Cases tick up in Valley towns — some despite vaccinations

  • A vaccine clinic held in Holyoke in March 2021. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/22/2021 6:59:59 AM

NORTHAMPTON — COVID-19 cases are rising in the state and in the region, but medical experts say the high level of vaccinations in Hampshire County is likely keeping in check a corresponding increase in hospitalizations and deaths.

“From the perspective of the nation and the state, we are seeing an uptick, still predominantly in the unvaccinated,” says Dr. Estevan Garcia, chief medical officer at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. “But there have been some breakthrough cases that tend to be mild and less severe, and tend not to need hospitalization, necessarily.”

Among the 13 new cases in the county over the two-week period ending July 10, a 63% increase from the eight cases in the previous two-week span, some were among people already fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Both Easthampton and Amherst have had several of these breakthrough cases among their positive tests.

In Easthampton, where two-thirds of residents are fully vaccinated, four of the five new cases came in inoculated individuals.

Amy Hardt, the city’s public health nurse, said she is aware of fewer than 10 breakthrough cases so far, but more are beginning to show up, likely due to Delta variant, which has been estimated to be 225% more transmissible than previous strains. This prompted the issuing of an advisory that anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, no matter how minor or whether they’ve been vaccinated, get a PCR test.

“Unfortunately, the Delta variant seems to be less deterred by both natural and vaccine-derived immunity,” Hardt said. “Vaccinated people are still more protected against Delta than those who aren’t, though, especially against the most severe outcomes.”

Amherst has five newly confirmed cases and five probable cases, based on the dashboard released Monday. Some of these are among those who already got their shots. “Yes, some of the cases were among vaccinated individuals,” said Health Director Emma Dragon.

In Northampton, there have been fewer than five new COVID-19 cases since July 1, according to a dashboard posted by the city.

Like Hardt, Dragon is less concerned about infections among vaccinated individuals in the state, which remain rare.

“Only 0.1% of the more than 4.3 million fully vaccinated population has tested positive, and an overwhelming majority of those have not had to be hospitalized,” Dragon said.

But Dragon also notes that the number of new cases in Massachusetts is likely higher than reported because fewer people are seeking testing than did last year. Dragon points to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describing the numbers as “likely an undercount” of all infections in vaccinated people, and she encourages people to keep using the walk-in testing program open four days a week at the University of Massachusetts.

Hardt, too, said it is difficult to know how many breakthrough cases there have been due to less routine testing, lower suspicion among vaccinated people that they are sick with minor or no symptoms following exposure, and incomplete vaccination data in the state’s communicable disease database.

COVID-19 numbers are up statewide, with 217.7 cases per day on the seven-day average released Monday, more than triple the daily rolling average of 63.9 on June 25. In April, more than 1,900 cases were being identified per day. But the 105.6 hospitalizations average over the seven days on Monday was up from the 84.8 average on July 9, still well below the 700 per day in hospitals in April. And deaths per day are at 1.9 for the seven-day average. As April began, deaths in Massachusetts from COVID-19 were at almost 30 per day.

Garcia said these trends are also exhibited Cooley Dickinson, which has no hospitalized COVID-19 patients currently and has only seen one to two in recent weeks.

The under 1% positivity rate is also good. “The concern is around the question of who is most susceptible — those who can’t be vaccinated,” Garcia said, adding that there should be a push for parents, grandparents and older siblings to get vaccinated to protect the young,

Hardt recommends getting vaccinated.

“These particular vaccines are extremely effective against severe illness and death, and very effective against transmission, even as the virus continues to mutate,” Hardt wrote in a message to the community. Two walk-up vaccine clinics will be held in the city Monday, at the Easthampton Community Center and Big E’s.

Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick J. Cahillane noted the vaccine success. As of Wednesday morning, no COVID-19 cases are present inside the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, and his medical team is prepared to provide 75 of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

Anyone interested in getting vaccinated should contact Bridget Campbell, medical office manager, at 413-584-5911, ext. 1237, to arrange for an appointment at the site or an in-home visit from a nursing staff member. The vaccines will be available through Aug. 6.

Whether mask mandates will return, Hardt said the public should remember the Swiss cheese model of protection, with hand hygiene and social distancing, staying at home when not feeling well and avoiding crowded spaces part of the effort that also includes vaccinations.

Dragon said relaxed public health mitigation practices are causing the caseload to rise. “People are seeking their ‘normal’ again and are tired of public health measures,” she said.

As health director in Amherst, Dragon mandates masks in public spaces in town buildings, such as meeting and activity rooms, stairwells, lobbies and bathrooms.

Garcia said he agrees with the American Academy of Pediatrics that masks should be worn in all school classrooms, and recommends that it’s smart to wear one when indoors. Cooley Dickinson not only continues to require masks but is also screening everyone who enters the building.

While Hampshire County is doing well with vaccines, there are hotspots in Springfield where vaccine hesitancy continues, and Garcia said he has worked with peers at Baystate Medical, Holyoke Medical and Mercy Hospital to convince residents that vaccines work.

Garcia wants to set the stage for when those under 12 get vaccinated, likely by mid-winter.

“We need to normalize the fact that vaccinating children will increase herd immunity and limit variants,” Garcia said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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