Hamsphire County wrestles with rising case counts

  • At Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, staff members work at their drive-up COVID-19 testing station located in a blocked-off parking lot at the corner of Federal and Beacon streets, Thursday, April 23, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/21/2020 11:25:05 AM
Modified: 11/21/2020 11:24:51 AM

NORTHAMPTON — As the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to rise across the state — including in Hampshire County — one area doctor is pleading with residents to not visit relatives outside of their households for the holidays and to continue practicing preventive measures against the coronavirus.

As a result of the rising case counts, school officials in Easthampton and Hatfield recently voted to transition back to remote learning. Meanwhile, several area businesses are shutting down for the winter amid worries about the spread of the virus.

According to data released by the state Department of Public Health, Hampshire County reported 367 new coronavirus cases between Nov. 1 and Nov. 14, compared to 239 new COVID-19 cases reported between Oct. 25 and Nov. 7. Between Oct. 18 and Oct. 31, the county reported 114 new cases, according to the DPH.

“Pretend it’s March 2020 and use those same kinds of precautions you used then, because we’re heading into that kind of situation again, even though it looks a little different,” said Dr. Joanne Levin, medical director of infection prevention at Cooley Dickinson Health Care.

In Hampden County, Holyoke was labeled as higher risk for COVID-19 infection by the state for having an average daily case rate of 53.4 per 100,000 people between Nov. 1 and Nov. 14, according to state data released Thursday. The data also shows an increase in case counts for every town in Hampshire County compared to the previous two-week period of Oct. 25 to Nov. 7, except for Middlefield, which had no change, and Southampton and Chesterfield, which reported lower numbers of relative cases.

While the state does consistently release comprehensive data about COVID-19, it does not always provide visualizations such as graphs to explain county-level trends. The state DPH did say this week that the state is working on a digital interactive dashboard that is expected to launch in early 2021.

Joe Pater, a linguistics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, decided to crunch the raw county data the state releases daily to create a graph showing a rolling seven-day total of new cases in Hampshire County since the beginning of the pandemic. According to his analysis posted on his online blog, Hampshire County this past week recorded the highest number of new cases ever in a single seven-day period.

“It shouldn’t be me telling you this,” Pater said. “It should be the public health officers.”

These increasing numbers are being felt at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, where as of Friday, five people were hospitalized for COVID-19. Between Sept. 8 and Oct. 23, the hospital had zero confirmed COVID-19 inpatients.

Levin said Wednesday she also sees the numbers of positive COVID-19 cases that come through the hospital’s drive-thru testing site, and that there’s been “a big increase … And interestingly, that has not yet translated into admissions or even emergency department visits.”

“We’re seeing clusters where people are crowded together indoors, and we really started seeing this as the weather got colder a few weeks ago,” Levin said.

She said she believes that “we’re at a dangerous point” because people are getting mixed messages with many businesses still open.

“Perhaps they feel like they can socialize as usual, meaning socialize indoors with people who are outside their household,” Levin said. “And I think that’s where the danger is.”

Cooley Dickinson announced Monday that it has restricted visitors for inpatients to one person per day, with exceptions made on a case-by-case basis. Levin said staff wear face masks and eye protection, and patients are also asked to wear masks. She said patients are all tested for COVID-19 upon admission and that retesting is happening when needed.

“We actually believe that the hospital is a pretty safe place to be right now,” Levin said. “We really do encourage people to continue to get medical care when they need medical care.”

At Holyoke Medical Center, according to DPH data from Friday, 13 inpatients are confirmed to have COVID-19, with one of those in the ICU. Last Wednesday, the hospital made the decision to restrict all visitation except for those with specific circumstances, according to hospital spokesperson Rebecca McGregor.

In Springfield, a spokesperson for Baystate Medical Center said Friday that a COVID-19 outbreak has infected 37 employees and nine patients. There, as of Friday, 62 people are hospitalized for COVID-19 — nine of whom are in the hospital’s ICU.

According to the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office, an inmate has remained hospitalized after he caught COVID-19 while being treated at a hospital for a chronic illness. Two officers with the sheriff’s office who had contact with the inmate while they were at the hospital have tested positive for the disease. As of Friday, the sheriff’s office says there are no cases of COVID-19 inside the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction in Northampton.

Levin said that the “very tricky thing about this virus” is that people can spread COVID-19 without knowing they are sick, because it typically takes awhile for symptoms to show. She said a negative COVID-19 test does not always mean a person is cleared of the disease, as the virus can incubate in a person’s system for 14 days.

Levin expressed “great fear about the upcoming holidays,” she said, “because I think the pull of family and friends is very, very strong, particularly when people are so exhausted of all of the stresses of this pandemic.”

“Do not go visiting relatives who are not in your household,” she said. “Just don’t do it.”

The state DPH reported 2,532 new COVID-19 cases across Massachusetts on Thursday, bringing the state’s total to 192,050 confirmed cases of the disease since March. The nation as a whole is seeing a surge in cases; it averaged 166,272 cases per day over the last week, according to The New York Times on Friday, which the newspaper reports is 73% higher than the average two weeks ago.


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