more to a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne than Stephen Crane. It’s one Middleton should not have been made to wear. 

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