As COVID reporting scaled back, some still want the data

  • Rowen Hashim, 11, left, with her mother, Jill Johnson, stepfather Tim Sossa and baby brother Nathaniel Sossa, discuss their views on the COVID vaccine for teens in Northampton last month. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/6/2021 7:56:30 PM

EASTHAMPTON — When the city’s public health nurse, Amy Hardt, created a COVID-19 dashboard in March, just under 6% of eligible Easthampton and Westhampton residents had been vaccinated against the virus, and Easthampton was in the state’s second-highest risk category for COVID-19 transmission.

Over the months, Hardt’s weekly updates have shifted into a more optimistic picture: In a Tuesday morning update, Hardt reported that just three confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been recorded in Easthampton throughout June, all of which were mild. Meanwhile, 65% of eligible Easthampton and Westhampton residents are fully vaccinated, while 73% are at least partially vaccinated.

The latest statistics bring Easthampton to its lowest case levels since the pandemic began, according to Hardt, who also noted that all three cases occurred in unvaccinated people. The improving statistics are “excellent news,” Hardt said, though she remains cautious about the future trajectory of the virus.

“I think it’s very expected that our case numbers have dropped so low, particularly with it being the summer season and so many activities taking place outside with full ventilation,” Hardt said.

But, “I am curious about what will happen in the fall,” she noted. “I feel cautious about the continued development of new variants, and it’s feasible that even by late fall — when we all become more vulnerable by being indoors and having dropped our mask requirements, if that remains the case — it’s possible we will find ourselves in a new landscape around transmission.”

While the city ended its state of emergency on July 1, some residents are still proceeding with caution into the so-called new normal: Hardt and the Health Department had originally planned to halt the weekly updates after the Tuesday morning dashboard, anticipating that interest in the statistics had stopped at this point in the pandemic. But health officials received requests from residents and other city officials to continue posting the updates, Hardt said, and resolved later that day to continue to update the dashboard on a weekly basis throughout the summer, then reevaluate the situation in the fall.

Local and statewide trends

Case numbers and vaccination rates are generally improving locally and across the state: As of July 1, 68% of Hampshire County residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to the overall rate of 62% of residents across the state. But it still lags behind most counties, including Berkshire and Franklin counties, which have reached 76% and 74% vaccination rates, respectively. Hampden County, meanwhile, sits at the state average of 62%.

Elsewhere in Hampshire County, the state reported that Amherst and Pelham collectively have 36% of residents fully vaccinated and 44% at least partially vaccinated; Belchertown 58% and 64%; Granby 57% and 63%; Hatfield 68% and 76%; Huntington 60% at least partial; Northampton 66% and 75%; South Hadley 54% and 61%; Southampton 64% and 70%; Ware 49% and 54%; and Williamsburg at greater than 95% for full and partial vaccination. Other communities did not have vaccination data included in the report. Communities with the same area code share vaccination data under state reporting.

In Hampden County, the state reports that 47% of Holyoke residents are fully vaccinated, and 53% are at least partially vaccinated.

In Amherst, which presented the lowest vaccination rates in combination with Pelham, the town’s large proportion of young adults and college students contributes to these comparatively low figures, according to Amherst Health Director Emma Dragon.

In general, older people tend to have higher vaccination rates, as reflected in Amherst and Pelham: Over 95% of residents ages 65 to 74 in the towns are fully vaccinated, according to state data, compared to 10% of 16-to-19-year-olds and 19% of 20-to-29-year-olds. These age brackets make up over 60% of Amherst’s population, Dragon said.

Additionally, some area college students list their address in Amherst for census purposes but report their address from their home state or community when registering for a vaccine.

Amherst has had one confirmed COVID-19 case in the past three weeks, Dragon said, though some people received probable results with rapid antigen testing, which tends to be less reliable.

Additionally, “many less people are getting tested now than they were about six months ago, so that’s probably a factor as well,” Dragon said, “but we’re happy that the numbers are lower.”

While the state and some communities are cutting back the frequency of their data updates — or considered the option, such as Easthampton — vaccination rates still have room for improvement, said Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts.

The Public Health Institute does not have any plans to scale back its own dashboard in the near future, according to Collins. In the future, the Public Health Institute may expand the dashboard to include other issues that present health inequities, Collins said — as has been the case with COVID, which has disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx people.

Collins also continued to caution people to “marry the data with prevention” and continue to take measures such as staying home and getting tested if they feel sick, and wearing a mask on public transportation and in medical settings.

“I think we still want to make sure that COVID is still taken seriously,” Collins said, “and we want to continue highlighting the inequities that we are seeing in morbidity and mortality, and I think it is important to continue to show the vaccine rates.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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