NEW BEDFORD — On Thursday, the Department of Public Health reported an alarming statistic: New cases of COVID-19 are roughly doubling every other week in New Bedford.

The DPH reported 437 new cases of COVID-19 in the city since Aug. 1, and New Bedford has the third-highest number of new cases in the state during the month of August, behind only Boston and Springfield.

Meanwhile, New Bedford remains among the least vaccinated areas in the state — stoking renewed discussions of a city mask mandate and worrisome forecasts for the fall ahead. 

“Any time we see a doubling, or a significant increase in our positive cases, we are concerned,” said Damon Chaplin, director of the city Health Department. 

Last week, the state reported an average of 40.1 new cases daily in New Bedford. The week of July 20 to July 26, New Bedford averaged 24.2 new cases each day. The week before that, 12.2 cases were reported on average each day in New Bedford. 

The rise in cases has prompted a plea for the unvaccinated to get their shots to slow this recent COVID-19 resurgence.

“Numbers are rising again, and frontline workers are exhausted,” said Southcoast Health spokesperson Shawn Badgley. “If we don’t do something right now, it’s going to get much worse — doing something is getting vaccinated.”

The resurgence comes toward the end of a summer in which infection rates had plummeted. In June, new COVID-19 cases had dropped to below five per day in New Bedford, according to public health officials. 

New Bedford’s COVID numbers began climbing slowly after the Fourth of July weekend. Now, in mid-August, the city is experiencing a daily infection rate similar to that of earlier this year in March, according to DPH statistics.

437

New cases of COVID-19 in New Bedford since Aug. 1

“My guess is we are going to be in full mask and social isolation before we know it,” said Cheryl Bartlett, CEO of Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, in response to the rising infection rate. “I think we are in for a long haul. The fall is going to be rough.” 

Chaplin was hesitant to call the recent rise in cases a “crisis,” instead describing the trend as “concerning” and something the city’s Health Department will “continue to watch very closely.”

He pointed to the low vaccination rate in New Bedford as a main contributor to the rise in cases. The number of fully vaccinated residents in New Bedford remains at roughly 43%, according to the DPH — well below the state’s 64% vaccination rate. 

As of Aug. 12, there were 41 COVID-positive patients being treated at Southcoast Health’s hospitals, with 21 of the patients at St. Luke’s Hospital, according to spokesman Badgley. There are three patients in the Intensive Care Unit, he said.

As cases climb, the city has ramped up vaccination efforts, Chaplin said. 

In early August, New Bedford adopted a “proactive approach,” by requiring municipal employees to be vaccinated. The new policy includes an option for workers to choose regular testing for the novel coronavirus instead of vaccination, and it does not extend to employees of the New Bedford Public Schools or the Port Authority. 

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The city has also staged pop-up vaccine clinics and offered a $20 Dunkin’ gift card to anyone receiving a first dose of the vaccine. But demand for the vaccine remains low, Chaplin said. 

Meanwhile, with the majority of New Bedford still vaccine hesitant, Chaplin said the city has begun discussing the reintroduction of a mask mandate. Earlier this week, New Bedford Public Schools decided to require students to wear masks when they return to classes next month. 

“Everything is on the table,” Chaplin said, on the potential of reestablishing a city mask mandate. “We are hoping other businesses see the work we are doing on a city level and are encouraged to do the same.” 

Chaplin added that hospitalizations and patients in the ICU remain low. “The vaccine is preventing significant illness and death,” he said. “This is about encouraging people to get the vaccine.”

Bartlett added that in her clinic, the vaccination rate remains “slow and steady.” She said that health center has seen a spike in testing positivity rates — from 3 percent in June to about 15 percent in August.

In addition to urging vaccines, Badgley, of Southcoast Health, noted that people should seek appropriate levels of care when possible and consult their primary care providers or visit one of Southcoast Health’s Urgent Care Centers for minor illnesses and injuries, calling 911 for serious or life-threatening conditions.

Bristol County is now listed as a region with a “high level of community transmission,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which downgraded the county from a “significant level” last week.

According to Chaplin, there have not been any clusters of COVID-19 infections in New Bedford since an outbreak occurred July 10 at The Vault (formerly Greasy Luck) on Purchase Street in the city’s downtown area.

Email Will Sennott at wsennott@newbedfordlight.org

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