Some members express skepticism as Northampton health board debates vax passport

  • A slide from Northampton public health nurse Vivian Franklin's virtual presentation to the Board of Health on Jan. 13, 2022, shows the latest data on COVID-19 cases in the city. —Northampton Health Dept.

Staff Writer
Published: 1/13/2022 9:29:01 PM
Modified: 1/13/2022 9:28:08 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Board of Health again took up the controversial issue of a COVID-19 vaccine passport for entering the city’s indoor businesses on Thursday night, but did not vote on the proposal.

Several board members expressed skepticism that such a requirement would reduce transmission of the coronavirus, and Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary said “we don’t have the data” to show a specific connection between indoor businesses and COVID-19 transmission.

“I would hate to see us make a policy that would have such a huge negative unintended consequence (on businesses) without this data point,” O’Leary said. “We see a lot of our transmission happening in households and between friends and families in gatherings.”

The board did not take public comment, calling Thursday’s discussion a continuation of the Dec. 28 meeting at which nearly 80 people spoke, but said it would allow public comment at the next virtual meeting scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 20, at 5:30 p.m.

Board member Dr. Suzanne Smith, a physician and former infectious disease and public health expert with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the evidence that a vaccine passport would have the desired effect “is lacking,” especially considering the high number of breakthrough cases during the spread of the omicron variant.

“The rationale for (the vaccine passport proposal) is that limiting space to only those who are fully vaccinated would reduce or eliminate transmission, and then customers and staff could assume that they’re at a lower risk of being infected,” Smith said, but “it would not screen out asymptomatic, infectious persons who are vaccinated, so the intervention wouldn’t do what was intended.”

The proposal would require everyone 5 and older to show proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 before entering restaurants, gyms and other indoor businesses throughout the city. People 18 and older would also have to show identification. The order would apply to employees, as well.

A draft of the public health order defines full vaccination as both shots in a two-shot series — or one shot of Johnson & Johnson vaccine — plus a booster shot if eligible.

Dr. Joanne Levin, the board’s chair and medical director of infection prevention at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, said the CDC has gathered “good data” on the vaccines’ effectiveness at preventing infection with previous COVID-19 variants like delta, but “very little” about the omicron variant.

Full vaccination and booster shots “will make a difference in hospitalization and death. I believe that,” Levin said. “Will it make a difference in transmission? That’s the question that we don’t have the information for, I think.”

Omicron still surging

Public health nurse Vivian Franklin told the board that since the Dec. 28 meeting, at which board members heard three hours of public comment that was overwhelmingly against the proposed order, the city has recorded 743 confirmed new cases of COVID-19, and that 23% of all cases in the city during the pandemic have occurred in the 12 days since Jan. 1.

Due to the high transmissibility of the omicron variant, Franklin said, “That’s in keeping with trends that we’re seeing across the nation, across the state. So I don’t know if that’s surprising, but it’s still alarming.”

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported 18,721 new cases statewide on Thursday alone and 36 deaths. Also Thursday, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported 41,063 students and 7,351 school staff tested positive for COVID-19 between Jan. 6-12.

Northampton recorded 108 new cases on Jan. 3 and the average daily count for the past seven days was 73 cases, Franklin said. The case counts are “likely an undercount,” she said, because at-home antigen test results are not included.

The hospitalization rate, she said, was 1.4% in the last month, a figure that only counts inpatient admissions and not emergency department or urgent care visits.

“The problem is that our local hospitals are also serving other communities,” Franklin said. “In addition to that, COVID patients tend to have long hospital stays, so they are taking up beds.”

‘Our beds are totally full’

Many of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

“It’s rare to see patients with booster doses admitted to the hospital,” Levin said.

Each COVID-19 patient at Cooley Dickinson is in a private room, and Levin said it takes more time to care for them because medical staff need to don personal protective equipment and follow other protocols.

“The hospital is not functioning as normal,” she said. “We’ve cut down a lot on elective procedures and surgeries, and some of the staff from the procedural areas are helping out in the ICU and on other floors.”

At the peak of previous surges, Levin said the hospital had 21 inpatient admissions, but during the spread of omicron, the peak was 26.

“Our beds are totally full, and we have people being, on paper, admitted but not actually having a bed, and we have an overflow area in our procedural area,” Levin said.

In Northampton, 78% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Health Department.

The businesses that would have to abide by the proposed vaccine passport would include all indoor dining establishments, bars, nightclubs, catering halls, hotel banquet rooms, gyms and fitness centers, dance and yoga/Pilates studios, concert venues, museums, bowling alleys, adult entertainment locations, arcades and pools, among others.

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


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