CDC downgrades virus risk in Hampshire, Franklin counties

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  • Brianna Torrey, a technical assistant at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences Clinical Testing Center, or ICTC, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, works Wednesday in a room with three liquid handler robots that extract RNA from COVID-19 test samples sent to the center. According to ICTC Director Peter Reinhart, the center has processed 500,000 tests in the last 12 months with a typical turnaround time of 19 to 24 hours. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • UMass Amherst biology major Isabel Soediono logs in COVID-19 test samples in the accessioning room of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences Clinical Testing Center, Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Brianna Torrey, left, a technical assistant at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Institute for Applied Life Sciences Clinical Testing Center, or ICTC, cleans one of the robots at the center on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. ICTC Director Peter Reinhart, at right, says the center has processed 500,000 COVID-19 tests in the last 12 months with a typical turnaround time of 19 to 24 hours. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Peter Reinhart, Director of the Clinical Testing Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Institute for Applied Life Sciences, explains the steps for processing a COVID-19 test on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. The center has processed 500,000 tests in the last 12 months with a typical turnaround time of 19 to 24 hours. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Lillian Jones, the program assistant of the Amherst Health Department, collects COVID test kits from the Community COVID test drop box in front the Bangs Center in Amherst, Oct. 13, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lillian Jones, the program assistant of the Amherst Health Department, collects COVID test kits from the drop box in front the Bangs Center in Amherst, Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/13/2021 8:21:23 PM

Hampshire and Franklin counties are now experiencing “substantial” community transmission of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, down one level from the “high” designation that covered every county in the state for the past several weeks.

“Substantial” transmission means either 50 to 100 new cases per 100,000 residents or a test positivity rate between 8% and 10% over the last seven days. The “substantial” designation in Hampshire and Franklin counties is based on the dropping case rate.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Franklin County has seen a 72% drop in cases in the last two weeks, with three deaths, while Hampshire County cases are down 71%, with four deaths. The state agency also reports a 50% drop in hospitalizations over the last two weeks in Franklin County and a 22% drop in Hampshire County.

Below is a look at COVID caseloads and initiatives in the three largest communities in the two counties.

Northampton

On Thursday, the School Committee is scheduled to vote on whether “to send a letter to the Northampton Board of Health requesting a local mandate for students to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in order to attend school in Northampton,” according to the meeting agenda. Belchertown is considering a similar mandate for students in extracurricular activities.

Northampton’s full vaccination rate is more than 76% of the eligible population, higher than the 66% rate throughout Hampshire County. City health officials still run regular vaccine clinics and pop-up/mobile clinics, although doses are no longer administered at the Senior Center.

The Northampton Board of Health imposed both indoor and outdoor mask mandates at subsequent meetings in August, citing the “high” level of community transmission at the time and the spread of the delta variant. The last meeting of the board was on Sept. 9, when some members spoke in favor of vaccine mandates for municipal employees, and policies requiring that patrons of businesses show proof of vaccination upon entering, but took no such action.

The next Board of Health meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 21, at 5:30 p.m., and will be held virtually.

In an Oct. 5 open letter addressed to all employers in Northampton, the board wrote that it is “gravely concerned” by the pandemic and recommended mandating vaccination of all employees while allowing for medical and religious exemptions.

“We are particularly concerned in light of the upcoming fall and winter seasons, when people will begin to spend more time indoors,” the board wrote. “And as you may be aware, the highly contagious delta variant now accounts for almost all positive cases recorded in Massachusetts.”

The board suggested that employers provide paid time off for employees to receive the vaccination “and to recuperate from potential short-term vaccine side effects.”

Smith College reports that 98% of staff and 98.6% of on-campus students are vaccinated, but the data does not differentiate between those who are fully vaccinated and those who have only received the first in a two-shot series. The college has identified 17 cases of COVID-19 since mid-August.

Greenfield

Greenfield health officials say that 63% of eligible people are fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, while Mass. DPH reports that 72% of eligible people in Franklin County are fully vaccinated.

“We’re still diligent with our mask-wearing as more activities start to move inside” due to changing weather, Greenfield Public Health Director Jennifer Hoffman said. “We’re still trying to promote vaccination. That is the No. 1 prevention of getting COVID. Vaccination, hand washing, wearing your mask and socially distancing when appropriate.”

Large retailers in the city such as Home Depot and Big Y imposed their own mask mandates through company policy, and even though “some people do not want to wear masks, and there’s a lot of controversy,” Hoffman said there has not been a problem with mask compliance at businesses.

The health department administered 17,000 doses of vaccine at city-run clinics, Hoffman said, and plans to hold booster shot clinics once there is a booster available for the Moderna vaccine.

The city has run its COVID-19 response through an emergency command center, located within the John Zon Community Center at 35 Pleasant St., where officials meet every Thursday to discuss the latest case numbers and any needed responses.

“We are following state lead, and we’re following our neighbors and surrounding communities,” Hoffman said. “From the onset, we kept the numbers low in Greenfield by mandating following the governor’s guidelines early on. … We’ve had big discussions about keeping the city safe.”

Amherst

The Amherst Health Department and UMass Amherst are now offering free unobserved testing through the Bangs Community Center, 70 Boltwood Walk, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Testing is available for anyone 4 and older without symptoms of COVID-19; anyone with symptoms should call their doctor.

Test kits are also available at the Jones Library adult circulation desk during regular library hours. All test kits should be returned to the secure drop box outside the main entrance of the Bangs Community Center.

Drop-off is available 24/7 and results are returned within 24 to 48 hours. Those who drop off their kit on Friday or over the weekend should expect results by Monday evening or Tuesday.

Amherst’s indoor public mask mandate, which went into effect on Sept. 9, states that it will be rescinded only after “the Amherst Health Director determines through local and regional metrics that the risk of COVID-19 spread is significantly diminished.”

The town reports a 77% full vaccination rate, higher than the overall Hampshire County rate of 66%. On Wednesday, the town had 23 active cases of COVID-19.

After a recent vote by the Amherst Regional School Committee, all Amherst public school students eligible for FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines will be required to get their shots by Dec. 1.

UMass Amherst identified 21 cases of COVID-19 between Sept. 29 and Oct. 6, with 14 among students living on campus. The latest figures are due to be released Thursday.

Amherst College reports one staff member with an active COVID-19 infection, while Hampshire College reports zero cases identified out of 642 tests between Oct. 1-7 and five cases for the fall semester to date.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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