A hairline distinction over geography has deep implications for our town and our neighbor when it comes to counting COVID-19 cases.

A large portion of the Merrimack Valley tipped into the “red” on a state map tracking transmission rates a couple of weeks ago. In North Andover, an outbreak of COVID-19 at Merrimack College was the biggest factor — so big, in fact, that the town would’ve still been coded “green” or “yellow” without it.

This despite the fact that the college’s COVID-19 outbreak, strictly speaking, was mostly here in Andover.

The Merrimack College campus straddles the towns, and at least 43 of its 110 positive tests for COVID-19 since reopening in mid-August were traced to an outbreak in Monican Centre. The dormitory is geographically located in Andover.

All of the college’s cases get chalked up to North Andover, however, because that’s where the Merrimack College mailing happens to be.

This distinction matters because whether a community is considered red, yellow, green or nothing at all, dictates its position on the state’s reopening timeline. Outdoor performance venues, museums and libraries are now allowed to open to 50% capacity under the gradually lifting limits of Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration — except in red communities.

“We have the red designation because in another community there was a spike, but unfortunately the address it was written on, the college address, is North Andover,” Selectwoman Rosemary Smedile told reporter Genevieve DiNatale last week. “It’s just really troubling. There’s just such an unfairness to this process, for a community that was low in the green that has jumped up to red, and it’s not even on our land.”

North Andover’s selectmen are asking the state to reconsider the designation. It hasn’t happened yet. Presumably changing the North Andover designation would mean reclassifying some of the college’s COVID-19 cases to Andover, which as of the start of this week was still shaded yellow but, with a few dozen more cases, could tip into the red.

Be that as it may, North Andover’s selectmen are right: Distinctions made for the state’s color-coded map are unfair. If the map truly means to show where COVID-19 transmission rates are highest, in this case anyway, it’s inaccurate.

Granted, assigning COVID-19 cases at the college to one town or the next may come down to hair-splitting distinctions based on where someone on campus sleeps or is quarantined.

But, as far as the Monican Centre outbreak is concerned, that isn’t the case. Those cases happened in Andover.

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